An Early Slot Machine

Old slot machine with crank handle
This historic slot machine has a unique mechanical system inside, and consistently peaks the curiosities of visitors.

NPS. Artifact: KLGO 55046

An Early Slot Machine

One object from Jeff. Smiths Parlor that may be of mechanical interest is a large, free-standing early slot machine. Its presence in the collection will surprise no one familiar with the numerous gaming establishments in Skagway’s early history. Gaming machines started coming out of San Francisco in the 1890's and before long, Charles Fey had replaced the single wheel with three cylinders, turning it into what we think of as a slot machine today. The gaming machine at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park is what is called a “floor wheel upright” though, so it's beleived to have come from this earlier period of gaming machines. Unfortunately, there is no manufacturer’s name on the machine so its exact history is not known, but there are similar examples made by the Mills Novelty Company between 1897 and 1905, including a game called the “Lone Star”. But on many of these early machines the coin insert was on top, not in front of the wheel, like the Park’s.
Pencil writing on the inside of a slot machine door
Another interesting aspect of the machine are the name(s), handwritten in pencil on the inside of the machine. It looks like “Chas Drebe [Lon?] Otto Berger”. But we have not been able to find any record in the history of this (or these) individuals, so we are not yet sure what his connection to the machine was. Maybe he was the one who made the modifications to it, and then proudly signed his handiwork, like so many artists.

One of the most fun aspects of the machine is figuring out how it worked. With the help of our friends over in maintenance again, we began to figure out some of the details about how it worked. The wheel is divided into 138 sections, each in one of seven colors that corresponds to a pay-out value of 10 cents (red and black), 25 cents (green), 50 cents (cream), $1.00 (pink), $2.50 (yellow), or $5.00 (blue). A player would insert a nickel, turn the first handle, and the nickel would drop down into the appropriate color track below.
Inside of an old slot machine demonstrating how it works
The player could then turn the big handle to start the wheel spinning. If the wheel did not stop on the same color as the bet, the coin was collected in the bag that we see inside the machine on the back. But, if you were one of those lucky individuals who happened to guess right, the pegs at the bottom half of the machine would release the right number of nickels and you could get your “pay-out” in the cup on the side. The machine also appears to have been able to re-load itself, since there is a “bridge” that can be raised and lowered to add more nickels into the track.
A peg system of a old time slot machine
Willing to take a chance? Well, it might not be all luck. We figured out the system of wiring on the back of the wheel, which tells the machine what value it has landed on and activates the whole sequence of money (the wires in the slits farthest from the center of the wheel correspond to a lower value). But one peg is blocked by a piece of wood, which makes us think the machine could have been rigged. So miners would place their bets on blue, never knowing that the object itself, and not bad luck, were behind the failure to get the big $5.00 pay-out. Overall, the machine survived the past and came down to us through history in good shape. It was dusty and dirty, but with careful cleaning, I was able to get it back to its old but clean state. I also made a top for it out of archival materials, to prevent dust from getting in the machine when it goes on display in the museum.
Inside gears of slot machine
It had another type of accumulation too- paint splatter from being in a room that was painted without covering up the objects first. Using a paint that has the special property of being removable if someone wants to take it off the machine in the future (an important consideration in doing conservation work), I painted over the splatter. Some of the other work done on the machine involved using different glues (which are also removable) to secure loose pieces. An example of this was in the case of fixing a previous repair, to the slot where a nickel would go to place a bet on red. The bottom of the slot had broken, and at some point in the past, someone had repaired it with tape.Tape turns yellow and brittle with time, and eventually loses its ability to hold things together, as anyone who has an old scrapbook knows. So I removed the tape and applied a glue that will last a lot longer. Another example is the beading that was applied around the decorative panel on the front. You can see how it has started to pop off. This happens because wood shrinks and expands when the humidity and temperature change. We can therefore conclude that this gaming machine was probably in an unstable environment before it came to the National Park Service. As the panel beneath shrank, the beading had less space and so it came off. This shows how one of the best things you can do to care for old objects, especially wood furniture, is to keep them in places in your house where the humidity does not change as much. This will reduce the chances of the wood warping and cracking, and we will have these beautiful and functional pieces for years to come.

Last updated: August 23, 2019

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Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park
P.O. Box 517

Skagway, AK 99840


907 983-9200

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