Legendary Casino Visionary Don Laughlin Passes Away
Leaving a Lasting Legacy in Gaming Industry
By Sean Chaffin
Casino impresario Don Laughlin passed away on Oct. 22 at age 92 after a long and storied life in the gaming industry. Born on May 4, 1931, in Owatonna, MN, Laughlin became involved in gaming at an early age. He reportedly worked during Minnesota’s cold winters as a fur trapper while a teenager, using some of the profits to buy and install slot machines in hunting lodges. Making $500 a week at the time, Laughlin’s school principal told him to leave the job behind or drop out. He chose the latter.
Laughlin married his wife Betty Jones in 1953, and they moved west to Las Vegas with their infant son, pulling a travel trailer. Don worked as a bartender by day and attended card and dice dealer school at night. By 1954, Laughlin saved enough money to purchase his own business, the 101 Club in North Las Vegas. However, he longed for something more of his own, away from the bustling Sin City. Ten years later, they sold the casino for $165,000 to pursue a new adventure.
Laughlin loved ballroom dancing, horseback riding and classic cars. Another one of Don’s greatest passions was aviation. In his private plane, Laughlin would scout the Nevadan Mojave Desert along the Colorado River when he came across a vision: a stretch of land called Tri-State, or sometimes referred to as South Pointe. The area was vacant except for a boarded up eight-room motel and bar. Laughlin purchased the motel and six acres of riverfront property for $235,000, and the rest would be history. The Riverside Resort opened in 1966, with 12 slot machines, two table games and “all-you-can-eat” chicken dinners for 98 cents. Today, the Riverside Resort hosts 1,350 hotel rooms, 1,000 slot machines, 23 table games, a poker room, a bingo hall, a 34-lane bowling center, 6-Plex Movie Theater, six restaurants, a 660-seat showroom, two classic car museums, one nightclub, a karaoke dance hall, and the U.S.S. Riverside Boat Cruise.
“When we came here there was a dirt road in here and you had to come in by way of the dam,” Laughlin told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “If it rained, you couldn’t get here.”
Building and operating a casino in an area where infrastructure didn’t exist for a major gaming facility wasn’t easy. Laughlin, who was a trained pilot, built an airstrip and regularly flew to Las Vegas to procure supplies for the property. His “if you build it they will come” attitude eventually paid off and Laughlin’s vision for the area became a reality.
Construction of a 14-story hotel/casino tower in 1983 added 253 rooms and in 1986, a second 14-floor tower added 307 more rooms and an automotive museum. The largest expansion came in 1994 with the addition of 792 more rooms in a 30-story hotel tower, which remains the tallest of the hotel towers in Laughlin. The expansion cost more than $70 million.
Despite humble beginnings, his relentless spirit saw him overcome challenges like the lack of infrastructure. Along with building the Riverside, the casino owner also spearheaded major infrastructure improvements for the area. Laughlin paid for and built the Laughlin Bridge in 1986, The bridge crosses the Colorado River, connecting Nevada and Arizona. In 1991, he donated land and helped fund for the Laughlin/Bullhead City International Airport.
As a casino owner, Laughlin created an “old Vegas” feel at the Riverside and was not the type of executive simply to stay in the office or the boardroom. He could regularly be found talking with customers and employees alike, even occasionally offering jackpot winners a tour of the area in his helicopter. The property would grow considerably through the years, and the area that would eventually be named after Laughlin now boasts eight casinos and attracts two million visitors each year. Laughlin poured his heart and soul into the Riverside, working at the property well into his 80s. Many across the state remembered Laughlin fondly.
“Donna and I were saddened to hear of Don Laughlin’s passing today,” Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo (R) noted of his death. “Don built and developed his namesake town of Laughlin, making it into the city it is today. Don was an outstanding Nevadan, and he’ll always be remembered for his pioneering spirit, ingenuity, and enduring impact.”
Much has changed in Laughlin, NV, since 1966. Today, the Riverside’s workforce numbers over 1,300 employees; some who have worked for Don for over 40 years. An estimated 14,000 Nevada and Arizona residents currently work in Laughlin’s hotels and casinos.
A once-barren desert terrain has become a modern boomtown ignited by the imagination of one man from the small town of Owatonna, MN. Don Laughlin’s legacy is one of innovation, determination and genuine connection with his patrons, making him a legendary figure in the gaming world.