The gaming industry lost a casino titan with the death of Don Laughlin on Sunday at age 92. The casino owner played a key role in growing the industry outside of Las Vegas after founding the Riverside Casino in what would become a burgeoning city that was named after Laughlin.
The businessman led an interesting life that included entrepreneurism, becoming a pilot, owning a casino, and seeing a vision becoming reality for a getaway destination on the Colorado River along Nevada’s border with Arizona.
“Donna and I were saddened to hear of Don Laughlin’s passing today,” Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo® 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.”
A Life in Gaming
Born on May 4, 1931, in Owatonna, Minnesota, Laughlin realized that gaming could bring in some big bucks from an early age. While working as a fur trapper as a teenager, Laughlin invested the profits into installing slot machines in hunting lodges – scoring $500 a week. When his school principal gave him the option to leave the job or drop out, Laughlin saw his future career and left school behind.
After heading to Las Vegas in the late 1950s, Laughlin bought a small casino called the 101 Club. He eventually looked south, however, to grow his business. The 101 was sold and he acquired a shuttered eight-room hotel along the Colorado River.
The Riverside opened for business in 1966 with 12 slot machines and two table games. The property also boasted 98-cent all-you-can-eat chicken dinners. There wasn’t much in the way of infrastructure or even residents at the time, so Laughlin would fly his plane to Las Vegas for supplies.
“I was a little apprehensive about leaving Vegas, because everything’s available there that you need for supplies to operate a casino,” he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Out here, we had to haul everything in the first five years.”
However, the Riverside, and what would become known as Laughlin, grew significantly in the coming years and is now a notable gaming destination.
Old School Casino Vibes
Laughlin was a bit of a throwback casino owner, taking a hands-on approach to greeting customers and often talking with employees on the gaming floor. He created a “vintage Vegas” ambiance at the property and was even known to offer private air tours in his helicopter for jackpot winners.
As the city of Laughlin grew, the casino owner gave back to the community. He funded and built the Laughlin Bridge in 1986, linking Nevada and Arizona across the Colorado River. In 1991, Laughlin donated land and helped pay for the area’s airport.
The casino impresario’s biggest legacy may be the success of the city itself. Laughlin is now home to eight casinos and brings in two million visitors annually. Laughlin apparently loved his job and was known to work 14-hour days well into his 80s.
“I’m very happy when I’m working,” he told the Review-Journal. “I wouldn’t do well in a rocking chair.”