Don Laughlin, Legendary Nevada Casino Owner, Dead at 92
Don Laughlin, the legendary real estate developer, casino owner, and namesake of the Laughlin, Nevada, town he created, died on Sunday at the age of 92.
Born in 1931, Laughlin was a real estate developer and resort owner who played a significant role in the development of Nevada casino venues outside of the more famous Las Vegas. He was an instrumental figure in the founding of the Southern Nevada river town, Laughlin, located about 100 miles south of Las Vegas.
Laughlin opened the Riverside Resort in 1966 in the isolated riverside area that would eventually come to take his name. For his part, Laughlin says he did not come up with the name, and that the U.S. Postal Service named its substation there after him and it stuck.
Hugely successful, the Riverside Resort Hotel & Casino spurred the town of Laughlin to open up a further eight casinos. Don, himself, never opened another casino. But, according to a Las Vegas Review-Journal interview, he continued to work 14 hours a day at Riverside until as recently as 2016, at the age of 88.
“Don touched many lives in our local community, as well as nationwide, and we understand how difficult this news will be for many, especially our Riverside Resort family. Don Laughlin was truly an amazing man to work with and learn from,” said Riverside Resort Hotel & Casino in a social media post.
Dirt Roads and Chicken Dinners
Laughlin’s journey in the gaming industry began when he was a child, growing up near Owatonna, Minnesota. He bought slot machines from a mail-order catalog and installed them in local bars, sharing the profits with the owners.
By the time he was in ninth grade, he was making about $500 a week from the machines. Despite them being tolerated by lawmakers, the Johnson Act of the early 1950s suspended transportation of gambling devices. That made it clear to Laughlin that the Federal government didn’t want slot machines outside of Nevada, and so he moved to the Silver State to continue his gambling career.
In 1952, Laughlin set up in Las Vegas, where he worked as a waiter and attended dealer school at nights. In 1954, he bought the 101 Club in North Las Vegas. After selling the 101 Club in 1964, Laughlin found an empty eight-room bar and motel along the Colorado River south of Las Vegas, across the river from Bullhead City, Arizona.
In 1966, he opened the Riverside Resort, which started with all-you-can-eat chicken dinners for 98 cents, a dozen slot machines, and two gaming tables.
“When we came here, there was a dirt road in here, and you had to come in by way of the dam,” Laughlin once recalled. “If it rained, you couldn’t get here.”
Laughlin’s vision transformed the town of Laughlin into a popular, quieter alternative to Las Vegas, now drawing almost two million visitors annually. The Riverside Resort expanded over the years, adding more rooms, gaming tables, and entertainment amenities.
Today, Laughlin hosts eight casino resorts, including Harrah’s, Golden Nugget, and Tropicana Laughlin. That includes various Nevada retail sportsbook venues, high-end hotels, and concert and event spaces. The town is also a permanent home to 10,000 people, and Laughlin himself helped fund the Laughlin/Bullhead City International Airport.
The influential casino owner also funded and built the Laughlin Bridge, which spans the Colorado River to connect Nevada and Arizona.
Laughlin was inducted into the American Gaming Association Gaming Hall of Fame in 1991. He was known for creating a warm and vintage atmosphere at his resort, where he would often enthusiastically greet guests and employees alike in person. Some lucky patrons would even be invited on a helicopter ride over the Nevada desert, with Laughlin himself, a pilot of more than 10,000 hours at the controls.
Laughlin was preceded in death by his wife, Betty Laughlin, whom he married in 1953. She passed away in January 2022 at the age of 89. The family has asked for some time to grieve and will provide information about the memorial service at a later time.