Don Laughlin, who turned a patch of desert into a casino mecca, dies at 92

Don Laughlin, who turned a patch of desert into a casino mecca, dies at 92

Donald J. Laughlin, who transformed the desert about 100 miles south of Las Vegas into a giant casino boomtown that he named after himself, died Oct. 22 in Laughlin, Nev. He was 92 years old.

The death was confirmed by his grandson Matt, who now runs a resort complex built by Mr Loughlin.

The spot on the Colorado River in southern Nevada that became his gambling oasis was nothing more than a dirt road and a boarded-up eight-room motel when Mr. Laughlin first saw it in 1964.

Today, the city has eight casino resorts, two million visitors a year, a population of more than 9,000 and, across the river, in Bullhead City, Ariz., a jet airport, partially funded by them, that can take Boeing 737s. Is. (The bridge that carries visitors there was also partly paid for.)

Mr. Laughlin created his resort destination where land was cheap and parking spaces for recreational vehicles could grow unlimitedly. The RV was important: He recognized that not everyone who wanted to gamble wanted to pay for a hotel room in Las Vegas.

“We have found that RV customers spend just as much money as our roommates,” he told The Las Vegas Review Journal in 1999.

After dropping out of high school, Mr. Laughlin became a billionaire, presiding over his own resort complex consisting of 1,350 rooms, a bowling center and a movie multiplex. By 1988, Laughlin was the fourth largest gambling destination in the country.

“Don Laughlin was unique,” Michael Green, chair of the history department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said by phone. “He founded his own city. There’s really no one else in the industry who can say that.”

“If they played their cards right they saw an opportunity,” Professor Green added.

Donald Joseph Laughlin was born on May 4, 1931, outside Owatonna, Minn., about 65 miles south of Minneapolis, on a dairy farm operated by his parents, Raymond and Olive (Benaleck) Laughlin. His father was also a part-time truck driver.

Taking chances seemed to come naturally to Donald. As a teenager, he accumulated cash from trapping mink and muskrat and used it to buy mail-order slot machines, and installed them in local pubs himself.

Demand was great, and soon he was earning $500 a week (about $7,000 in today’s money).

The principal of the one-room school where he attended high school was not happy. “He asked to get out of the gambling business or get out of high school,” Mr. Laughlin told The Review-Journal. “I said, ‘I’m making three times as much as you, so I’m out the door.'”

With his young wife, he moved to Las Vegas in 1953, at which time Nevada was the only place in the United States where slot machines were legal. He worked as a bartender and attended a school for card and dice dealers at night. By 1954 he had saved enough to buy a restaurant called the 101 Club in North Las Vegas. He got a gambling license, posted “Families Welcome” and “Steak and Eggs” on signs and started playing what he said was the only blackjack game in the area.

But Mr. Loughlin was restless. He learned to fly – it became his passion – and began exploring the state for an alternative to Las Vegas. They found it at the extreme southern tip of Nevada, a place of mountains, desert and river where the state meets Arizona and California. A bankrupt bar and motel on a dirt road on the Colorado River looked like the ticket.

He sold the 101 Club for $165,000 and paid $35,000 in cash for that motel and six acres of land on the Colorado River, ultimately paying a total of $235,000. Something told him it would be beneficial to isolate the place: once the gamblers reached him, he took them under his wing.

In 1966, Mr. Laughlin re-opened the motel as the Riverside Resort. They advertised an all-you-can-eat chicken dinner for 98 cents, 12 slot machines, and two gambling tables. He and his family lived in four of the motel’s eight rooms. One day a postal inspector told him that if the name of the city was not there he would not be able to get the mail. The inspector suggested Laughlin.

The confluence of the three states was a boon, with a constant flow of motorists traveling between them. They continued to expand their operations, adding 48 rooms in 1972, 52 rooms three years later, a 14-story tower in 1983, and another tower with 307 rooms in 1986.

Bruce L., a longtime county commissioner in Clark County, Nev. “He didn’t go with the flow,” Woodbury said. “He had his own ideas. He was free. He didn’t care what other people thought.”

Until 1988, when he was a reporter for The New York Times Toured, Mr. Loughlin’s resort was valued at $167 million. He invested $5 million for a bridge over the Colorado River to Bullhead City, making it easier for workers and customers to reach his slot machines. Cleverly he placed one end of the bridge near his parking lot.

That spring, President Ronald Reagan brought Mr. Loughlin, not normally a big political player, to the White House to recognize his contributions to the field.

Mr. Loughlin’s wife, Betty, died in 2022. In addition to his grandson Matt, he is survived by his three children, Dan, Ron and Erin Loughlin; a sister, Patricia Miller; four other grandchildren; 12 great-grandchildren; and two great-great-grandchildren.

Mr. Loughlin worked 14-hour days until he was 80, mingling with employees and customers in what is now called Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort Hotel & Casino, “He was always on the casino floor,” said Malibu Diaz, its executive director.

And yet he avoided the spotlight that attracted flashy players like Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson in Las Vegas.

“He went about his business outside the box,” Professor Green said. “You didn’t see stories in the newspaper about him, and he loved it. The generation he was part of that came into business didn’t want personal attention.

“It was all an opportunity that paid off,” Ms. Diaz said of the venture.

Kirsten Noyes Contributed to research.

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