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Don Laughlin dies: Casino operator, namesake of Nevada town dies at 92

Updated October 22, 2023 - 1:33 pm

Don Laughlin, the real estate developer and resort owner who created the Southern Nevada river town about 100 miles south of Las Vegas that bears his name, has died.

Laughlin, born in 1931, died at 92 years old on Sunday, according to a Facebook post from Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort Hotel & Casino. The post did not share his cause of death.

A 2016 Las Vegas Review-Journal story noted that Laughlin, then 85, continued to work 14-hour days at Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort, the casino he opened in 1966 that started it all. Laughlin was celebrating the resort’s 50th anniversary at the time.

“When we came here there was a dirt road in here and you had to come in by way of the dam,” Laughlin recalled. “If it rained, you couldn’t get here.”

The town’s name, he remembered, came by way of the U.S. Postal Service, which in 1968 dubbed its operation at the resort “Laughlin substation,” eventually prompting the use of “Laughlin” to also describe the area around the resort.

Schooling cut short

Laughlin was born in Owatonna, Minnesota, and grew up on a farm just outside of town.

“I went to a country school where all eight grades were in one room,” he told the Review-Journal in 1999. “I must have graduated from there about 1946, the only school I ever graduated from.”

He attended high school for a year and, as a teenager, ran a slot machine and punchboard route at a time when, he told the Review-Journal, enforcement of gambling laws was relatively lax.

When Laughlin was in the ninth grade, his principal told him that he’d either have to end the route or leave school. Laughlin was making about $500 a week and felt that his choice was clear.

“I said, ‘I’m making three times what you are, so I’m out the door,’” Laughlin told the Review-Journal.

Laughlin moved to Las Vegas in 1952, working as a waiter during the day and attending dealer school at night. In 1954, he bought the 101 Club in North Las Vegas, according to a bio on the Riverside Resort’s website.

After selling the 101 Club in 1964, Laughlin, searching for a new opportunity, 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, whose attractions included, according to the resort’s website, all-you-can-eat chicken dinners for 98 cents, a dozen slot machines and two gaming tables.

Thanks to Laughlin’s vision, Laughlin, located on the lower Colorado River south of Las Vegas and along the Nevada-Arizona border, has become a popular alternative to, or getaway from, Las Vegas, drawing almost 2 million visitors annually, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

During the Riverside’s early years, Laughlin — who built an airstrip on his property — would fly regularly into North Las Vegas to procure food and drink for his resort.

“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 Review-Journal in 2013. “Out here, we had to haul everything in the first five years.”

Laughlin for life

Today, Laughlin is the home of eight casino resorts. In 1986, Laughlin funded and built the Laughlin Bridge, which spans the Colorado River and connects Nevada and Arizona. In 1991, he donated land and funding for Laughlin/Bullhead City International Airport.

At his resort, Laughlin was known for creating a congenial, vintage Vegas vibe. Laughlin would walk through the casino to greet guests, and lucky players even might have been invited to take a helicopter ride with Laughlin at the controls. Laughlin told the Review-Journal in 2016 that he had logged 12,000 hours in the cockpit before giving up his license the previous year.

Laughlin also earned a reputation for being just as attentive to his employees. He would greet employees while strolling through the casino and every August threw a company picnic for them.

Laughlin’s honors included induction into the American Gaming Association Gaming Hall of Fame in 1991. He told the Review-Journal in 2013 that he had turned down offers over the years to buy other casinos and that he had no interest in expanding his business to other places.

In 2013, then-Laughlin town manager Jackie Brady told the Review-Journal that Laughlin’s longevity set him apart from many other resort owners.

“I think it’s a level of commitment that’s really noticeable,” she said. “He lives here. He owns property and his business is here, so he has a real stake in how well this town prospers. He’s not just part of a corporation where he may leave in three years or four years. … One thing about Don Laughlin is you know he is going to stay here.”

Laughlin agreed.

“I’m very happy when I’m working. I wouldn’t do well in a rocking chair,” he said in 2013.

Laughlin was preceded in death by his wife, Betty Laughlin, whom he married in 1953. She died in January 2022 at age 89.

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