Don Laughlin, founder of the Nevada town on the Arizona border that bears his name, died October 22 at the age of 92, reported the Facebook page of the casino he founded, Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort Hotel & Casino.
Laughlin, who had owned the 101 Club in North Las Vegas during the 1950s, took the risk of opening the Riverside in 1966 on an otherwise desolate site along the Colorado River 90 miles south of Las Vegas, in an area known as South Pointe. The area, at the southern tip of Clark County, was so named because it is where Nevada, Arizona and California meet.
As legend has it, Laughlin flew over the South Pointe area in 1964, when he still owned the 101 Club. Framed by picturesque mountains, the Colorado River and nearby Lake Mohave provided a natural draw for water sports, fishing and other leisure activities. Seeing its potential as a tourist draw, Laughlin bought the land comprising South Pointe.
He opened the Riverside in 1966 with 12 slot machines and two table games, and all-you-can-eat chicken dinners for 98 cents. Within the next two years, the Bobcat Club and Monte Carlo casinos opened.
A postal inspector informed Laughlin the unincorporated town would need a name for him to receive his mail. “He suggested ‘Laughlin’ because it was a good Irish name,” Laughlin later laughed.
By the 1970s, Laughlin had established itself as a casino center and tourist destination. The Riverside began to expand, and in 1983, added a hotel tower. There were three casinos in Laughlin, with more on the way. The only problem was access—the nearest population center was Bullhead City, Arizona, where customers could catch shuttle boats to Laughlin and the growing casino market.
Laughlin solved the problem by personally funding construction of the Laughlin Bridge from Bullhead City to the growing casino town. He donated the bridge, which now carries 30,000 vehicles a day, to the states of Nevada and Arizona.
New casinos popped up during the 1980s and 1990s, and today, the town is the third-most visited location in Nevada, behind Las Vegas and Reno. While its visitation, over 4 million visitors a year in the late 1990s, has dropped drastically since its peak, Laughlin and its eight casinos remain as a viable, lower-cost alternative to Las Vegas for Southern Nevada locals and RV tourists, including those frequenting the Riverside’s own 740-space RV Park.
In his later years, Laughlin lived part-time in a penthouse suite at the Riverside, close to his creations, from Don’s Riverside Theatre to Catholic Mass conducted by “Father Charlie” Urnick in the showroom, which converts on Sundays into the Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church. (Laughlin was a lifelong Catholic; his children received their First Holy Communion at the casino church.)
Laughlin, a 1991 inductee into the American Gaming Association’s Gaming Hall of Fame, continued his philanthropic pursuits through his final years. In 2015, he donated his ranch home near Kingman, Arizona, valued at $1.2 million, to Mohave Community College, and he continued charity efforts in the casino town he founded, now home to nearly 9,000.
“Don touched many lives in our local community as well as nationwide, and we understand how difficult this news will be for many,” read the post on the Riverside’s Facebook page. “Especially our Riverside Resort family. Don Laughlin was truly an amazing man to work with and learn from.”