Don Laughlin, Who Turned a Patch of Desert Into a Casino Mecca, Dies at 92

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

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

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

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

Mr. Laughlin carved out his resort destination where land was cheap and parking lots for recreational vehicles could grow infinitely. The R.V. was key: He recognized that not everybody who wanted to gamble also wanted to pay for a hotel room in Las Vegas.

“We’ve found R.V. customers spend just as much money as people who stay in our rooms,” he told The Las Vegas Review Journal in 1999.

A high school dropout, Mr. Laughlin became a billionaire presiding over his own resort complex encompassing 1,350 rooms, a bowling center and a movie multiplex. By 1988, Laughlin was the nation’s fourth largest gambling destination.

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

“He saw the opportunity that existed,” Professor Green added, “if he played his cards right.”

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

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

Demand was high, and before long he was making $500 a week (nearly $7,000 in today’s money).

The principal of the one-room schoolhouse he attended for high school was not amused. “He said 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 what you are, so I’m out the door.’”

With his young wife, he moved to Las Vegas in 1953, the only place in the United States where slot machines were legal at the time. He worked as a bartender and at night went to a school for card and dice dealers. By 1954 he had saved enough to buy a restaurant in North Las Vegas, the 101 Club. He got a gambling license, posted “families welcome” and “steak and eggs” on the signboard and started what he said was the only blackjack game in the area.

But Mr. Laughlin was restless. He learned to fly — it became his passion — and began scouting the state for an alternative to Las Vegas. He found it on 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 an unpaved road on the Colorado River seemed like the ticket.

He sold the 101 Club for $165,000 and put down $35,000, in cash, for that motel and six acres on the Colorado River, ultimately paying $235,000 in all. Something told him that the spot’s isolation would be an advantage: Once gamblers reached him, he had them in his grasp.

In 1966, Mr. Laughlin reopened the motel as the Riverside Resort. He advertised all-you-can-eat chicken dinners 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 he couldn’t keep getting mail if the town had no name. The inspector suggested Laughlin.

The confluence of three states was a boon, with a ceaseless flow of motorists traveling between them. He kept expanding his operation, adding 48 rooms in 1972, 52 rooms three years later, a 14-story tower in 1983 and another tower with 307 rooms in 1986.

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

By 1988, when a reporter for The New York Times visited, Mr. Laughlin’s resort was worth $167 million. He had put down $5 million for the bridge across the Colorado River to Bullhead City, making it easier for workers and customers to reach his slot machines. Shrewdly, he placed one end the bridge close to his parking lot.

That spring, President Ronald Reagan brought Mr. Laughlin, generally not a big political player, to the White House to recognize his contribution to the area.

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

Mr. Laughlin worked 14-hour days well into his 80s, mingling with employees and customers at what is now called Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort Hotel and Casino. “He was ever-present on the casino floor,” said Malibu Diaz, its executive director.

And yet he shunned the limelight that flashier players like Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson gravitated toward in Las Vegas.

“He went about his business, off the beaten track,” said Professor Green. “You didn’t see stories in the paper about him, and he liked it that way. The generation he was part of, that got into the business, they didn’t want personal attention.”

Ms. Diaz said of the enterprise, “All of this is a chance, that paid off.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.