Don Laughlin, Colorado River resort town architect, dies

Undated photo of the city Laughlin on the Colorado River.

Undated photo of the city Laughlin on the Colorado River.

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LAUGHLIN — Donald “Don” J. Laughlin, a resort owner and the namesake of a Southern Nevada town that he turned into a tourist destination, has died. He was 92.

Laughlin died Oct. 22 at his penthouse home at the Riverside Resort Hotel & Casino in Laughlin, Diana Fuchs, the resort’s marketing director, said Monday. He died of natural causes.

Family and other relatives had been with Laughlin for several days before his death.

“Don ... in true Don Laughlin spirit, was still trying to make them laugh with his jokes,” Fuchs said in an email to The Associated Press.

Laughlin is credited as the architect behind the transformation of an area of dirt and weeds 100 miles south of Las Vegas into a thriving alternative to Sin City.

“When we came here there was a dirt road in here and you had to come in by way of the dam,” Laughlin told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2016 while celebrating the resort’s 50th anniversary. “If it rained, you couldn’t get here.”

Situated on the lower Colorado River and along the Nevada-Arizona border, Laughlin is home to eight casino resorts. Nearly 2 million visitors travel there each year, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Laughlin was born in Owatonna, Minnesota. Even as a teen, he was running gambling operations. He was known to use earnings from mink trapping to buy and install slot machines at local pubs, according to the Riverside Resort’s website.

When Laughlin was in ninth grade, his school principal issued an ultimatum to either stay in school or stay in the slot business, where he made $500 a week.

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

In 1964, 10 years after buying a gambling business in North Las Vegas, Laughlin sold it for $165,000, according to his biography posted on the resort’s website. He visited the Mojave Desert and saw a stretch of land called Tri-State was unoccupied. Laughlin bought a boarded-up motel and 6 acres along the riverfront.

The Riverside Resort opened in 1966.

It was two years later that the area became Laughlin. A U.S. Postal Service inspector told the casino owner he needed a name to receive mail. It was the inspector who suggested his surname, according to the Riverside Resort’s website.

His influence on the region only grew from there.

In 1986, Laughlin bankrolled the construction of the Laughlin Bridge connecting Nevada and Arizona. In 1991, he donated land and the funds for Laughlin/Bullhead City International Airport. Many of his employees were Arizona residents.

Laughlin became a revered figure who would greet staff and guests while strolling through the hotel and casino.

Laughlin is survived by one sister, three children, five grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.

His wife, Betty, died in January 2022 at 89, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.


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