History of the Riverboat Casino

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Aerial view of Laughlin, Nevada, on the Colorado River.
BetMGM Jan 02, 2024, 4:45 AM

Modern online casinos make it incredibly easy to gamble. If you want to sign up and play games like online roulette, blackjack, or poker, you can get started in just a few minutes. But it wasn’t always that easy. 

Despite gambling’s long-standing popularity, various state and federal governments in the U.S. have often outlawed it. As a result, the only way to gamble legally in some states was on riverboats. But what exactly is the story behind Mississippi riverboat casinos? Read on to find out.

What Is a Riverboat Casino?

As the name suggests, a riverboat is a vessel that travels up and down a river. In the 19th century, the riverboat was one of the main forms of transport in large parts of the U.S. It predated the railroads as one of the most efficient ways to cover long distances. 

A riverboat casino is simply a boat set up to offer casino games.

History of Riverboats

Back in the 20th century, paddlewheel riverboats were an extremely popular way to get around the Mississippi River and its tributaries. These vessels were primarily used to transport passengers and freight. They also provided jobs and necessary supplies to the towns that formed along the banks of the river as the country developed. 

In those days, gambling was banned because of the fear that it might encourage crime. However, the law contained a loophole: it technically only banned gambling on land. The riverboat casino emerged as an innovative way to exploit this loophole. This casino on water hosted a variety of games, and soon, other riverboats began to do the same.

Legal Aspects of Riverboat Gambling and Its Decline

Throughout the early 19th century, gambling on riverboats was particularly prevalent in the states where the Mississippi River flowed, including Indiana, Illinois, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Missouri. Still, gambling remained a legal gray area, which meant the party could only go on as long as boats were sailing. 

Although these casinos were extremely popular during the early 19th century, the expansion of the railroad network made the riverboat obsolete. During the latter stages of the 19th century, the American Civil War profoundly affected the country’s economy. As a result of the two, riverboat casinos in their original form had all but died off by the start of the 20th century.

Regulation and Resurgence of Riverboats

Although gambling on riverboats was made possible by a legal technicality, officials in many states appreciated the potential of these boats as well-regulated sources of tax revenue. As a result, in 1904, the very first legitimate riverboat casino set sail on Lake Michigan.

Several decades later, efforts were made to control and regulate the riverboat casino industry. In 1989, Iowa became the first state to officially legalize riverboat casinos, allowing slot machines and games of chance to be played on licensed vessels. 

Not wanting to miss out on this promising tax revenue, neighboring states soon followed, with Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana also legalizing gambling on riverboats.

Despite the popularity of modern online casino sites, these classic casinos have undergone a recent resurgence. By 2018, the six states mentioned above could boast a total of 63 floating casinos. Each state implemented its own laws to regulate how floating casinos could operate, including the casino games they’re allowed to offer and even aspects of their appearance.

In Louisiana, for instance, the design of all riverboat casinos must follow the classic look of 19th-century paddlewheel boats, which means that casinos then and now look very similar.

After Hurricane Katrina, laws were further amended so casinos could be built on land next to waterways. The stronger foundations of these casinos have increased the safety of all players. Although they’re technically land-based venues, they’re often still called ‘riverboat’ casinos.

Advantages of a Legal Riverboat Casino

These casinos increase employment opportunities for people in the local communities. In addition, the state takes a percentage of winnings and revenue from the casino itself. This means that states can pull in hundreds of millions of dollars in additional tax revenue each year, which can then be used to develop the local community further. 

The strict regulations help to ensure that every riverboat casino is safe while also improving the experience for players. For example, most states have laws that dictate how large a riverboat casino may be, as well as the kind of games it can offer. Additionally, most modern riverboats now remain docked for safety reasons. 

The Evolution of Casino Gambling

While riverboats remain popular, the way people gamble across the country has changed significantly. The history of online casinos demonstrates that players are drawn to a combination of convenience and great games. Today, more people than ever prefer gambling online. 

Online gambling is hardly new, with the first sites going live in the late 1990s. However, these early gambling platforms were often difficult to use and featured few options. In addition, players also had no assurances that they were safe. Signing up and making real-money deposits was a hurdle that put most players off.

Since 2018, many states have fully legalized online gambling, allowing players to sign up to legal and licensed online casinos. The casino industry was changed forever, and online gambling remains more accessible than they’ve ever been. Modern sites are safer, easier to use, and offer better quality games, including online versions of popular traditional games such as slots, blackjack, and more. 

Today, players in states with legalized online casinos can easily join and start playing on any device. There are thousands of exciting games to explore, and most sites offer big bonuses to new and returning players. While traditional casinos still have their place, it’s easy to see why so many players are signing up to play online. 

Plain Sailing at BetMGM

At BetMGM, you can play your favorite casino games without needing to board a boat. This reputable and trustworthy site offers a massive collection of exciting online slots, classic table games, and modern live dealer products. There’s even a generous welcome bonus waiting for you when you make your first deposit. Register today to play casino online.

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Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.

Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.