Riverboat Gambling and Entertainment Then and Now

A riverboat alongside cityscape at night

Riverboat casinos are a popular form of entertainment all along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. As this mighty river flows across many different state lines, you can find these historic paddleboat gaming hubs in Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana and Mississippi. Despite the rise of online casino games and futuristic high-end land-based casino resorts, this piece of gambling history has prevailed. Let’s look at the history of riverboat casinos and where you can find them in America today. 

Why the Mississippi River?

With so many rivers running through America, why is it that you can’t tell the story of riverboat casinos without the Mississippi River? The Mississippi is the second-longest river in North America. It flows 2,350 miles from its source at Lake Itasca, Minnesota, through the center of the US to the Gulf of Mexico. This part of the world was known for the paddle steamers that used to cruise up and down this mighty river. It makes sense that riverboat gambling started here; after all, the river was the center of economic activity in the South in the 19th century. 

A quick history of riverboat gambling

To see where riverboat casinos started, we have to go back to the 1800s, when the Mississippi Valley was the beating heart of the American economy. Back then, the Great River was a watery freeway, connecting traders and communities by river transports that could move faster and haul more loads than wagons and tired old mules.

Games of chance were a great way to relieve the boredom of a riverboat commute for passengers and wealthy merchants alike. The mix of money and entertainment soon made gambling the activity of choice on board the old flatboats. Riverboats were a great place to have a party with music and dancing added to the mix. Old Blue was the merriest place in America.

Passengers and merchants enjoyed casino table games like roulette, blackjack and big 6 wheel. Poker was so popular with the French colonists who worked as crew members on Mississippi riverboats that it spread to all corners of the country. 

The end of the riverboat era

Families, trade and the great American novel flourished thanks to the big steam-propelled paddlewheel boats. But steam locomotives and trains would soon enter the market and provide more efficient transportation. The Doubleheader, the Kettle, the Dinky and the Bobtail Haul arrived and these steam locomotives made riverboats seem slow and old-fashioned by comparison. Soon Old Blue became the Big Muddy and the river’s steamboats were no more than a nod to the past. But even though riverboats were no longer a central part of American trade, riverboats would evolve to become an important part of the entertainment and gambling industry.

Riverboat gambling regulations

It wasn’t until 1904 that the first riverboat casino, called the City of Traverse, set sail on Lake Michigan. At this time, gambling had started to take shape as an organized commercial operation. Due to the Big Muddy bordering a number of states, it was effectively a juridical gray area. This made gambling on the Great Mississippi a relatively safe bet from a legal point of view.

Then, in 1951, Senator Lyndon Johnson had a hand in drafting the Transportation of Gambling Devices Act. This made it a crime to transport gambling devices across state lines unless it was allowed in the place you were headed to. It also made it possible for certain types of river vessels and some riverside destinations to continue plying their trade.

Modern riverboat gambling regulations

Today, riverboat gambling is legal in six states. Iowa led the way in 1991; Illinois and Louisiana followed in the same year. Mississippi, Indiana and Missouri legalized the activity in 1993.

These days, if you want to gamble onboard a vessel in waters bordering any of these six states, you’ll need to be 21 years of age or older. Be sure to check out the gambling legislation in the state you’ll be playing in. For example, if you win more than $1,200 at a riverboat casino in Iowa, you must pay more than 5% in taxes. You can reclaim some of this money if you file a state income tax return. Meanwhile, in Illinois, 15% of winnings must go to the state and 5% to the local community.

The impact of Hurricane Katrina on gambling legislation

The year 2005 was not a good one for the Mississippi River and its surrounding communities. Hurricane Katrina destroyed most riverboat casinos, with many Gulf Coast states changing their gambling legislation. This forced riverboat casinos to operate from dry land only. Almost all Gulf Coast riverboat casinos have been rebuilt since, but most remain dockside.

Interesting facts about riverboat casinos

The American Empress, a 360-foot diesel-powered paddle-wheeler riverboat

The largest riverboat on the Mississippi

The American Empress, a 360ft diesel-powered paddle-wheeler riverboat, is the largest overnight riverboat west of the Mississippi River. This cruise boat, which cruises the Columbia and Snake Rivers, also contains an interesting collection of artifacts and artwork from Native Alaska, the Gold Rush, Russia and the stern-wheeler era (in and around Portland, Oregon).

Gambling cheats suffered harsh punishments

Historians believe that gambling cheats were sometimes hung by vigilantes, who took the law into their own hands. One famous example happened in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1835, when five gamblers were lynched after they were found to be cheating.

Riverboat casinos had style and size requirements

When riverboat gambling was legalized in the early 1990s, all Louisiana vessels had to look like 19th-century paddlewheel boats. In Indiana, the law required riverboat gaming houses to be at least 150 ft long and able to accommodate 500 passengers or more.

The earliest casinos had to be in motion to operate

In most eligible states, players were only allowed to gamble while the vessel was in motion. However, this changed when boats couldn’t leave the shore due to bad weather or for other safety reasons. Now, of course, the opposite is true. Most states require riverboat casinos to stay dockside. This is just another example of how weird gambling laws in the US can be. 

Riverboats are the only casinos in some states

By 2018, 63 riverboat casinos were operating across six states. More than a sideline, these gaming houses account for the entire commercial casino operation in the states of Illinois and Missouri. By the end of 2018, gambling revenue from boats totaled $382.5 million in state tax in Illinois and $152.1 million in Missouri.

The best riverboats casinos to visit in America

View of the Georgia Queen steamboat, a Savannah Riverboat Cruise tourist attraction on the Savannah River in Georgia

Riverboat casinos are a nostalgic part of American history – so far no steam locomotive or hurricane has been able to wipe them out. Even though some of the most beautiful abandoned casinos are riverboats, most of them continue to thrive and entertain guests today.

Today, these grand old dames can still be found in cities along the Mississippi. They’re popular destinations for tourists and recreational gamblers who want to experience casino games in a unique setting. Even if you’re a new player who’s still learning how to play craps at a casino, visiting a real riverboat casino should be on your bucket list. Here are some of our favorites in all six of the states where this practice has been legalized.

The Grand Victoria Casino

Elgin, Illinois

Located on the Fox River in Elgin – around 40 miles west of Chicago – the Grand Victoria has four restaurants and more than 1,000 slots and video poker machines. The beautiful establishment also offers classics like craps, baccarat, blackjack and roulette casino games. 

The casino’s architecture and furnishings capture the beauty and romanticism of the past, but with all the benefits of modern amenities thrown in. The casino is also involved in outreach programs in the community.

Casino Queen Marquette

Marquette, Iowa

The Casino Queen Marquette is one of the smaller options on this list, but this means more personalized service. Across from the Mid-Western town of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, and moored on the west bank of the Mississippi River itself, the Casino Queen has only eight tables but more than 566 slot machines. Table games that attract the punters here include blackjack, Mississippi Stud and Ultimate Texas Hold’em.

Treasure Chest Casino

Kenner, Louisiana

Located in Kenner, which is just outside New Orleans, this lakeside casino on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain captures the riverboat of yesteryear with interiors that are both classic and lavish. There’s plenty to choose from with 36 table games and slot machines. Two dining areas offer a variety of cuisine, including boiled crawfish and steamed crab legs. For entertainment, visit the Treasure Chests Caribbean Showroom.

Amelia Belle

Amelia, Louisiana

This gorgeous riverboat is docked on the Avoca Island Cutoff waterway in southeast Louisiana. It offers a choice of classic casino games, from three-card poker and Mississippi Stud to Ultimate Texas Hold’em and slot machines. You’ll want to save some room for Amelia Belle’s legendary all-you-can-eat Cajun Buffet, which is likely to feature well-known dishes such as gumbo, jambalaya and dirty rice.

Hollywood Casino Baton Rouge 

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

This riverboat is moored on the east bank of the Mississippi, right in the center of Baton Rouge. A visit to this boat is like a trip to Hollywood and Las Vegas rolled into one! You have a choice of 1,100 slot machines and a variety of table games at your fingertips. Gamblers who play to win at casinos will be thrilled by the variety of slots available here. 

There are several dining options onboard the Hollywood Casino, including The Celebrity Grill, Epic Buffet and the Take Two Deli. If that’s not enough, there’s also the Movie Tavern, where you can kick back and watch a film or play a round at the nearby “links-style” Copper Mill golf course.

Ameristar Casino

Vicksburg, Mississippi

Right on the banks of the famed Mississippi, more than 150 miles upstream from Baton Rouge, there’s the Ameristar Casino in Vicksburg. This luxurious establishment provides a poker room, café, restaurant and a hotel. 

There are also 30 table games, more than 1,400 slot machines and even sports betting kiosks. There’s entertainment for everyone! The building is designed to have the look and feel of a traditional paddle steamer too, which will take you right back to the heyday of shipping along the Big Muddy.

Do you want a taste of the old riverboat experience without taking a trip? Celebrate the riverboat casino history with the Riverboat Queen online slot at Borgata Online. Explore many other historic-themed slots or play classic live dealer casino games with real croupiers. Borgata Online brings you all the charming features of traditional casinos packed into an innovative modern platform. 

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