Riverboat Gambling and Entertainment Along the Mississippi River

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.

The Mississippi River was the center of economic activity in the South in the 19th century. Long before the days of online poker, this part of the world was known for the paddle steamers that used to cruise up and down this mighty river. If you haven’t visited this part of the States, here is a brief introduction to the area, and riverboat gambling, which is a popular activity that now takes place on its banks. 

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 load 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, and the mix of money and entertainment soon made gambling the activity of choice on board the old flatboats.

Poker — one of today’s favorite casino games — was so popular with the French colonists who worked as crew members on Mississippi riverboats that it spread to all corners of the country. Riverboats were also a great place to have a party with music and dance added to the mix. Old Blue was the merriest place in America.

Families, trade, and the great American novel flourished thanks to the big steam-propelled paddlewheel boats. Then came the Doubleheader, the Kettle, the Dinky, and the Bobtail Haul – steam locomotives that 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.

Legalization of riverboat gambling

Fast forward to April 1, 1991. Boats once again welcomed gamblers aboard after Iowa became the first state to legalize riverboat gambling. Other states with land on the Mississippi and its tributaries – Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Missouri – did the same. Music, entertainment, old card favorites, and new casino games like slot machines, made the Old Blue merry again.

Impact of Hurricane Katrina and changing legislation

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

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 grey 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 transportation of gambling devices across state lines a crime 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.

Riverboat gambling is now legal in six states with Iowa leading the way in 1989. Illinois and Louisiana followed in 1991. Mississippi, Indiana, and Missouri legalized the activity in 1993.

These days, if you want to gamble on board a vessel in waters bordering any of the 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 over 5 percent in taxes. You can get some of this money back if you file a state income tax return. In Illinois, 15 percent of winnings must go to the state and 5 percent to the local community.

Interesting facts about riverboat casinos

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

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

Iowa was the first state to legalize these riverboats in 1989, followed by Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, and Texas.

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.

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 feet long and able to accommodate 500 passengers or more.

In most 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.

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 in Illinois totaled $382.5 million in state tax and $152.1 million in Missouri.

Where to find a riverboat casino

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, and so far no steam locomotive or hurricane has been able to wipe them out. 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. Here are some of our favorites in all six of the states where this practice has been legalized.

Illinois

The Grand Victoria Casino – Elgin, Illinois

Located on the Fox River, the Grand Victoria has four restaurants, and more than a thousand slots and video poker machines along with the usual table game offerings. 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.

Iowa

Casino Queen Marquette in Marquette, Iowa

The Casino Queen is one of the smaller options on this list, but this means more personalized service, which some may prefer. Across the river from the Mid-Western town of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, the Queen Marquette has only eight tables but over 566 slot machines. Table games include blackjack, Mississippi Stud, Ultimate Texas Hold’em, and others. 

Louisiana

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 crabs’ legs. For entertainment, visit the Treasure Chests Caribbean Showroom.

Amelia Belle – Amelia, Louisiana

This gorgeous docked riverboat in the Avoca Island Cutoff waterway 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 their legendary all-you-can-eat Cajun Buffet, which could include well-known dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, and dirty rice. 

Hollywood Casino Baton Rouge – Louisiana

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

Mississippi

Ameristar Casino, Vicksburg, Mississippi

Right on the banks of the famed Mississippi, the Ameristar Casino in Vicksburg has a poker room, a café and restaurant, and a hotel. There are also 30 table games, over 1400 slot machines, and even sports betting kiosks, so 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.

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