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Don Laughlin's Desert Dream : From a Run-Down Bait Shop on the Colorado River, He Built a Gambling Mecca. And While He Dances the Night Away, His Town Just Keeps Growing.

August 18, 1991|ERIC GOODMAN | Eric Goodman lives in Altadena. His third novel, "In Days of Awe," the tale of star pitcher Joe Singer, who's been banned from baseball, was recently published by Alfred A. Knopf.

ON A FATEFUL DAY 25 YEARS AGO, DON LAUGHLIN, AN 8th-grade dropout from rural Owatonna, Minn., flew over a dot in the desert known as South Pointe. In local history, this was like John Sutter's arriving in gold country.

The tiny town was a parched nullity beside the Colorado River, 150 acres surrounded by vast Bureau of Land Management tracts. But because South Pointe was Nevada, where the southernmost tip of Clark County extends to California, there were a few shabby motel rooms and humble casinos--four bars with slot machines--on land Mormon pioneers had used as a watermelon patch.

One of the "casinos," the Riverside Bait Shop, recorded daily temperatures for the U.S. Weather Service. Summer highs regularly hit 120 degrees; South Pointe was often the hottest spot in the country. The main drag, the only drag, the once and future Casino Drive, was unpaved. According to I. S. (Bud) Soper, who arrived in South Pointe a year after Laughlin and now owns the Regency Casino, "You could fire a machine gun down Casino Drive at noon and not hit a dead jack rabbit."

Years before, Laughlin's junior high principal had discovered that young Don owned a string of slot machines--then quasi-legal in Minnesota--from which the 14-year-old was earning $500 a week. Sell them or leave school, the principal decreed, and Laughlin chose the slots.

Seven years later, already a father, Laughlin moved to Las Vegas. He tended bar, attended night dealers' school and saved his money, eventually buying a North Las Vegas bar and restaurant. Then a friend told him about a run-down property in South Pointe.

Flying over, Laughlin realized that within a 30-mile radius of South Pointe were Kingman, Ariz., Needles, Calif., and 15,000 people who needed a place to gamble. Their numbers could only increase. And being a gambler and a man of vision, or maybe just possessed of enormous cojones, Laughlin cashed out in North Vegas and made a down payment on the Riverside Bait Shop and its six riverfront acres. Asking price: $245,000.

In May, 1966, Laughlin moved his wife and three kids to South Pointe to dream, scheme and wait. About the same time, Nevada acquired a large parcel of federal land, which it turned over to the Colorado River Commission (CRC) to administer. (Subsequent release of CRC land has swelled the township to 2,500 acres.) In 1968, the area needed a post office, and a postal worker suggested the name Laughlin. Don Laughlin's gamble had started to pay off.

Today, as our small commuter plane traverses the Mojave Desert, crosses the Colorado River and turns north, the lights of Laughlin--which last year passed South Lake Tahoe to become the fourth-largest gaming center in North America--appear below us, glittering on the mighty river. Ten casinos, 12 to 18 stories high with more than 6,000 rooms, rise up in the middle of nowhere.

The six other passengers see the lights, and the excitement level in the cabin soars. Casinos, ho! The Colorado Belle, one of two Circus Circus properties in Laughlin, is a 1,200-room neon riverboat. There are a Ramada Express, Harrah's Laughlin, Sam's Town Gold River, the Golden Nugget, the new 2,000-room Hilton and, at the north end of the strip, the great granddaddy of them all, Don Laughlin's Riverside Resort Hotel and Casino, with 750 RV spaces and 660 rooms on 92 acres. We land and taxi to the small Bullhead City terminal. The fastest-growing metropolitan area in Arizona, Bullhead City grew from 10,000 to 25,000 during the 1980s; property values have boomed much as in Laughlin. Don Laughlin operates the airport, as he will the new jetport set to open in about a month. He also owns the gas station and convenience store next to the terminal. In the departure lounge, a monitor shows excerpts from a video detailing Don Laughlin's story.

I rent a red Mustang convertible. With the top down and the soft desert air whooshing by, I drive north to the bridge, cross into Nevada and pull into the first casino parking lot: Don Laughlin's Riverside. The trip takes a minute or 90 seconds tops, and if you think that's an accident, you don't know Don Laughlin.

ALTHOUGH MOST AMERICANS HAVEN'T HEARD OF LAUGHLIN, THIS once-sleepy town received 2 million visitors last year. Its appeal? A PG-rated Vegas with nature. Tourists devote days to water-skiing, parasailing and fishing on the Colorado River and on Lake Mojave, five miles north. There are no topless bars; most hotels don't even stage shows.

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