Laughlin, a gambling resort in the southern most tip of
Nevada, has transformed part of the arid, rugged Mojave desert into
a fast growing tourist destination.
This hot, dry region, known as the tri-state area, is the
geographic meeting point of San Bernardino County, Calif., Mojave
County, Ariz., and Clark County, Nev.
A hundred thousand years ago the area was lush with abundant
moisture. Then climactic changes occurred. Scant rainfall and
searing heat transformed the region into a desolate, unforgiving
Jagged peaks and ravines created by volcanic activity eons ago
gives the territory a forbidding, alien landscape. The savage
Colorado River sliced a sharp, interminable crevasse through the
desert as it rushed toward the Gulf of California carrying the snow
runoff from the Rocky Mountains. The life-giving and sometimes
treacherous river marks the border between Arizona and Nevada.
Lizards, rattlesnakes, desert tortoises, jack rabbits,
coyotes, badgers, kit foxes and desert bighorn sheep were the
sole inhabitants for centuries.
Blazing heat and the sterile, crusty earth discouraged human
Summer temperatures often crest above 120 degrees Fahrenheit
(49 degrees Celsius). Winters may be equally severe with below
freezing temperatures. Precipitation averages 3 to 5 inches
annually and primarily occurs in the winter or between July and
Moist tropical air, creating higher than average summer
humidity, may trigger summer thunderstorms and killer flash floods
that transform dry washes without warning into savage rivers.
Scientists and archaeologists do not agree on the date man
first inhabited the area. Some speculate it may have been about
8,820 B.C. Scientific dating techniques confirm only that ancient
peoples lived near modern-day Laughlin 3,000 to 4,000 years ago.
Their petroglyphs and rock drawings have survived.
Patayans, among the first Indians to inhabit the tri-state
area, appeared about 900 A.D. They eventually split into the
Haulpai and Mojave tribes. Patayan is a Haulpai word meaning
According to the National Park Service, the Patayans were less
developed than the Anasazi, their Pueblo neighbors to the north.
Anasazi is a Navajo term also meaning "ancient people."
Patayans pulverized a primary food source of seeds and
plants on grinding stones unearthed in the region by
archaeologists. The natives lived in brush shelters and left no
permanent dwellings behind.
The National Park Service has located more than 150 Patayan
camp sites in the Lake Mojave area between Willow Beach, which is
about 10 miles from the base of Hoover Dam, and Pyramid Canyon, the
site of Davis Dam. The early Indians used sharply tipped stone
weapons for hunting game and adorned themselves with gypsum
ornaments, sea shells from the Pacific Coast or Gulf of Lower
California, and turquoise.
Artifacts, including sandals, made of fiber from the yucca
tree have been found. Patayan pottery was brownish in color,
ranging from red-brown to gray, with virtually no artistic design.
The Patayans did little farming. However, the Mojave Indians
who followed planted crops in late winter and early spring along
the banks of the Colorado River which were irrigated by annual
floods. The Mojaves supplemented their diet with wild seeds,
vegetation, fish and small game captured in traps or slain with
slings or bows and arrows.
Many 20th Century Mojave Indians still live on reservations in
the tri-state area. The Indian translation of mojave is people who
live near the water.
Life generally was idyllic for the rivering farmers who
braved the two-edged sword of living on the banks of the mighty
Colorado River. Sometimes their only source of water shriveled
in the summer or swelled into a raging winter torrent that
cannibalized crops and inhabitants settled near the shore.
The Mojaves were undaunted. For hundreds of years they
populated the Colorado River area from the current site of Hoover
Dam south to Blythe, Calif. The three divisions of the tribe --
Upper Mojaves, Middle Mojaves and Lower Mojaves -- are named for
the region of the river where they lived.
Spanish explorer Melchi Diaz in 1540 is believed to be the
first non-Indian to visit the tri-state area. Father Garces, a
Spanish padre, crossed the Colorado River in 1776 at a broad,
shallow point near the modern day site of Katherine Landing north
of Davis Dam.
STEAMBOATS DELIVER SUPPLIES
Steamboats cruised to the tri-state area from Port Isabel in
the Gulf of California delivering supplies to miners and returning
to port loaded with precious metals. For more than 50 years
beginning in 1852, stern-wheelers were the fastest and safest mode
of travel into the searing wasteland.
It cost a traveler $44 to sail from what is now Bullhead City,
Ariz., south to the Gulf of California and then north to San
Lt. Edward Beale, hired to survey an immigrant road in 1857
from Fort Smith, Ark., to the Colorado River, established Fort
Mojave near the present site of Bullhead City. Pioneers en route
to California sought the fort's protection.
Beale tested a caravan of 28 camels for the war department
while stationed at Fort Mojave. His trusted assistant was Hi-Jolly,
a trained camel driver from Asia Minor. For a while camels
delivered the mail throughout what is now Mojave County.
The growing population of whites in the tri-state area, drove
the mojave Indians further into extreme Southern Nevada. The
present day boundary of the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation is
several miles south of Laughlin.
William Harrison Hardy crossed the Colorado River in 1864. He
established a river port and supply center on Cottonwood Island and
operated the Colorado River Ferry. He founded Hardyville and became
the first postmaster in 1865, the year President Abraham Lincoln
Hardyville, eventually destroyed by fire, was once the county
seat of Mojave County where steamboats unloaded cargo for the
booming mining district and its businessmen and saloon keepers.
Numerous mines eventually pocked the area.
The largest was the Katherine Gold Mine, discovered in 1900
and operated intermittently until it closed in 1942 after producing
$12 million worth of ore. The mine and mill was capable of
processing 300 tons of ore into 600 ounces of gold and silver in 24
The mine and surrounding area today carries the name of one of
the miner's sisters.
DAVIS DAM IMPACTS
The federal government investigated the possibility of
constructing a dam in lower Pyramid Canyon in 1902-1903 and renewed
its studies in 1930, eventually leading to the Congressional
authorization of the Davis Dam Project. Lt. J.C. Ives had named
the canyon in 1858, describing it as a "natural pyramid of
symmetrical proportions, 20 to 30 feet high, near the rapids."
The 1935 completion of Hoover Dam 67 miles upstream paved the
way for construction down river.
Davis Dam and its powerplant were built by the Bureau of
Reclamation in Pyramid Canyon two miles upstream from Laughlin and
Bullhead City and 10 miles north of where Arizona, Nevada and
The construction contract for Davis Dam was awarded in 1942,
but work stopped during World War II because of a shortage of
material. Work resumed in April 1946 and Davis Dam was completed in
Davis Dam, built for flood control and power generation, is an
earth-rock structure with a concrete spillway containing 3.6
million cubic yards of fill material. The gravity structure stands
200 feet above the river bed. It is 1,400 feet thick at the base,
50 feet thick at the top and 1,600 feet long.
Its primary purpose is to regulate the flow of Colorado River
water to meet downstream needs. A side benefit is power production
with five turbines that generate 48,000 kilowatts each. Under terms
of the Mexican Water Treaty of 1944, Mexico receives 1.5 million
acre-feet of Colorado River water annually.
Lake Mojave, the reservoir created by Davis Dam and capable of
storing 1.8 million acre-feet of water, extends 67 miles to the
base of Hoover Dam. The lake is 4 miles across at its widest point.
It has a surface area of 44 square miles and a shoreline of more
than 150 miles.
Bullhead City, the most populous town in the area, started in
the 1940s as a construction camp for Davis Dam. The community is
named for Bull's Head Rock, a geological formation used as a
navigation point by steamboat captains. The rock now is mostly
submerged beneath Mojave Lake with only a small portion visible.
During construction of the dam, several small communities
sprang up in the area, including the present town of Laughlin.
Laughlin, originally called South Pointe because of it's
proximity to Nevada's southern tip, consisted of a small motel and
The motel closed and fell into disrepair when Davis Dam was
completed and business generated by the project stopped.
Bullhead City also lost most of its population. Only a few
government workers, river people and retirees chose to live in the
DON LAUGHLIN INVESTS
In 1964 Don Laughlin, owner of Las Vegas' 101 Club, flew over Laughlin and offered to buy the property. In less than two years the motel and bar, now called the Riverside Resort, was offering all-you-can-eat chicken dinners for 98 cents, play on 12 slot machines and two live gaming tables. Guest accommodations were available in four of the motel's eight motel rooms. The Laughlin family lived in the other four rooms.
South Pointe was renamed Laughlin when the U.S. Postal Service inspector insisted Don Laughlin give the town a name-any name-in order to receive mail. Don Laughlin recommended the name of Riverside or Casino, but the postal inspector used Laughlin instead.
In 1972 the Riverside Resort added 48 rooms, followed by several additions and in 1986 built the first 14-floor high-rise.
A second casino, the Bobcat Club opened in 1967 where the Golden Nugget Laughlin currently operates. In 1968 a third casino, the Monte Carlo opened its doors.
Across the River, Bullhead City flourished in the glow of the casino light. Shuttle boats transported customers from the Arizona side of the river to Laughlin's resorts.
During the 1980s a surge of casino construction exploded in Laughlin. The Colorado Hotel (now the Pioneer), the Regency Sam's Town Gold River (now the River Palms) and the Edgewater opened early in the decade. The activity attracted other investors to begin a second boom resulting in the construction of the Colorado Belle, Harrah's Del Rio, Ramada Express and finally, in 1990, the Flamingo Hilton.
In 1987, Don Laughlin funded and built the Laughlin Bridge at a cost of $3.5 million. He donated the bridge to the states of Nevada and Arizona. The bridge carries 2,000 vehicles daily.
Today there are nine hotel/casinos and one motel in Laughlin providing over 10,000 rooms, 125,000 square feet of meeting space, 60 restaurants, two museums, a 34-lane bowling center and a variety of boutiques, spas and salons. More than 14,000 casino workers now cross the Colorado by shuttle boat or the Laughlin Bridge each day.
The city by the river now attracts nearly 5 million visitors annually who visit Laughlin to gamble, enjoy water sports on the Colorado and attend many high-profile special events hosted by the community.