The History of Riverboat Gambling

There are various areas of the world that just seem synonymous with gambling. When people hear the name Las Vegas they picture gambling of a flashy, mass entertainment proportion. Macaus gambling culture brings a real Asian flavour to gambling, with many inevitably comparing it to Vegas. Monte Carlo delivers gambling connotations of wealth and prestige. Obviously, it is not just physical areas where gambling has a strong presence, with the web and mobile space being dominated by PartyCasino and other big names in the industry.

Another, yet somewhat less spectacular, sight that can only be associated with gambling is the steam propelled riverboat of certain states in the USA. How did these iconic vessels come to be known for hosting casinos, and what is the current status of riverboat casinos today?

On Water, But Not Land

There is a network of rivers that penetrate inland from the Gulf of Mexico up through the United States, most famously the Mississippi River. In the 19th Century the rivers provided a fantastic way to transport goods from town to town up and down the bodies of water. This in turn became a popular method of passenger transport, with travellers using the boat to socialise. One of the most popular forms of entertainment at the time was gambling, and therefore this pastime became highly popular aboard the vessels.

There were also, and still are today, laws that prohibited gambling on land. However, the proprietors of these boats took advantage of the loophole not extending these laws to establishments on water. Even today, riverboats are still to be found on the Mississippi and is still considered one of the best for cruises. Certain rivers acted as state lines, so it was sometimes argued that the gamblers could not be classified as being in one state or another while steaming down a river.

Railroads and War

As mentioned, the riverboats were first and foremost a means of transportation and enjoyed such success due to it being the quickest and most reliable means of travel and delivery of goods. However, when railroads started to spread across the country, they opened up new routes that got people around in a more direct manner. The trains also cut days off travel and therefore started to overtake the riverboats in popularity.

Around the same time the American Civil War broke out, a period where much of the fighting was done in the Southern States which defied the laws laid out by the North. This meant that riverboat entertainment almost came to a complete end.

The Riverboats of Today

Cruise CompeteFor those with a riverboat casino fascination cursing their luck at having missed out on the craze of the 19th century, there are still riverboats in operation today that have been granted permission to operate. The first one to become a fully recognised legal riverboat casino was in Iowa in 1989. This state, which lies above Missouri, sits on the network of rivers where riverboat gambling was popular in the 19th century. Other states which were also once smitten with riverboats, such as Louisiana and Illinois, jumped on the bandwagon and passed the same laws. Not long after almost all the states that once experienced riverboat gambling has all passed laws to make it legal.

Unlike the boats of old, which used to set off on long journeys to various destinations, the vessels of now mostly remain docked and very seldom actually take to the open waters. However, one will still be able to undergo the traditional experience that thousands enjoyed before casinos became what we are familiar with today.

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John Shallo
John Shallo
John Shallo is the founder and editor of Cruise Addicts. Since 1999 it has been a leading destination for cruise travelers and self professed Cruise Addicts looking for the latest news, ship reviews and travel tips.

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