Mississippi and the Gulf Coast in general have a long history of gambling traditions. Before Europeans settled in the area Native American tribes engaged in sports and gambling. Some of those gambling traditions are still observed today, protected by the Indian Gaming Act.
If you ever want to win an easy bar bet, ask someone to name all the casinos that have operated in Mississippi. Even seasoned gamblers can’t do that. You could allow your mark to use Wikipedia and they would still not list them all.
But why do people believe Mississippi casinos are all built on the water?
When you look closely at the history of gambling in the state, you’ll find that gambling was only restricted to floating casinos for a few decades. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Gulf Coast in 2005, the state modified its laws to allow casinos on land again.
This was deemed a necessary move to protect lives and property against future storms. It also heralded the end of a nostalgic period that, ironically, didn’t begin because of nostalgia.
US Riverboats Allowed Gambling from the Beginning
The history of riverboats is long and not very interesting, unless you just love learning about boat design. The most ancient riverboats known today were built in Egypt thousands of years ago. They were the precursors of Egypt’s famous reed ships.
Wherever people have settled by major rivers they built boats to carry goods, livestock, and people from one shore to another. But on fast-moving rivers it was impractical to use boats for 2-way navigation. They had to be pulled back upriver by animals or abandoned at their downstream destinations.
When Americans think about riverboats today they imagine something more majestic than a small flat barge. They imagine the steamboats that once plied the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
Movies and TV shows about the Old West created the iconic image of the steam-powered paddle wheel boats that people now associate with river gambling. Robert Fulton built the first American steam-powered riverboat in 1807. It launched the age of 2-way river travel in the United States.
The earliest steamboats quickly allowed gambling on board because there wasn’t much else to do. Passengers passed the time away playing cards. It was inevitable that money would be put on the table.
Slot Machines Were Introduced to Mississippi by Hotels
Land-based gambling was popular in cities like Natchez and Vicksburg before the Civil War (1861-1865). In addition to card games, gambling houses offered billiards and other types of betting games. Gamblers also wagered on horse races and cock fights.
By this time steam-powered riverboat travel was competing with railroads that ran up and down the rivers.
Mississippi’s hotels were the first businesses to introduce slot machines to their customers in the early 1900s. These hotels were all built on land.
The Gulf Coast Had Its Own Colorful History
While card players were gambling away fortunes on the Mississippi river throughout the 1800s, smugglers and pirates occasionally plied the Gulf of Mexico.
The smugglers proved useful to the South during the Civil War until the Union Navy shut them down, but they returned after the war. Other seaside activities including schooner races also became popular after the war.
By the late 1800s seafood factories stood all along the coast, and each factory had its own fleet of schooners. They harvested shrimp and oysters from the Gulf. The factories organized races during the summer months.
The schooner races and other attractions brought tourists and hotels and railways flourished along the southern coast. Lumber and shipbuilding became big industries for the region.
Prohibition changed many industries. Smuggling became popular again. Dog Key Island, popular with fishermen because of its artesian springs, became a haven for bootleggers.
In 1926 Colonel Jack W. Apperson and his partners built the Isle of Caprice Hotel and Resort on the key. The hotel’s casino offered dice games, roulette games, and more. Unfortunately tourists devastated the island’s foliage, which kept the sand in place.
By 1932 the resort was lost to the waters.
Gambling flourished on shore all along the coast. Hotels offered slot machines and other games to their guests. And gambling spread inland via “road houses”: honky tonks catered to caucasians and juke joints served African Americans.
Gambling was so popular it even brought out-of-state travelers to the Gulf Coast and it created jobs for locals during the Great Depression.
By the late 1940s and early 1950s big name entertainers including Hank Williams, Sr., Elvis Presley, and Jayne Mansfield were performing on The Strip. Mississippi’s Gulf Coast was the gambling heart of America.
Mississippi Got a Case of Religion
Concerned about the growth of the gambling industry and the inevitable crime that came with unregulated gambling, ministers began organizing in the early 1950s.
They formed the Group of Interested Laymen and the Biloxi Protestant Ministerial Association to lobby the state to forbid slot gambling in Harrison County.
Many gambling activities had been made illegal in the Mississippi Law Code of 1942 but no one was enforcing the laws. The U.S. Senate also opened an investigation into organized crime connections in Mississippi’s gambling industry.
Enforcement actions stepped up, forcing establishments to take gambling into the back rooms.
A Hurricane Killed Mississippi’s Gambling Industry
In 1969 Hurricane Camille hit the Gulf Coast hard, ravaging towns. Hotels and gambling parlors were destroyed along with many homes and other businesses.
The state’s tourism industry died off and the gambling industry collapsed. By this time the city of Las Vegas had become the United States’ new gambling capital.
What ministers, sheriffs, and military police could not do in nearly 30 years Mother Nature take care of in a day.
Native Americans Revived the State’s Gambling Tradition
With legal victories in the 1970s and 1980s First Nations across the United States began building casinos that could not be regulated by the states. Thanks to the National Indian Gaming Act of 1988 the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians opened the Silver Star casino in 1994.
Seeing opportunity to revive the state’s economy and bowing to the inevitable, the state legislature legalized dockside gambling in 1990. The state gave counties along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast the freedom to allow gambling if their voters approved.
By 2005 around 30 casinos had opened along the waterfronts.
Mississippi Gambling After Katrina
The pictures of the devastation in Biloxi and other Gulf towns stunned people around the world. The Beau Rivage Resort & Casino and other large casinos had been ripped apart by the storm.
Large boats had been pushed inland by the storm surge.
Casino owners and politicians alike realized that building casinos in the Gulf didn’t make sense. Operators claimed their resorts would have survived the storm better if they had been built on land.
The state amended its laws to allow the waterfront casinos to be built inland, within 800 feet of the water.
Even so, many people still picture casinos floating on the water when they talk about gambling in Mississippi.
Why were casinos built on the water? It was a compromise between long-standing concerns over the detrimental effects of unregulated gambling and the need to revive the regional economy.
Mississippi allowed land-based gambling throughout most of its history. While towns and counties turned a blind eye to illegal gambling for many years, enforcement became simple after Camille.
The change in law allowed Mississippi to rejuvenate its Gulf Coast towns and industry. But the iconic floating casino was only destined to last for a few years. Mother Nature made sure of that.