The Rise and Fall of Reno as a Gambling Destination

Up and Down Arrows Next to Reno Downtown Sign

Las Vegas is definitely the crown jewel of the Nevada gambling industry. It’s also the most-notable casino destination in the United States as a whole.

But once upon a time, Reno was actually the most-popular gambling city in Nevada and America. It had the largest casinos and drew the biggest celebrities during its heyday.

Reno is still one of the more-popular gaming destinations in the US. But it’s no longer anywhere near Vegas in terms of prestige, visitors, or revenue.

What happened? I’m going to discuss the rise and fall of Reno’s gaming industry along with where it’s at these days.

Early Days of Reno

Native Americans settled the modern-day Reno area as early as 2000 BC. However, most of its written history started in the mid-1850s, when pioneers began settling the area.

The region’s economy revolved around subsistence farming and tourism. Regarding the latter, travelers often came through the area when traveling the California Trail.

A gold discovery in nearby Virginia City brought even more people to what would eventually become Reno. The discovery of silver in 1859 at Comstock Lode drew an even larger rush of miners.

Railroad expansion brought more visitors and settlers to the area. The Central Pacific Railroad was especially significance in this regard.

Vintage Downtown Reno Postcard

Reno would officially have its name after Major General Jesse Lee Reno, a Union officer in the Civil War, died at the battle of South Mountain. The town was named after Jesse Lee to commemorate his heroic acts.

In 1926, the city built the Reno Arch on Virginia Street. The arch was meant to commemorate the Transcontinental Highway Exposition of 1927.

The mayor at the time, E.E. Roberts, offered $100 to anybody who could come up with a slogan for the arch. Considerable time went by before Sacramento’s G.A. Burns coined the nickname “The Biggest Little City in the World.”

Nevada Legalizes Gambling

Nevada became the first state to legalize casino gambling in 1931. It also passed a law that made divorces easier in the Silver State than almost anywhere else in the US.

Both pieces of legislation opened up new opportunities to Reno. People from California and other states began traveling to the city to get uncomplicated divorces.

Some of these same travelers stayed in Reno for a few days. This situation helped the local tourism industry boom.

By the late 1930s, large casinos started opening and running in the town. The Bank Club quickly became the biggest casino in the world.

A combination of legal casinos and easy divorces gave Reno a risqué reputation. Soon, people were coming here to indulge in adult activities just as much as they were for the simple divorces.

Reno Becomes the World’s Most Popular Gambling Destination

This city’s gambling industry continued to grow throughout the 1940s and 50s. Casinos like Harrah’s and Harold’s Club quickly became prominent gambling establishments in Reno.

Soon, people came from surrounding states and beyond to gamble in the Biggest Little City in the World. Visitors appreciated Reno’s picturesque mountains almost as much as the casinos.

This town also began attracting plenty of non-gambling businesses as well. By the 1950s, city officials realized that they needed to diversify the economy a little. So, they offered tax breaks to business owners.

Reno had many things going in its favor at this point, including a major railroad, interstate highway system, low business taxes, and affordable property. It was also the world’s most-popular casino destination at the time too.

Las Vegas Surpasses Reno

Both Reno and Las Vegas entered the gaming industry along the same time. They each had the foresight to take advantage of Nevada legalizing gaming in the early 1930s.

Reno got out of the starting blocks faster and quickly built an impressive casino industry. However, Las Vegas also saw plenty of development on this front over the years.

Once a small dusty town, Vegas drew lots of investments from mobsters. The latter ran many of the town’s casinos and also laundered money through these gambling establishments.

While their reasoning behind opening casinos was deceiving, the mob quickly accelerated Sin City’s growth with its investments. By the late 1950s, Las Vegas overtook Reno as both the United States’ and world’s most-visited gambling spot.

California Casinos Hurt Reno Gambling

Reno may no longer have been the state’s biggest casino hotspot, but it still experienced widespread success for a few more decades. From the 1960s to 80s, it remained a premier gambling destination.

However, things would slowly start changing in 1988, when the US government approved the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).

Reno Casino Skyline at Dusk

The IGRA didn’t immediately impact Reno’s gambling industry. However, it would pave the way for California tribes to eventually negotiate a casino compact with the state’s government.

By the early 2000’s, Native-American casinos in California were cutting into Reno’s revenue. Establishments near Lake Tahoe were especially hitting the city hard.

Reno Loses Its Airport

Reno has never had a major international airport. However, they used to at least have an airstrip that could serve commercial airliners.

This situation changed in 1999, though, when American Airlines bought out Reno Air. American Airlines originally planned to integrate Reno Air and its fleet into the company’s east-west route.

However, this deal fell through when American Airlines reduced its fleet in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks. The result is that Reno lost its airports and ability to fly visitors directly into town.

Losing this airfield was a huge deal when considering that cross-state rival Las Vegas features one of the country’s largest airports. Now, the only way to reach the city is by car or bus.

What’s Reno Like Today

This town certainly isn’t the gambling capital that it was several decades ago. In fact, its downtown looks a little shabby in recent years.

The main street features plenty of litter and vacant buildings. That said, Reno doesn’t quite measure up to Las Vegas in terms of appearances.

Furthermore, some of the once-successful casinos have been torn down. For example, Fitzgerald’s, Nevada Club, Horseshoe Club, and Harold’s Club are no longer standing.

But not everything is bad for Reno these days. It still has over 20 casinos and makes around $5 billion in annual gambling revenue.

Peppermill Hotel Pool in Reno, Nevada

Some of the casinos here have thrived and expanded. Atlantis, Grand Sierra Resort, and Peppermill have all been quite successful.

Going beyond gambling, Reno has also become something of a tech hub. Its Truckee Meadows area houses operations from major companies, such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Panasonic, and Tesla.


Reno is long since removed from its golden era, which ran from the late 1930s to the late 1950s. This time period saw the Biggest Little City in the World grow significantly and build prominent casinos.

Even after Vegas surpassed it in the late sixties, Reno remained a notable gambling destination for years. It wasn’t as far off from Sin City back in these days.

However, California Indian casinos eventually put a serious dent in Reno’s gaming profits. Online casinos added some more competition. Reno Air shutting down provided yet another setback.

Nevertheless, Reno is still one of the more-popular casino destinations in America. It features over 20 casinos and draws millions of tourists every year.