Pinning down the origins of the first casino in America is a complex endeavor with several different candidates for the whole story, and a long road filled with false starts. Gambling has always been a part of America even with sudden dips in popularity and even laws prohibiting the sport of gambling, much fewer Casinos altogether. There is little doubt that there were more diminutive and unofficial versions of the Casino existing in America for some time, but the story of how they rose to prominence officially is one that is interesting and keenly American.
Floating “Casinos” and the Mississippi River
Life on the Mississippi River was always a bombastic affair and when gamblers saw the flexible laws of what was considered a house of gambling it became an even more profitable place for them to do business. Before the presence of the floating casino, the Mississippi River connected states and territories through transport and traded and supplied towns with power and food. Consequently, there was cash everywhere and people looking to spend it.
The fact is that gambling on land could become very dangerous especially if you were good at separating people from their money, making the Riverboat casino, which were dubiously legal at the time, very attractive. This sort of gambling peaked during 1840-1860 with professional gamblers becoming the rock stars of the age; point the casino would be legal, inevitable and profitable. Consequently, gambling evolution would flow down the river to New Orleans.
As a place known for its liberal sensibilities, voodoo, and lawlessness even when gambling was illegal in most places it still happened in New Orleans. The gambling houses of the time were not as large as the legal casino would be later on, but they were the style templates of what they would become. They offered their patrons, who were often professional gamblers coming from the river boats drinks, music, and women without the inconvenience of waiting by the dock with décor being somewhere between Spanish, French, and American. This design style moved west with the gamblers and gambling establishment owners for decades until they found themselves in a little town in Nevada called Las Vegas.
For a long time between the heyday of New Orleans in 1931 gambling was illegal but after the profitability of the Hoover dam created a place where people would be looking for a place to spend their money, gambling was legalized in the state of Nevada. This change led to an influx of interest in Las Vegas from the East in the form of money brokers and the mafia. Of course before men like Bugsy Siegel got their piece of the action the folks from Nevada moved in on the action.
Arguably one of the first establishments in Las Vegas and by extension the best candidate for the first legal casino in America was the Northern club; It was amongst four proto-casinos that popped up looking for a license after gambling was made legal. Before the legalization, however, Mayme Stocker opened the Northern Club in 1920 and was believed to offer liquor and gaming illegally.