From 1977 to 2005, The Texas Star regularly embarked from Freeport, Texas, into the Gulf of Mexico on casino cruises. The 180-foot vessel provided passengers an authentic slice of American gaming history.
The Texas Star’s career came to a close in July with a farewell voyage far from the Lone Star State. The ship’s final port was in Delaware, and its final destination was the Redbird Reef, 16-1/2 miles offshore.
The Texas Star belongs to a contradictory history of Texas gambling, defined as much by intrepid gamblers as morally-conservative, anti-gaming pundits. And like many other gamblers of Texas’s storied gaming past, the Texas Star left home to find its ultimate purpose.
A marine habitat of tanks, tugboats and The Star
The Redbird Reef is a mammoth artificial underwater structure that serves as marine habitat for fishing and diving. More than 700 New York City “redbird” subway cars, 86 tanks, eight tugboats and barges, 3,000 tons of ballasted truck tires, and now the Texas Star make up the reef that has increased marine food quantities by 400 times in the last seven years.
The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control led the process of sinking the Texas Star 86 feet down to the sea floor. It added a new destination to the 1.6-mile reef for fish, anglers and divers.
Where it rests off the Delaware coast on the murky sea floor, one can imagine its great reward: The black bass and Atlantic cod weaving between the legs of card tables, the goggle-eyed flounder lounging on the floral carpet of the game room, and the skittish blue crab clambering around the roulette wheel. Just like the bunting-festooned paddle wheels of old, that too would be something to see.
The Texas Star: A short chapter in a long history
The Texas Star’s sinking closed a short chapter in one of America’s most storied gambling traditions: Riverboat gambling and the floating casino. For centuries, water-born casinos have served as clever workarounds for the country’s prohibitive gambling laws.
The Texas Star operated as a floating casino, docking in Freeport. Once the ship was in international waters, patrons could play slots or try their luck at various table games.
It operated under several names – the Europa Star, the Stardancer V and the Millionaire’s Casino – throughout its career. It was used to dredge for scallops after its services as a floating casino ended in 2005.
Poker was a cure for boredom on the river
Merchants from around the country saw familiar faces along their journeys to cities like New Orleans. They determined that the boredom of an 11-day journey could be remedied by playing cards. French traders they rubbed shoulders with taught them poque, a card game played back home in France. It involved betting, bluffing and playing off the other players’ tells.
Poker evolved informally through these games. It became the principal means of combating boredom on long voyages.
The demise of riverboat commerce (and gambling)
Riverboat travel held as the best form of commerce for roughly 40 years during the middle of the 19th century. Two significant events changed that.
The first was the rise of the steam engine. As railroad owners built extensive train tracks across the country, the rate and trajectory of commerce shifted again. More goods could now be moved faster and to more places, ending the need for lengthy trips up and down the Mississippi River. With that decrease in trade, the decline in riverboat gambling quickly followed.
The second event that all but stopped riverboat gambling was the Civil War. Merchant travelers gave way to military personnel hauling equipment south to the battlefields. Also, the prospect of wagering in a war region scared off most gamblers.
Riverboat gambling as a special attraction
The riverboat gambling industry re-emerged after the Civil War as a form of tourism. This transformation was aided by the passage of anti-gambling laws across the country.
Almost all states had laws outlawing various forms of gambling. Rivers, lakes and oceans represented open territories though. “Open water” laws allowed gamblers to step aboard riverboats and wait for the captain to announce, “Open water! Go about your business!,” before they started dealing cards.
The ships of this time inspired the images most Americans have when they think about riverboat gambling. They were enormous paddlewheelers with massive smoke stacks, upper and lower decks enclosed by picket railings and festooned with bunting.
These vessels served as floating casinos, but they were not technically casino ships. In actuality, they were cruise ships with the added allure of casino games.
The riverboat casino nostalgia industry
The City of Traverse revitalized the floating casino industry in the early-20th century and led to the rise of gambling-only vessels. These vessels launched in the Mississippi Valley, the Great Lakes region and the open ocean. They offered short evening cruises into open waters where upscale card and dice games were played by the wealthy.
Until the mid-twentieth century, they operated relatively unimpeded by authorities. In 1951, a wave of post-war conservative morality crossed the US. Sen. Lyndon Johnson passed the Transportation of Gambling Devices Act (TGDA). This legislation made it illegal to cross state lines with gambling devices if the neighboring state did not allow gambling.
The act sought to choke off riverboat gambling by limiting the routes riverboat casinos could take. For nearly 40 years, the TGDA cut into the riverboat gambling industry.
In 1991, the TGDA was amended with the Flag Cruise Ship Competitiveness Act. The amendment disallowed gambling on all ocean-bound ships that had not reached international waters. The Texas Star, and other seafaring ships, were bound by this law.
Legal riverboat casinos a relatively new venture
It may come as a surprise that the first legal riverboat casinos didn’t launch until 1991 in Iowa. They were the Dubuque Casino Belle, the Diamond Lady in Bettendorf and The President in Dubuque. It was part of an effort to revitalize this quintessential American industry that had slowly been choked off.
Now, riverboat gambling is legal in six states:
While some riverboat casinos resemble extravagant Las Vegas-style resorts, the industry still holds to its 19th-century roots. That much is clear when reading some of these quirky riverboat casino laws:
- In Louisiana, riverboat casinos must resemble 19th-century paddlewheelers.
- Indiana riverboats must be 150-feet long and have an occupancy of 500 people.
- After Hurricane Katrina, riverboats were no longer required to operate in open water; they had to stay docked or moored to a barge.
- An Illinois casino developer tried to build a riverboat casino by digging a small lake and then putting a casino over it. It didn’t fly.