Galveston’s Gambling Glory
From Jean Lafitte's pirate colony to The Balinese Room and now the cruise terminals, Galveston is no stranger to gambling. And much like a gambler, the city has gone through hot streaks as well as long periods of losing.
In the 19th century, Galveston served as a popular hideout for pirates, including the infamous Jean Lafitte and his pirate gang. The beautiful east end that we know and love today was once a den of thieves and rapscallions. These notorious outlaws brought with them more than just their plundered treasures; they also introduced various forms of gambling to the island. “As far as gambling, drinking and prostitution goes, that has been here since the very beginning attached to the pirate colony.” says Jami Durham, Property Research and Cultural History Historian with the Galveston Historical Foundation. The waterfront taverns and saloons became hotspots for card games, dice, and other games of chance, providing locals and seafarers alike with entertainment and excitement. Although the pirates were chased out, sailors and gambling were here to stay along the shores of Galveston. This is an often-romanticized part of the history of Texas, but by many accounts it did embody all the characteristics of a bustling port town; that includes all the vices that sailors often sought out after a long voyage. Saloons and brothels were prominent features along the waterfront and most, if not all, featured some form of gambling.
As Galveston grew into a bustling city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so did its gambling scene. Saloons and gambling halls dotted the streets, catering to both locals and tourists. Luxurious venues featuring opulent interiors appeared on the island, offering patrons roulette wheels, poker tables, and slot machines. Some of the more notable establishments included the Turf Club on Market, the Hollywood Supper Club, and the infamous Balinese Room.
The 1920s and ‘30s marked a significant period of development in Galveston’s gambling industry. Organized crime figures, such as Dutch Voight and Ollie Quinn established a strong presence in the city, operating numerous casinos, bookmaking operations, and speakeasies. Galveston became a hub for illegal gambling, drawing high-profile gamblers and celebrities from around the country. The lavish casinos offered high-stakes poker games, roulette, craps, and more. Despite prohibition laws and occasional police raids, the casinos maintained a tight grip on their operations, ultimately helping Galveston flourish as a popular gambling destination. “It wasn’t just about gambling. It was total entertainment. You could sit in an air-conditioned building, eat fine foods, drink fine wines, great liquors and be entertained by nationally renowned entertainers” says Durham. Galveston was the crown jewel of the Gulf coast and one of the most popular destinations in the United States. The biggest celebrities of the time were known to frequent these opulent clubs. The roaring twenties were good to Galveston’s casinos.
Galveston’s gambling dominance began to decline in the 1950s with increased law enforcement crackdowns and the legalization of gambling in neighboring states. Many casinos were forced to shut down; some faded away quietly and others, like the legendary Balinese Room, went out in exciting raids. With the increased pressure from law enforcement, the gambling empire gradually crumbled and almost disappeared completely. However, Galveston’s gambling story was not yet over; it was about to take on a new evolution.
In the 1990s, a new chapter unfolded with the advent of cruise ship gambling. Galveston, with its strategic location and proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, became an ideal embarkation point for cruise ships offering onboard casinos. Carnival Cruise Line was the first to offer such voyages, bringing back the excitement of gambling to Galveston’s shores. Small casino boats also still operate, albeit to a lesser degree, offering short six-hour voyages from the yacht basin out to international waters and back again. If the thrill of gambling is what you seek, both options are fairly safe and reputable in comparison to the alternative.
Among some of the grimy gas stations and corner store bodegas that dot the island you will find what appear to be slot machines. While gambling in Texas is illegal, you can play games for prizes if no cash is exchanged. Instead, these businesses offer store credit (or so they say). The store credit maxes out at a certain amount and the machines are often marketed as “games of skill.” There are many on the island who believe several of these convenience stores are operating as casinos hiding in plain sight. In speaking with several employees of these establishments, one gets the sense they do not like people asking questions about the legality of their slot machines. In fact, one individual spoke to me on the condition of anonymity and warned me I should be careful where I go asking questions. What other types of gambling could exist in the seedy backrooms of businesses and warehouses across the island? Without a doubt, there are still private poker games on the island you can get access to if you know the right people. However, there is nothing that compares to the size and scale of that bygone era.
In the late 80s and early 90s there were groups pushing to legalize gambling in Texas. Galveston was frequently at the center of the conversation due to the history of gambling on the island as well as the steady flow of tourists. Those in favor often cited casinos would create thousands of jobs. Those against showed concerns that casinos might bring crime and corruption and their construction could mean tearing down some of the historical buildings that are so beloved. But for every dollar Texas spends to legalize gambling, neighboring states that allow gambling would likely spend five dollars to prevent it. It looks as though Galveston will never be the high roller it once was, but who knows? Our luck may yet change.
THANK YOU TO THE GALVESTON HISTORICAL FOUNDATION AND THE ROSENBERG LIBRARY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS ARCHIVES FOR THEIR ASSISTANCE.