How low has the Mississippi dropped? Low enough to find Diamond Lady, the first casino river boat.
The first riverboat casino to open in the United States and Biloxi now sits in the mud in Memphis as the waters of the Mississippi River recede. To see the fate of the Diamond Lady on Facebook — covered in muck as she emerged from where she sank a year ago — is a sad end to her story. “It made my heart sink. I didn’t really know what happened to it,” said Rich Westfall, who followed the Diamond Lady and her sister boat, the Emerald Lady, from Bettendorf, Iowa, to Biloxi 30 years ago. He was the marketing director for the company and among the staff who opened the pair of boats as the Isle of Capri casino on Aug. 1, 1992 — the first casino in Biloxi and the Southeast. The Diamond Lady reportedly was stored in Lake McKellar, off the Mississippi River in Tennessee, in 2008 and sank in 2021 during a freeze. The riverboat is now fully visible as the Mississippi River falls to historic low levels. Pictures show that although her decks are still somewhat intact and her name can still be seen on the hull, the double smokestacks no longer stand tall and she’s lost her sparkle.nola.com
The grace and beauty of Diamond Lady are lost in her current state.
Westfall remembers when she was indeed a Diamond Lady. “It’s such a beautifully built riverboat, sturdy and fast.” Bernie Goldstein, who became known as the “father of riverboat gambling,” built the boats in 1990 in Iowa as replicas of the 1880s paddlewheelers that had run the Mississippi River. “Vanna White was there on opening day,” Westfall said, and cut the ribbon April 1, 1991, the year before they found a home on the Mississippi Coast. “They were identically built,” he said of Diamond Lady and Emerald Lady, just decorated with different furnishings and colors and appointed with luxury Abenson carpet, crystal glass and beautiful finishes. On the top of both boats was the Texas deck, which he said was an open place to go and relax.
The riverboats were moved to Biloxi so they could have more gambling area.
Regulations in Iowa restricted the casino space in the riverboats to just 30%, Westfall said. Goldstein decided to move his boats to where he could turn a profit and on July 5, 1992, the ladies left Iowa for Biloxi, where a welcome parade of boats was answered with the blare of the boats’ calliopes. The interiors of the boats were filled with all the slot machines and table games allowed under Mississippi regulations, he said. The Lucky 7 Pavilion that came from Iowa with the boats linked them and provided space for the poker room and restaurant space, he said. The Isle of Capri and the other casinos that quickly opened in south Mississippi were met with such enthusiasm they soon needed more space. “We replaced the two riverboats with a two-level barge,” Westfall said. In 1994, the $18 million barge, featuring tall windows and tropical colors, replaced the Isle’s 1800s-style Diamond Lady riverboat and Lucky 7 Pavilion, according to an account in the Sun Herald. “The casino is a floating building that complements the Isle’s land-side offices and restaurant,” the article said. It featured 716 slot machines — 76 more than The Diamond Lady— and table games. The next year the hotel opened, Westfall said.
Where is her sister ship?
Westfall said he had heard the Emerald Lady was in Ohio and turned into a dinner riverboat. Captain Don Sanders, who wrote a series of articles about his time on the Mississippi River for the North Kentucky Tribune, reported in 2016 that BB Riverboats bought the Emerald Lady and converted her into the excursion boat. The website shows the Belle of Cincinnati, as the Emerald Lady is now known, is still being used for sightseeing cruises and summer dinner tours along the river in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. “It was built to last and it was a beautiful boat,” Westfall said of the Diamond Lady — and her emerald twin.
Riverboats will never go out of style.