Gambling has storied history in Monroe
By Robbie Evans

Monroe's current attempt to bring riverboat gambling to its citizens is just the latest chapter in a history of more than 150 years of gambling in the city.

City officials are trying to lure a riverboat casino to the banks of the Ouachita River. If it comes to fruition, it would be the first time in nearly a decade since a form of organized gambling has been allowed in Monroe.

Although there's been relatively few periods of time in the last 40 years that organized gambling has raised its head in Monroe, the last century and a half in Monroe's history has seen several forms of gambling come and go, including horse racing, slot machines and gambling establishments.

"Monroe has always been a gambling town," said Larry Foreman, director of the Ouachita Parish Public Library's Special Collections department. "There was a whole lot of betting going on in Monroe for many years."
1848-1913: First opportunity

The first opportunity for organized gambling in Monroe actually began in the late 1840s when the state held a legal lottery. By 1878, the Louisiana Lottery was the last surviving lottery in the United States.
It lasted until 1895 when Congress enacted a prohibition against moving lottery tickets across state lines because of rampant fraud and public bribery.

At the turn of the century as the Forsythe Park area began to be developed, the Monroe Fair Association horse racing track was constructed. The race track, which was located at the site of the current Forsythe Municipal Golf Course, was considered to be the finest half-mile horse racing track in the southern United States.

It was reported that Frank and Jesse James even raced horses at the track and that Frank had served as a track judge after his brother's death.

Beginning in 1908, horse races were held each October at the track during the city's annual fair. The track was finally torn down in the 1930s.

1914-1948: Change in direction

In October 1914, less than a month after the death of Mayor Andrew Forsythe, Mayor Pro Tem C.A. Downey announced that local officials would no longer look the other way at gambling establishments and would begin enforcing the city's anti-gambling ordinances.
At the time, widespread sentiment in the city was that gambling was costing the city's other businesses more than $150,000 a year in revenue.

An article in the Oct. 20, 1914, edition of The Monroe News-Star stated, "In order not to take 'snap judgment' on the gamblers who have been plying their vocation in Monroe for many years unmolested, Mayor Downey this morning detailed two members of the police force to notify the owners and operators of every gambling house in Monroe to close his place of business on or before the first day of November and keep it closed thereafter."

The article also stated, "With a city judge in accord with the mayor's orders the enforcement of the ordinances covering (gambling and vagrancy) will be easy and Monroe will be free from a vice that has brought the city into more or less disrepute because of the boldness and activity of some of the followers of the gambling game."

Another era of gambling in Monroe became prevalent for about two decades beginning in the late 1920s. The Great Depression led to more relaxed public views of gambling because it seemed to be a way to stimulate the economy.

"Monroe was a big town for slot machines," Foreman said. "They were a common fixture in many restaurants and places of entertainment, movie theaters and even the Lotus Club."

Local gamblers even bet on the baseball games of the Monroe Monarchs, a Negro league team in the early 1930s, Foreman said. The Monarchs' home field was even called "Casino Park."

Vincent Anzalone, who has spent most of his 85 years running his hardware store in downtown Monroe, said there wasn't many places in Monroe during that period that didn't have slot machines in them. To go along with the gambling establishments, Anzalone said Monroe even had a red-light district — a neighborhood where prostitution is common — on Breard Street.

He said the madam of the brothels even came to his store each week to buy furniture for the houses.

"We were an active little town here ... just about anything you wanted to do we had it," Anzalone said. "The slot machines were scattered around everywhere at service stations, restaurants and bars."

1948-1992: On the decline

Rampant gambling in Monroe appeared to decline after 1948, when a grand jury investigation lead to the indictments of 14 people and business owners for violating anti-gambling laws. Then-Sheriff Milton Coverdale was featured prominently on the front page of the Jan. 11, 1948, edition of the Monroe Morning-World standing over slot machines smashed by sledgehammers by deputies.
News reports of the investigation attribute the origin of the "anti-gambling crusade" to local ministers and KNOE-TV-Radio owner and former Louisiana Gov. James A. Noe, who testified before the grand jury investigating illegal gambling.

It was around that time that longtime Monroe resident James E. Tripp Jr. said he began to notice fewer slot machines around town.

"They were just about anywhere — grocery stores and filling stations in particular," Tripp said. "Then all of a sudden, slot machines weren't looking at you everywhere you went."

1993-present: Return of gambling?

Public sentiment against gambling remained strong for more than three decades until the 1992 arrival of video poker in Ouachita Parish.
In October 1993, Ouachita Parish voters turned down a riverboat gambling referendum by a 71 percent to 29 percent margin. The parish was one of two parishes — including Calcasieu — that got the state Legislature's permission to vote on the matter.

The video machines were prevalent in restaurants, truck stops and bars in the area until 1996, when a parishwide referendum to discontinue video poker after July 1, 1999, passed. Ouachita Parish was one of 32 other parishes to discontinue video poker.

At that time, many anti-gambling citizens and organizations in the parish worked hard to defeat the referendum.

Since that time, there had been no local efforts in Monroe to bring back any form of organized gambling until last month when the city's Downtown Economic Development District confirmed it had begun studying what would be needed to bring a riverboat casino to Monroe, one of the only forms of gambling Monroe hasn't seen over the course of its history.