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A Short History of Reno, Second Edition

A Short History of Reno, Second Edition

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A Short History of Reno, Second Edition

301 Seiten
3 Stunden
Oct 1, 2015


This completely revised and updated edition of A Short History of Reno provides an entertaining and informative account of Reno’s remarkably colorful history. Richard Moreno discusses Reno’s efforts, from its early beginnings in the 1850s to the present day, to reinvent itself as a recreation, entertainment, education, and technology hub. Moreno looks at the gamblers, casino builders, and performers who helped create the world-famous gaming industry, and he considers the celebrities who came to end unhappy marriages back when Reno was “the divorce capital of the world.”

Moreno brings the city’s history up-to-date with coverage of the businesspeople and civic leaders who helped make Reno an attraction that still lures millions of visitors each year. Today’s travelers and residents explore Reno’s flamboyant heart and scenic wonders, topics the author examines in an accessible and lively fashion.
Oct 1, 2015

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A Short History of Reno, Second Edition - Richard Moreno






University of Nevada Press, Reno, Nevada 89557 USA

Copyright © 2015 by University of Nevada Press

All rights reserved

Manufactured in the United States of America

Design by Kathleen Szawiola

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Moreno, Richard.

    A short history of Reno / Richard Moreno. — Second edition.

        pages cm

    Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-87417-984-2 (pbk. : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-0-87417-985-9 (e-book)

1. Reno (Nev.)—History. I. Title.

F849.R4L35 2015

979.3′55—dc23                    2015013920

Frontispiece: Postcard of Virginia Street looking south, Reno, Nevada. Private collection.




1 - Seeds of a Community

2 - Hub of Northern Nevada

3 - Putting Reno on the Map

4 - Marriage of Convenience

5 - All for Our Country

6 - Reno or Bust!

7 - Sin City North?

8 - Into the Twenty-First Century





There are places in Reno that belie the stereotypical image of Reno as a hedonistic haven where the bars never close, gambling is a civic duty, and a person can get married or divorced at any time of the day or night. Neighborhoods like Old Southwest Reno and Newlands Heights, with their shaded, narrow streets and stately mansions and bungalows, aren’t anything like the Reno depicted in films such as Sister Act or Pink Cadillac or on the TV show Reno 9-1-1—in fact, nothing in that show actually looks like Reno since it’s filmed in Southern California.

But as Nevada historian Jim Hulse notes in his book Forty Years in the Wilderness: Impressions of Nevada, 1940–1980, The tourists occasionally assumed that if the social vices that had made Reno infamous were somehow enclosed in an average-looking city with prosperous homes, a picturesque little university, and numerous churches, it couldn’t be as bad as it had been represented in the sensational press. Its location in a beautiful valley at the eastern edge of the Sierra enabled Reno to provide an attractive, almost deceptive, wrapping for a package of dubious content.

So what is Reno? Is it the Sodom of the Sierra or Little House on the Truckee? Or is it perhaps a bit of both? Maybe the best way to begin to understand the self-described Biggest Little City in the World—yet another obvious contradiction—is to examine the stories of its past.

When I arrived in Reno in 1980 to become the city hall reporter at the Reno Evening Gazette and Nevada State Journal (they hadn’t yet merged into the Reno Gazette-Journal), I recall a friend telling me that I was lucky to get a job there because Reno was a good news town. He said it was the kind of community where interesting things always seemed to happen. And he was correct. Reno was and is a good news town. It’s a dateline that people recognize no matter where they live. In fact, throughout its history, Reno has had an uncanny knack for making itself the center of attention, whether it’s as the site of the Fight of the Century or as the Divorce Capital of the World or as the home of the Taj Mahal of Tenpins.

I am indebted to Myrick (Mike) and Barbara Land, who in the first edition of A Short History of Reno so elegantly described the rich and vital history of the Biggest Little City in the World. I’ve long felt a personal connection to this book. More than two decades ago the late Mike Land called me to ask my help in finding a publisher for the original A Short History of Reno. They had completed the manuscript for a company that had gone out of business and were looking for a new place to get it published. At the time, I suggested they contact the University of Nevada Press, which readily agreed to publish the book.

With that shared history in mind, I jumped at the opportunity to update and reenvision the Lands’ book. I especially want to thank Barbara Land for her help and advice while I was working on this edition and for allowing me to take it in my own direction.

I would also like to thank Matt Becker, acquisitions editor at the University of Nevada Press, for trusting me with this project.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t credit and thank all the talented writers and historians who have previously explored aspects of Reno’s story—often with more depth and in greater detail than I could in a short history book—including Alicia Barber, Patty Cafferata, James Hulse, Ronald M. James, Dwayne Kling, Elizabeth Raymond, Mary Ringhoff, Guy Louis Rocha, Elmer Rusco, Edward J. Stoner, John Townley, and Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Also, a big thanks to Reno journalist Dennis Myers for his last-minute assistance.

Finally, thanks to my wife, Pam, for always being there.


Reno sits here upon a river-meadow with her back against the High Sierra and her face towards the Great Desert—and does not care what people say of her.

Reno has not cared for fifty years. Sixty years.

She neither affirms nor denies.

Her living depends on mystery. Her living depends on having people talk about her.

—MAX MILLER, Reno, 1941

Reno has always been a little bit larger than life. The Biggest Little City in the World has long had a certain cachet—an ability to attract attention not afforded to similar-sized places like Garland, Texas, or Glendale, Arizona. Its image has far exceeded its reality. In popular culture, Reno has been the subject of numerous songs, books, movies, and television programs. For example, in the classic tune Folsom Prison Blues, Johnny Cash famously growled, But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die (despite the fact that Folsom is a California state prison, so anyone who committed murder in Reno would be unlikely to end up in a prison in a neighboring state).

In movies, Reno has been depicted as a dark and sinister place, such as in The Pledge, a 2001 murder mystery directed by Sean Penn and starring Jack Nicholson, and also as one of the last outposts of personal freedom, as in the 1961 drama The Misfits, which starred Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, and Montgomery Clift. It’s said to be a place filled with offbeat characters, as in Kingpin, a 1996 farce about competitive bowling (filmed at Reno’s National Bowling Stadium), and it has been mocked in TV shows like Reno 911! a Comedy Central spoof about a clueless police department that is mostly known for not actually being filmed in Reno despite its title. Reno has long fascinated writers ranging from Sherwood Anderson and Walter Van Tilburg Clark, who penned odes to the city in the mid-twentieth century, to Willy Vlautin and Tupelo Hassman, two contemporary writers who have found the city to be fertile ground for colorful misfits.

So why is Reno so fascinating to so many? Perhaps it is because it’s a relatively young city located in the American West, a land that still conjures romantic images of lawlessness, freedom, wide-open spaces, and limitless opportunities. No doubt it’s also because early Reno was also a permissive place that tolerated vices not always embraced by polite society in other communities. In his 1982 oral history, longtime gambling executive Silvio Petricciani, who was born in Reno in 1917, described his hometown as always more or less what we might call a wide open town insofar as even during Prohibition—I mean you could always get a drink if you wanted it. And it didn’t hurt the town any. It was a place that seemed to turn a blind eye toward scandalous behavior, a place that was as easy to admire and admonish as it was to whisper and gossip about.

Of course, there’s also the matter of the name: Reno. It’s short—two syllables—and easy to pronounce and spell. The word flows off the tongue in a way that Albuquerque or Schenectady never will. The city derives its name from a somewhat obscure but heroic Civil War casualty, General Jesse Lee Reno, who died in 1862 during the Battle of South Mountain in Maryland. The community was not, as is sometimes assumed, named after Major Marcus A. Reno, General George Custer’s second-in-command during the disastrous Battle of the Little Bighorn, who infamously didn’t arrive in time to save Custer from defeat—although in some ways that might have been more appropriate for a place that has long traded on its notoriety.

The town’s actual namesake, Jesse Lee Reno, never set foot in Nevada. He was born on April 23, 1823, in Wheeling, Virginia. After displays of great bravery during the Mexican-American War of 1847—he was honored twice for his courage in various battles—Reno joined the Union Army during the Civil War. In September 1862, Reno, now holding the rank of major general, stopped briefly at Fox Gap, Maryland, to take a look at the nearby Confederate forces. As he surveyed the enemy troop movements, a sniper fired a shot that slammed into Reno’s chest. He died shortly after being deposited in his commanding officer’s tent for medical attention. In subsequent years, a memorial was erected to mark the location of Reno’s death, and several communities were named in his honor, including El Reno, Oklahoma; Reno, Pennsylvania; and Reno, Nevada.

So how did a Union officer who died in the Civil War become the namesake of the city of Reno? When officials of the Central Pacific Railroad created the town site in the spring of 1868, they originally named it Argenta (Latin for silver), to reflect the growing importance of Virginia City’s rich silver mines. But shortly after, the railroad unexpectedly announced in Auburn, California’s Stars and Stripes newspaper that the new town would be known as Reno "in honor of General Reno, who fell gloriously fighting in defence [sic] of the old flag against the assault of traitors in rebellion."

Writing in the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly (Fall 1984), Darwin L. Flaherty argued that while none of the railroad’s principal owners had any direct ties to Jesse Reno, Leland Stanford, who served as the railroad’s president, named the new settlement after the Civil War hero as a way to honor his friend and associate General Irvin McDowell. The latter had been sent to San Francisco in 1864 to take command of the Army’s Pacific Division. Stanford, who served as California’s governor from 1861 to 1863, became acquainted with the general. When the latter was reassigned to the East Coast in 1868, Stanford decided to show his regard for General McDowell by naming the railroad’s western Nevada outpost after Reno, who had served under General McDowell with distinction. In fact, the general had earlier tried, unsuccessfully, to rename San Francisco’s Fort Point after Reno.

Thus Reno was named after a dead hero with no direct connection to the area by a railroad official who wanted to impress an old friend. At least it’s easy to spell.

Perhaps the best way to get a sense of the city, particularly the downtown, is to view it as if you were a first-time visitor. If you enter via Interstate 80, you exit onto Virginia Street, the main artery through Reno’s downtown district. Almost immediately you encounter Circus Circus, a twin-towered, neon-draped 1,500-room hotel graced by a 148-foot-tall, 90,000-pound sign depicting a neon clown named Topsy. A sky bridge connects the hotel to the adjacent Victorian-themed Silver Legacy resort, which, in turn, is connected via another sky bridge to the Eldorado Resort. The three interconnected hotel-casinos, which cover more than three city blocks between Sixth Street and Third Street, form the northern part of modern downtown Reno’s casino district.

The southern edge of the Eldorado overlooks Reno’s relatively recent solution to an old problem, namely what to do with the train tracks that run through the middle of the downtown. In this case, a huge trench was dug and the tracks were lowered. Because the city originally developed as a by-product of the railroad, which came through the region in 1868, this section of the downtown is Reno’s oldest commercial area, although very little remains from that time period.

South of the trench is the sprawling Harrah’s hotel-casino, as well as a handful of Reno’s smaller casinos, such as the Club Cal Neva, and a hodgepodge of liquor stores, souvenir shops, wedding chapels, and office buildings, including Reno City Hall. Just past First Street is the Truckee River, a scenic gulch of snowmelt-fed water that begins at Lake Tahoe and ends at Pyramid Lake. In the past couple of decades, the river and the property around it have been the focus of most of the city’s redevelopment efforts. Immediately south of the river are the Riverside Artist Lofts, a converted 1927 hotel-casino that once catered to the divorce trade; the Art Deco former Reno Post Office, completed in 1934; the majestic Washoe County Courthouse; and the geodesic Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts.

The Truckee River, in fact, has since the early twentieth century served as the more or less official demarcation line between what writer Max Miller described in his 1941 book Reno, as a concentrated little Byzantium, namely Reno’s casino district, and some of the city’s quiet, shaded neighborhoods. This Nevada-style Balkanization was the result of an official red line—a literal line on the map that city officials drew around the gambling establishments on Virginia Street. Until the 1970s, casinos were restricted to the several-block core of Reno’s downtown.

It is only after turning west on Court Street or Pine Street or California Avenue that the landscape begins to shift from commercial to residential. While many of the large houses in this district, once home to Reno’s elite, have been transformed into law offices, restaurants, apartments, and other businesses, it is still possible to envision the area as it was once was—the neighborhood of trembling leaves. If you continue west on California Avenue, you head into the old Newlands Heights neighborhood, named after former US senator Francis G. Newlands, who built a Queen Anne–style house in the area in 1890 (still standing at 7 Elm Court, about two blocks north of California Avenue) and who developed the bluff west of the downtown core, overlooking the Truckee River, into Reno’s most desirable place to live. Newlands, who was married to the daughter of William Sharon, one of the state’s wealthiest mining magnates in the late nineteenth century, bought the land along today’s California Avenue and sold large parcels to wealthy local families for their residences.

The area, which is lined with large, beautiful homes built in a variety of architectural styles, continues to impress. In her book Historic Houses and Buildings of Reno, Nevada, Reno historian Holly Walton-Buchanan noted, It is a shame that most visitors never happen upon this street, because California Avenue has been, and still is in many ways, the most fashionable and important address in Reno.

Noting the juxtaposition of the neighborhood to Reno’s downtown core, Walter-Buchanan added, This neighborhood is surprisingly similar to elegant neighborhoods in other American cities, but only in Reno would such a district be so close to the gaudy casinos which have been downtown Reno’s trademark for many decades.

Directly south of California Avenue’s mansion row is a quaint small park, Newlands Circle, which serves as the entrance to the Old Southwest Reno district, which Reno historian John Townley called Reno’s first preferred residential neighborhood. Originally known as Marsh’s Addition, the neighborhood developed in the early to mid-twentieth century as an area with houses perhaps not as flagrantly lavish as those on California Avenue but certainly one filled with classically elegant and architecturally intriguing residences.

At the western edge of Newlands Heights is Newlands Park (700 California Avenue), a small patch of green that overlooks Reno High School and some of the older residential neighborhoods directly west of the downtown. The park offers spectacular views of 8,067-foot Peavine Mountain, to the north, as well as the Sierra Nevada range, to the west. Since the park is usually pretty empty, it also serves as a good place to sit and reflect. At dusk, it’s here where, if you look to the northeast, you can see the first glow of downtown Reno’s hotel-casino lights, freshly ignited for the night, as they beckon and tease. And it’s also from here that you feel the cool breezes off the surrounding mountains, even in the summer months, and enjoy the amber warmth that seems to emanate from the nearby houses as Renoites settle in for the evening.

Chapter One

Seeds of a Community

Thousands on their pilgrimage to the land of fabulous richness found their first El Dorado in the sparkling waters of the Truckee and the rich grasses of its valley.

—N. A. HUMMEL, General History and Resources of Washoe County, Nevada, 1888

With lush foliage, a relatively temperate climate, and a fast-flowing river teeming with fish, the Truckee Meadows provided just about everything the native people of northern Nevada might need. According to archaeological evidence, the area served as a seasonal home for the nomadic, hunter-gatherer tribes of the Great Basin for many generations. The earliest humans in the region were most likely small family and extended-family units that set up temporary camps along the Truckee River and south near sloughs located below Steamboat Hills.

In their book, The River and the Railroad, archaeologist/historians Mary Ringhoff and Edward J. Stoner acknowledge that while no one is certain of the identity of the original settlers in the Truckee Meadows, there is physical evidence of the presence of humans in the area more than 5,000 years ago. Additionally, stone arrowheads and other objects uncovered in Washoe Valley show human activity in the region about 12,000 years ago.

By about 1,500 years ago, members of the Washo (also spelled Washoe) people were the predominant culture living along the eastern Sierra Nevada range, including the Honey Lake and Lake Tahoe regions. The Washo established winter villages in the Truckee Meadows that are believed to have consisted of clusters of round-shaped pit houses with rock-lined hearths and sometimes with a covering of brush and branches.

The Washo wintered near the present site of the University of Nevada, Reno, as well as the present-day locations of Idlewild Park, East Sparks, Glendale, Huffaker Hills, the Mount Rose fan and where the sloughs of the Double Diamond area are now located. The Northern Paiute people (also known as the Paviotso) inhabited a much larger area, about one-third of present-day Nevada and parts of southeastern Oregon, southern Idaho, and eastern California. They resided to the north and east of the Washo, including around Pyramid Lake.

The first non–Native Americans to enter the Truckee Meadows were members of the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy wagon party, which camped along the Truckee River in the meadows in mid-October of 1844. The Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party, which consisted of ten families totaling fifty men, women, and children, had departed from Council Bluffs, Iowa, on May 22, 1844. The wagon party initially traveled with a much larger group of about forty wagons headed for Oregon.

The party elected Elisha Stephens, a mountain man who had hunted beaver in the Pacific Northwest, to serve as captain, while their guides included eighty-year-old Caleb Greenwood, an experienced trapper, scout, and mountain man, and his two sons. Others in the party included Dr. John Townsend, who traveled with his wife and brother-in-law, Moses Schallenberger; the twenty-three-member Murphy family, led by Martin Murphy Sr.; and the Miller and Hitchcock families.

At Fort Hall, Idaho, the party split from the main group that was heading to Oregon, and journeyed on a route to California that had been traveled by only two

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