In 1857, Charles Gates and John Stone attempted to build a bridge across the river, but spring floods, fed by snowmelt in the mountains, washed it away. In 1860, Charles Fuller built a bridge and a log shelter for travelers upstream from Stone and Gates, and the place became known as Fuller's Crossing. Around the same time, a gold discovery in the hills twenty miles south changed the direction of the gold rush of ten years earlier to what became known as the "Rush to Washoe." Movement in and around the region increased, suggesting the potential for increased demand on the Truckee River crossing.
In 1861, Myron C. Lake purchased Fuller's toll bridge. Lake continued to operate the hotel, which he renamed the Lake House, and developed other businesses to enhance his operation. With profits from his enterprise, Lake purchased additional land surrounding his bridge. Until the arrival of the railroad, the place was called Lake's Crossing.
Reno began as the preferred crossing point of the Truckee River for travelers on their way to the California gold rush of the late 1840's and 50's. With the discovery of the Comstock Lode in the nearby Virginia City foothills in 1859, the river crossing became increasingly important for the growing trade in mining and agriculture. Reno was officially established in 1868, the same year that the transcontinental railroad, which paralleled the Truckee River, reached the town.
In 1874, the University of Nevada was founded as a land-grant university, and in 1885, the primary campus was built on a rise of land overlooking Reno from the north. From its inception, the university was an integral component of the young town's identity and contributed to Reno's reputation as a cultural center. This was reflected in Reno's nickname, "Biggest Little City in the World," which arose as a result of the wide range of cosmopolitan amenities in a city of its relatively small size.
Reno became a quickie divorce destination in the early 1900's, and in 1931, Nevada legalized gambling. Reno was a front runner in creating the model of destination hotel/casino gaming - a model which has been replicated throughout the world.
Virginia Street, the primary north/south arterial through downtown, developed into a commercial center of moderately-scaled, locally-owned destination hotel/casinos and retail stores. The transcontinental Lincoln Highway (now 4th street), passed through the heart of downtown and many motor lodges sprang up on either side of the Virginia Street core to support booming post-war automobile tourism. For most of the 20th century, tourism and the gaming and entertainment industries formed the backbone of Reno's economy.
Interior of Harolds Club, circa 1940. A few years after this photo was taken, the popularity of Harolds Club began to grow with the influx of servicemen stationed at the Reno Army Air Base in nearby Stead, Nevada.
The Central Pacific Railroad, which began construction in Sacramento in January 1863, reached Reno in May 1868. Its route through the Truckee Meadows followed the river. The location of the depot and a townsite in the Meadows was particularly important, as it was to be the last major stop before westward trains made their way over the steep and rugged Sierra Nevada. Myron Lake sold the railroad 160 acres for a depot and town-and Reno was born, establishing the theme of transportation that would dominate its development for many years.
The products of the area's agriculture, particularly cattle and alfalfa hay, made constant demands on Reno's rail services, creating an immediate economic mainstay for the town. While Nevada mining entered an economic depression for the last two decades of the nineteenth century, Reno grew into the state's largest town.
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, Reno was the state's financial and industrial center, a bustling small metropolis with fashionable Victorian homes and consequential commercial and municipal buildings. However, it was still a dusty, raucous railroad town with commerce and characters befitting the Wild West. These opposing forces would continue to color Reno's image.
With the coming of the twentieth century the spirit of the town, with a population of about 4,000, began to change. In 1903, Reno incorporated. In new construction, builders and architects concentrated on permanence and style, while culturally the town demonstrated its growing refinement through the Carnegie Library and the founding of the Nevada Historical Society in 1904. The town burst on the national scene in 1905 with the much-publicized divorce of U. S. Steel Corporation president William Corey. Once the country discovered the potential for the migratory divorce trade in Nevada, Reno became the divorce mecca of the world, a title it held for sixty years.
During this early period, Reno garnered the label, "Nevada's Sin City." Activities such as prostitution, gambling, prize fighting, quick marriages, and easy divorces brought to Reno a colorful array of people from all walks of life.
When, in 1931, the Nevada legislature lowered the divorce residency period to six weeks and passed the Wide Open Gambling Law, Reno, then boasting a population of 18,500, was immediately thrust into the American consciousness as a destination where one could do things unthinkable at home. The rich and famous and average citizens came to buy what Reno was selling.
Learning that it could profit from sin was a significant revelation for Nevada, since from the post-World War II years on, it has staked its economic livelihood on casino gaming and tourism, which developed and flourished on the heels of the divorce trade. Legal gambling, now a national institution, began in Reno as privately held-often mob-owned-gambling halls, but in the 1960s, Reno gambling started going corporate, and the gambling halls changed into large hotel-casinos.
Reno's Namesake, Union General Jesse Lee Reno, died in 1862 during a South Mountain, Maryland battle. This statue of General Reno was erected on Memorial Day 2006 in Powning Park, near the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts.
Reno has always been a town of contrasts: cosmopolitan on the edge of the desert; the academy uphill from the gambling district. For decades, Reno was Nevada's economic, political, and population center until Las Vegas assumed that role in the 1960s. Despite the shift in the state's power base from north to south, during the latter half of the twentieth century Reno experienced phenomenal growth.
With a 1960 population of 51,470, Reno created a more diversified economy that included increased manufacturing, tax-exempt warehousing, a broadened tourism market, and the attraction of retirees from California.