Reno's History - Full of Individualism
It's hard to imagine that the first non-native caught a glimpse of Reno Tahoe only 164 years ago. Surprisingly, the group of immigrants crossing northwest Nevada did so before any explorers had visited or mapped out this country. In 1844, Capt. Elisha Stevens led fellow pioneers along the Truckee River, creating a trail that rivaled the more famous Carson and Walker River routes. Stevens is credited with naming the Truckee River, which runs through downtown Reno and historic Sparks, after the group's Native American guide. A year later, the first explorers mapped the area. Led by John C. Fremont and Kit Carson, they were sent by the government to survey the area before the United States went to war with Mexico.
Reno got its start in 1859, when Charles Fuller seized the opportunity to build a toll bridge across the Truckee River where two important trails intersected: the east-west Emigrant Trail (the Truckee River Route) and the north-south trail that was used to transport cattle and freight to the Carson Valley. In 1861, shrewd businessman Myron Lake purchased the bridge, rebuilt the trading station and added an inn and tavern. No one knew that within 20 years the site would be the center of a bustling town.
A few years later, in 1868, the race to finish the transcontinental railroad had begun. This brought the Central Pacific Railroad to the Truckee Meadows in search of reasonably-priced land. While a few area settlements offered inflated land prices to the railroad, Lake offered 80 acres north of his bridge for use as a town site. In return, he asked that Central Pacific survey the town, build a depot and deed half of the lots back to him.
Central Pacific accepted Lake's offer. Prior to the land sale, the town was named after Gen. Jesse Reno, a Civil War hero who had never been West. Six weeks later, the newly named town went on the auction block, attracting 1,500 bidders. Property sold from $550 to $1,000 for parcels of land 25 feet by 100 feet. Within one month, trains were running through Reno on their way to Sacramento six days a week and a new depot hotel had opened for business. In 1869, Reno became a vital crossing point for the railroad because it connected with the Virginia and Truckee (V&T) Railroad, which carried silver from the Comstock Lode in Virginia City.
In 1886, the University of Nevada moved to Reno from Elko. By the turn of the century, Reno was home to 4,500 people. This figure more than doubled in the next 10 years, with the population rising to 11,000.
At that time, Nevada was seen as a morally rebellious state. Gambling, a popular pastime for miners and railroad men, was legalized in 1869 only to be outlawed in 1910. When state legislators legalized gaming in the '30s, the national response was one of horror. "Cancel Nevada's statehood," demanded the Chicago Tribune, while the Los Angeles Times called Nevada a "vicious Babylon." Ultimately, the legalization of gaming in Nevada was good for the state. It took control away from illicit underworld figures and gave it to legitimate businessmen such as Raymond Smith and Bill Harrah.