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Looking across Truckee Meadows, toward the Sierra Nevada Mountains
, c. 1868
Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada-Reno Library

When the first white men passed through the Reno area in the 1840s, Washoe and Paiute peoples inhabited the land along the Truckee River. In the late 1840s and 1850s, thousands of travelers on their way to the California gold fields lingered a few days in the Truckee Meadows before crossing the Sierra Nevada. The first permanent white settlement along the Truckee River was Jamison's Station. Jamison reportedly was among the contingent sent in 1855 by Territorial Governor Brigham Young to establish agricultural settlements in what was then the western part of Utah Territory.

The discovery of the Comstock Lode in 1859 brought a reverse migration from California in the "Rush to Washoe." A gold strike in an isolated canyon soon became one of the richest silver strikes ever discovered. Boomtowns like Virginia City, Gold Hill, Silver City and Dayton sprang up overnight. The growth of the Comstock resulted in the development of towns in the outlying area, including Carson City, the Nevada state capital, and Reno, which had become an important agricultural center and transportation hub for people and goods, to and from the Comstock.

[photo] The Riverside Hotel now sits on the spot where Reno began in 1859, the site of a small shop operated by C. W. Fuller
Courtesy of Nevada State Historic Preservation Office

In 1859, C. W. Fuller built a bridge across the Truckee River, but annual flooding repeatedly swept it away. Myron Lake purchased Fuller's crossing in 1860, and after building a sturdier toll bridge, he opened an inn on the south side of the river. The spot became known as Lakes Crossing. When the Central Pacific Railroad was pushing east in the late 1860s, Lake deeded 40 acres to the railroad to encourage construction of a depot there. He also sold the railroad 160 acres for a townsite, which was officially established May 13, 1868. The town of Reno quickly became an important freight and passenger center, and grew rapidly.

Although gaming now plays a key role, historically Nevada's economy was tied to mining and agriculture, and inherent in these industries is the inevitable cycle of booms and busts. Over the years, Nevada has found several creative means to support itself through the down times, and early on Reno earned the title "Sin City." It was a wild and woolly town that placed few restrictions on human behavior. Until the U.S. Army petitioned City fathers to ban prostitution in 1942, Reno tollerated several brothels. Nevada attempted to control gambling from the beginning, and although numerous laws were passed, it managed to flourish in back streets and alleys. Seeking ways to survive the Great Depression, the Nevada Legislature legalized gambling in 1931. Casino gaming, as we know it today, developed in Reno.

[photo] Washoe County Courthouse
Photo by Charles Miller, Courtesy of Nevada State Historic Preservation Office
The birth of the Reno divorce colony can be traced to its first celebrity divorce in 1906, when the wife of the President of U.S. Steel, William Corey, came to Reno to obtain a divorce from her philandering husband. The event was scandalous and widely publicized. The waiting period for a Nevada divorce was a generous six months, except for a two-year period, when the residency requirement was increased to one year. In 1927, during a period of competition among several states for the migratory divorce trade, the Nevada legislature shortened the residency period to three months. This act boosted the industry and divorce-seekers flocked to Reno. In 1931, Nevada was beginning to feel the effects of the Great Depression, and seeing an economic opportunity, the Nevada legislature revised its divorce law once again. This time, it shortened the residency requirement to six weeks, thereby opening the divorce floodgates. During the 10 years between 1929 and 1939, more than 30,000 divorces were granted at the Washoe County Courthouse, and Reno was known as the divorce capital of the world.

From the beginning, transportation has been an important theme in the history of Reno and the Truckee Meadows. The emigrant trails, stage roads, the Pony Express and the railroad have all served to bring people and goods through the region. By the early 20th century, however, a new means of transportation was making an impact on the area's development. The Lincoln Highway came through Reno, on its way to the California state line. With the establishment of the Lincoln Highway, automobile tourism became an economic force in the region, and by the end of World War II, easy automobile access to Reno's casinos thrust gambling into the forefront of the local and state economy. Drawn by gambling, the ease of divorce and the area's beautiful natural setting, automobile tourists flocked to Reno.

[photo] Historic photocard of downtown Reno
Photo courtesy of Nevada State Historic Preservation Office

Recognizing the importance of automobile tourism to the local economy, the Reno City Council in 1928 decided the town needed a permanent slogan to go on the lighted arch constructed for the highway exposition the previous year. The arch was not Reno's first, but it would become its most famous following the motto competition, which promised $100 to the winner who submitted the slogan "Reno: Biggest Little City in the World."

Essay by Mella Rothwell Harmon, Historic Preservation Specialist, Nevada State Historic Preservation Office
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