History of Reno

United States > US City Index > Reno > History

Many golden Nevada moons ago, native American tribes met in the Truckee Meadows to play their games of chance. Gaming was an especially popular activity when celebrating a good hunt or a bountiful collection of the favored pine-nuts. They played for pelts, baskets, jewelry or the most precious of all - a bearskin. Even before the first pioneers set foot in the lush meadows, there was gambling on the banks of the Truckee.

For many generations the migratory members of the Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe tribes had the peaceful beauty of the meadows at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountain range to themselves. Would their idyllic existence last?

No European-American had ever set foot in the Truckee Meadows until Jedediah Smith came into the area in 1827. In his search for prized beaver along the flowing river, he was befriended by the locals and paved the way for those to follow. In 1844, John C. Fremont led a mapping expedition with the help of a Paiute chief who escorted the party through the wilderness of the Pyramid Lake region to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Two years later, in 1846, the ill-fated Donner party would rest on the banks of the cool Truckee before trying to cross the rugged mountains on their way to California. However, their disastrous journey did not discourage those who followed during the gold rush.

Soon the Truckee Meadows became the meeting point of the emigrant trail going east to west and the north-south passage. The dust swirled in the air from the wagons passing through the valley. Ruts made by the wheels still remain as testament to the long, hard journey. During this time, an entrepreneurial gentleman named Charles Fuller decided he could make money by building a toll bridge across the Truckee to accommodate the travelers going west. In a log shelter close to the crossing, weary travelers and prospectors could rest and compare travel tales. Card games where a favorite way to entertain themselves; gold was the favorite pot to win. Gambling flourishes once again on the banks of the river.

In 1861, after having to rebuild the bridge several times because of floods, Fuller sold his business to Myron Lake, whose vision for the future was the start of a thriving community. His dream of connecting east with west by railroad would become reality. In March of 1868, the first train rolled into Lake's Crossing. Teamed with a gentleman by the name of Charles Crocker, Lake was able to exact a promise from the Central Pacific Railroad to build a depot on his property. Land in the community was divided into lots and auctioned to builders. Civilization grows on the Truckee.

During this time, the rich Comstock Lode of silver was discovered and did much to help finance the Union's side in the Civil War. After much bickering about what to name the new community, the town leaders decided to name it after Civil War hero, General Jesse Lee Reno.

With more pioneers deciding to remain in the beautiful, thriving area, and spurred by the newfound wealth from gold and silver, gambling and other vices became the 'hot button' issues of the day. Strict laws were passed to prevent contamination of innocents who might be drawn into sinful ways. In 1908 the Reno Anti-Gambling League was formed and they succeeded in their mission to outlaw the activity two years later. It was not long until laws eased to allow very restricted, 'civilized' games. This was not good enough for the criminal element that invaded the area in the 1920s.

Furtive, high-stakes gambling never stopped even with the ban on wagering. It was not long until the likes of Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd found the hidden gambling clubs to be useful in money laundering. Prostitution and bootleg liquor became big business under the guidance of these criminal masterminds.

With the decline of the gold and silver boom and the start of the Great Depression, a campaign was started by Mayor E. E. Roberts to ease the laws against alcohol, gambling and divorce. He rationalized that previous prohibitions did not work and revenues could be gained from licensing and taxing these establishments. A law legalizing gambling was signed in 1931. Games of chance had again returned to the banks of the Truckee.

Putting an end to matrimonial woes became big business in Reno during the 1930s. With only a six-week waiting period finally established, thousands of couples received a 'quickie' divorce. The rich and famous had found the ideal place to gain their freedom. Elegant hotels and dude ranches sprang from the green meadows to accommodate the influx of those casting off the shackles of marriage. Soon the Truckee River was flowing with diamond rings thrown in by happy divorcees.

During World War II, weddings became the business of choice. Judges and clergy worked overtime to wed throngs of couples hoping for wedded bliss. In 1945 alone, more than eighteen thousand couples tied the knot. The first commercial wedding chapel was established in 1956 next to the Washoe County Courthouse. 'In and Out' marriages became big business along the Truckee.

Bill Harrah and Harold Smith were among the first to realize the amazing potential in gaming establishments. Reno had the wealthy visitors and they might as well spend their money in the casinos. Starting modestly, the two soon built their individual establishments into the most popular places in town. Slot machines, crap tables and twenty-one games soon relieved many visitors of their money. The little town would soon be changed forever. Had 'Sin City' come to the banks of the Truckee?

Ever since the Nevada Territory became the 36th state in 1864, controversy surrounded the sinful activities perpetrated by the owners of 'dens of iniquity' on naïve visitors. As late as 1931, a campaign to cancel Nevada's statehood was launched by several newspapers including The Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. However, this action would not prevail, and Nevada would go on its merry way. Mark Twain and Will Rogers were famous advocates for the business enterprises in Nevada.

To this day, Reno has growing pains. Hotel/casinos have been erected outside the 'red-line' district of downtown. And downtown is restoring itself in new ways reflecting the diversity of the city. Unfortunately, many of the famous old landmarks have met their fate via wrecking ball and implosion. The Reno Arch still proclaims the town as 'The Biggest Little City In The World' and will probably remain forever. And rightfully so! The town has become a center for cultural attractions and recreation. Special events bring in as many visitors as the casinos. Gaming is here to stay, but Reno has so much more to offer. Respectability has come to the banks of the Truckee.