Eat, Drink, and Be Historic!

This year marks the second annual historically-themed Dine the District event, put on by the great folks in Reno’s Riverwalk District. This year, we have the added benefit of our new mobile app, Reno Historical, which will allow everyone to learn more about the historic sites throughout the area as they eat, drink, and stroll around. Additionally, I’ll be leading a guided tour just before the event for a small group. The date is Saturday, August 9th, and you can buy tix in advance here. Join us!

Buy tickets in advance for the Historical Dine the District event on August 9th.

Reno Historical launch – May 9th & 10th

It’s finally here–the launch of Reno Historical, appropriately enough, on Reno’s birthday, May 9th. Friday’s event will feature assorted dignitaries, birthday cake, an appearance by Reno founder Myron Lake (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), and more. Saturday’s event will feature a variety of historically-based activities along the downtown river corridor from 2-5 p.m. We’ll continue to add material to Reno Historical in the months and years ahead, but we’re off to a great start and can’t wait for everyone to check it out!


Reno Historical

After more than a year of planning and preparation, I’m excited to announce the upcoming launch of Reno Historical, a free smart phone app and accompanying website about Reno’s history that we’ll be introducing to the public on May 9th, the date of the town’s initial land auction in 1868. We’ll be holding a fun event downtown for the launch–more on that soon.

This collaborative digital history project came out of my longstanding frustration that Reno’s history is almost completely unmarked on the landscape, even though glimpses of its rich heritage are visible everywhere. Sure, there are a few plaques scattered here and there, but in general, it is possible to walk from one end of downtown Reno to another without gaining any coherent understanding of its past.

Reno Historical will be available as a website and free smart phone app.

As a result, residents and visitors alike often find themselves guessing. Even while waxing positive about the city’s urban and natural assets, a writer for National Geographic recently referred to Reno as a “historic gold-mining town,” while a New York Times reporter attested that Reno was “never as cosmopolitan as its ‘Biggest Little City’ motto suggests.”

It’s hard to blame them for getting it wrong. Reno has in many respects erased its own history. That happened literally from the 1970s through the 1990s with the construction of multiple massive casinos, which, along with their accompanying hotels and parking garages, took out entire blocks of the city’s architectural and commercial heritage—as suddenly and as irreversibly as any urban renewal project could have done. But equally contributing has been a tendency to focus on the future without recognizing the incredible asset that our city’s unique heritage can be.

Despite substantial changes, especially to its downtown core, Reno retains an incredible amount of historical integrity. When I lead occasional downtown walking tours, I always encourage my audience to stop and look up. The city is filled with early twentieth- and even late nineteenth-century buildings featuring gorgeous ornamental details, often hovering just above and behind their modern facades. Each building contains multiple stories that can enrich our appreciation of this place, deepening its meaning and strengthening our connection to it. Reminders of places that no longer exist can also connect us to our shared past.

The gorgeous building on the northeast corner of 2nd and Virginia was once the Reno National Bank. Currently part of Harrah’s, the building houses an Ichiban restaurant. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, UNR Libraries.


More than a year ago, I gathered together representatives from all corners of Reno’s historical community to discuss pooling our resources to launch a digital platform that could present accurate and engaging stories about Reno’s past to the public. Headed by Donnie Curtis, the Special Collections department at the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries offered to serve as the administrative hub. Startup funding was secured from the Historic Reno Preservation Society and grants from Nevada Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The Nevada Historical Society, the City of Reno’s Historical Resources Commission, UNR Special Collections and numerous private collectors have graciously donated the use of materials, and the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County and the University of Nevada, Reno have funded the production of substantial historical content. Writers have included professional historians, community members, and students, for a truly collaborative project.

We chose Curatescape, a digital, map-based platform with a simple layout, flexibility to function as both an app and a website (to reach the broadest number of people), and the ability to offer text, photos, audio, and video clips to present a wide range of stories about the city. We’ll launch with a good number of stories and then continue to add to it, expanding its offerings as we go.

Reno Historical will be equally useful to people who are walking around town, eager to learn more about what’s around them, and to people who may never set foot in the city but hunger for accurate information about it. It’s time to capitalize on Reno’s amazing past as we continue to revitalize and celebrate our beautiful city!

Stay tuned for more information about the launch and follow us on Twitter at @renohistorical.

Writing about food

I recently started writing the Edible Traditions column for edible Reno-Tahoe magazine, a wonderful publication that celebrates local food & food-related traditions. My last regular magazine gig was several years ago, when I initiated a column on local history for RENO magazine (some examples can be found on my writing page) under the direction of then-editor Amanda Burden, who went on to establish edible Reno-Tahoe in 2010. I’ve always loved researching and presenting tasty historical morsels that can help people engage with our community and its colorful past, and coincidentally, I also love food, so voila! A match made in culinary historical heaven.

A group of men and boys in a stand of mountain mahogany, 1920s. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, UNR Libraries.

For Edible Traditions, I’m hoping to share stories that not only illuminate the past, but provide us with food for thought (see what I did there?) about how to deepen our connections to those traditions today.

When brainstorming for the current issue, which focuses on meat, I found dozens and dozens of articles and ads for local steakhouses from the 1940s through 1960s, that heady dinner-and-a-show era of martini madness. And one dish kept appearing in those ads–the mahogany-broiled steak. You can read the full column here, but suffice it to say that researching the background of this delectable dish sent me following a trail of crumbs that included oral histories, such as that of Dick Graves, founder of the Sparks Nugget (among other local establishments), historical newspapers, city directories, and photo archives, such as the treasure trove found in the Special Collections department of the UNR Libraries.

A 1956 ad for the Supper Club, on Moana Lane.

The popularity of this local specialty may have dimmed, but its use of unique local ingredients is echoed in today’s growing preferences for locally-sourced food and farm-to-table preparations. Will mahogany-broiled steak return to fashion? I’ll leave that to the gastronomical visionaries and trendsetters among us. But I’m thrilled to participate in the conversation and illuminate what I can about our shared culinary heritage.

The 4th Street/Prater Way History Project

Few roads in northern Nevada provide a glimpse into the past quite like the stretch running from Reno’s 4th Street through Prater Way in Sparks. With buildings constructed over the course of a century or more, this single thoroughfare delivers an astounding cross-section of the region’s industrial, commercial, and residential history.

For years, much of it served as the Lincoln Highway, the famed transcontinental route that celebrates its centennial this year. In the decades to follow, designated as U.S. 40, its hotels and auto camps gave way to family-friendly motels, many of which still bear their original neon signs.

Martin Iron Works was founded by Martin Schwamb in 1939 on Morrill Street, just south of E. 4th Street in Reno. It moved to its current location at 530 E. 4th in 1949.

The corridor has been central to community life, too. Iron works, breweries, lumber yards, and machine shops have long stood alongside family markets, small businesses, and restaurants, many operated by the same families for generations.

It is this rich heritage that prompted the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County (RTC) in 2011 to initiate an innovative project, as part of a larger transportation study, to research the history of the corridor and collaborate with the community to tell its story. Beginning with an oral history project (which I directed) and an architectural survey conducted in partnership with the University of Nevada, Reno, the 4th Street/Prater Way History Project now engages a wide array of community partners, from the Sparks Museum & Cultural Center to the Historic Reno Preservation Society and the Nevada chapter of the Lincoln Highway Association.

Harolds Club’s 88-room Pony Express Lodge opened on Prater Way in Sparks in 1952. The structure still stands, as does its giant neon sign.

By the summer of 2014, this collaborative project will result in four major products: a multimedia online feature housed on the Nevada Humanities Online Nevada Encyclopedia; content for historical mobile apps for both Reno and Sparks; permanent exhibits installed in the RTC 4TH STREET STATION in downtown Reno and RTC CENTENNIAL PLAZA in Sparks; and designs for eight new historically-themed bus shelters to be located along the corridor.

I’m thrilled to serve as the historical consultant for this project, and I want to encourage everyone to help us tell the story of this important thoroughfare by sharing their photographs, postcards, stories, and suggestions for additional research and interview subjects. To learn more, you can visit our project’s Facebook page at or contact me directly through this site’s Contact page. I’ll post updates about the project as it continues.

Reading the Streets

One of the best ways to deepen your understanding of where you live is to learn the stories behind the names of prominent streets in your community. Drivers whizzing along U.S. Highway 395/580 through Reno, for instance, may not realize how much of the city’s history is written on those green and white exit signs.

Just south of Interstate 80,Glendale Avenue takes its name from an early settlement located where East McCarran Boulevard meets the Truckee River. Originally a simple ferry crossing, the community later took on the name of the Glen Dale house, a hotel that opened there in 1866.

Mill Street follows the route of a small country lane that led to the Eastman mill, a saw mill constructed in 1861 near the current site of the Grand Sierra Resort.

Plumb Lane, Kietzke Lane, and the Damonte Ranch Parkway all were named for early immigrant ranching families. The Plumbs, originally from England, owned land near the current intersection of Plumb Lane and Hunter Lake Drive. The Kietzkes hailed from Germany, while Louis Damonte, a native of Italy, established his family ranch further south on Old Virginia Road. Virginia Street, of course, indicates the route to Virginia City.

Moana Springs has been a popular recreational destination for more than a century, in its various forms.

Moana Lane takes its name from Moana Springs, a resort that opened three miles south of Reno in 1905 and was itself named after a famous Hawaiian spa (“Moana” means “ocean” in Hawaiian). Residents flocked to the hot spring-fed pool, bath house, hotel, baseball diamond, man-made lake, and clubhouse. The buildings were demolished by the city in 1956 in order to construct a modern recreational facility.

Until 2004, the Neil Road exit was known as Del Monte Lane, named for the Rancho Del Monte, a dude ranch catering to the divorce trade. Its historic ranch house burned down in 1947, killing a divorcee who refused to evacuate naked.

So the next time you’re stuck in traffic, don’t despair; entertain your friends with a little highway history trivia.

The Scramble

I’m loving this 1953 cartoon from the Nevada State Journal introducing the new “scramble” system at the corner of 2nd & Virginia Street in Reno. The intersection was deemed Reno’s busiest at the time, and the artist has so clearly captured the vibrant pedestrian life of mid-century downtown. Students, stroller-pushing mothers, businessmen, shoppers, workers, cowboys, couples, soldiers–all sharing the streets in a democratic swirl of energy. As we strive to bring vitality & walkability to our downtown spaces, let’s not neglect the lessons we can learn from traveling the streets of the past.

The Scramble, 1953

Talking Walkability at TEDx

This TEDx Reno event was held on April 26, 2013 at the Nevada Museum of Art.

I had the great pleasure back in April of participating in a TEDx event at the Nevada Museum of Art. My complete talk can be viewed here but in short, I spoke about how and why to make our cities more walkable, mostly using examples from downtown Reno, the city where I live.

Knowing that it is the constant presence of people that brings an area to life and makes others want to spend time there, I first suggested two reasons why we should focus on making particular spaces in our cities more walkable (beyond the obvious universal goal of reducing our dependence on automobiles & everything that goes along with them):

  1. They may be iconic or otherwise well-known spaces that are most closely identified with the city, and therefore, in the minds of many, come to stand for the entire city, for good or bad.
  2. They may be at a physical crossroads, located between other desirable areas, making it critical that they be made both appealing and safe, to turn disconnected “pockets of walkability” into cohesive corridors.

A Reno Arch has stood in the center of downtown Reno since the late 1920s, and the area is still the city’s most recognizable spot.

Reno’s central casino core fits both of these criteria; not only is it the home of the city’s most iconic image–the Reno arch–but it is the area most traveled by and known to tourists. Even more importantly to its residents, the casino core is directly at the center of four popular and walkable districts: the University of Nevada (to the north), Truckee River/Midtown (south),  Aces ballpark and the emerging shops/restaurants/clubs of Fourth Street (east) and thriving Riverwalk district/kayak park (west).

In the effort to make such areas more walkable, I suggested a need to consider three primary factors: variety, scale, and connection. In terms of variety, the environment needs to ensure variety in appearance, function, and people. Basically, it needs to attract a variety of people all hours of the day–shoppers, businesspeople, families with children, tourists, and residents. That’s the only way a place can feel both safe and authentic. So what to do? Encourage and support a variety of businesses, particularly development that caters to different uses at different times of day–street-level business with apartments above; live/work spaces, coffee shops, restaurants, museums, retail of all types.

Parking garages dwarf pedestrians, and those potted trees do nothing to enhance walkability.

The scale needs to be people-friendly; no one enjoys walking in a space that seems tailored for cars. Parking garages, block-long solid edifices with no individual storefronts or visual interest…these are both soul-deadening and dangerous, since they offer no opportunity to create a constant movement of people in and out of city blocks, adding a constant influx of pedestrians to the sidewalk.

Street-level retail adds visual interest to parking garages, and attracts a variety of people to a block’s various storefronts. This stretch contains a restaurant, a combination visitor center/popular retail shop, a post office, and more.

Connection means paying attention to how pedestrians use these spaces, in order to encourage greater use. Create attractive anchors that can visually draw people from one destination to the next. Make walking enjoyable. If you need parking garages, at least place commercial storefronts on street level (and why not do that in the hotel-casinos, too?); make sidewalks functional; prioritize infill projects to eliminate shadowy vacant lots and deteriorating properties that make people uncomfortable and can promote undesirable activity. It’s amazing how far people will walk if they find the experience enjoyable and safe (we’ll walk for hours through a shopping mall–the equivalent of several city blocks–and yet often balk at having to walk two blocks from a parking space to a restaurant!).

When you consider walkability your primary goal, you can see potential everywhere. Every building is full of possibility.

You may be thinking hey, that sounds great, but I’m not an urban planner, or an architect, or a business owner who might want to relocate to one of these areas–so what can I do? Easy. Go to these critical areas, park your car and walk around. See what’s already going on down there. Take a walking tour. Support the effort. Tell other people about it. Pay attention to what is being proposed in these areas, and ask yourself if it meets these criteria. Participate in the process. When walkability is the goal, you literally carry the solution with you, in your own two feet.



The Biggest Little City

I’ve seen and read a lot about Reno’s image through the years–concerns about the city’s persistent “identity crisis,” complaints about its unfair reputation, its incessant mocking by everyone from the Muppets to David Sedaris. Heck, I even wrote a book about it. We’re the city with a communal chip on its shoulder, ever crouched in a defensive stance, fists up, already flinching in expectation of the next jab.

But yesterday felt consequential, with the unveiling of a new grassroots marketing campaign, spearheaded by an alliance of creative professionals in advertising, PR &  communications, but clearly intended to embrace citizens from all fields & backgrounds in a massive outpouring of civic pride: The Biggest Little City.

Reno Arch, ca. 1940s. Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno Library.

This campaign stands out for a number of reasons: first, it embraces the city’s longstanding nickname, the Biggest Little City in the World–one of its most recognizable and enduring assets.

Second, it echoes the very origins of the nickname itself, which was not born in 1929 when a Sacramento man won a contest to come up with a slogan for the Reno arch, as is often reported. G.A. Burns’ suggestion did win the contest, but the phrase had already been introduced to the world by the town’s own business community, nearly twenty years earlier.

The summer of 1910 was huge for Reno. That July, the city hosted the heavyweight championship of the world, pitting Jack Johnson against the hopelessly outmatched returning champ, Jim Jeffries, in a bout that gained global attention, not least for its divisive racial politics. The city’s divorce industry was in full swing, and the state was enjoying what was thought to be its last season of legalized gambling, after the 1909 state legislature approved the prohibition of all gambling, effective October first, 1910.

1910 postcard, Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno Library

All eyes were on Reno, and its citizens knew it. That fall, the Reno Business Men’s Association and the Commercial Club met the attention with a booklet featuring an image of the globe and the words “Reno, The Biggest Little City on the Map.” As the local paper reported that year, people were already replacing “map” with “world,” noting, “Isn’t that something to be proud of? It is a merited title, to a certain extent, but should be earned in its entirety. It is the duty of every public spirited citizen…to make the title true.”

What made Reno so big for its modest population of approximately 11,000? The booklet outlined it all: its economy, beauty, climate, recreational opportunities, community spirit, university, and abundant energy. The Biggest Little City–not a tourist slogan chosen by an outsider, but a badge of honor, generated from within, encouraging every resident to help spread the word–to “make the title true.”  Everything old is new again. Hear hear.

Oral History Online

This week we’re launching the new website for the published collection of the University of Nevada Oral History Program (UNOHP), which I have directed since July 2009. The website can be found here, and we’re still loading transcripts and tweaking various search functions, but we’ve decided that it’s complete enough for people to begin exploring, and I couldn’t be more proud.

We have items in the collection dating back to 1965, the first year interviews were conducted after the program was founded in 1964. We’ll be adding other transcripts over the next month, for a total of more than 700 interviews on topics ranging from cattle ranching to community bike shops.  The earliest interviewees were born in the 1880s, giving us an incredible record of the entire twentieth century, and in some cases, even earlier.

I’ll be posting about selected items from the collection all week, and on this Memorial Day, it seems fitting to highlight the World War II Veterans Project, a compilation of oral history interviews with 17 Nevada veterans of World War II who bravely served throughout the world. Their words, like those of so many others in the collection, tell a story not just of Nevada, but of America. I am thrilled that they are now available for everyone to appreciate and enjoy.