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the northern nevada heritage corridor driving guide


Passion In their earlier days, many western citizens learned they could live well off the mining industry. Sadly, they also learned they could die hard from it. After a cycle of boom and bust, many a bustling burg became ghost towns a few short years later. Northern Nevada, however, discovered other industries to carry IT through the down times—industries that forged the area’s early character and still carry traces of that past into the present day. Not always socially acceptable, but certainly lucrative, they were simple industries to develop. All the state had to do was legislate activities that were illegal everywhere else. So with a wave of a pen and the glow of neon, the legislature adopted what became known as “sin solutions.”

n in the desert In the late 1840s and 1850s, travelers following their dreams to the California gold fields would linger a few days in the meadows along the Truckee River, feeding their livestock on native grasses before crossing the formidable Sierra Nevada. Suddenly, everything changed in 1859, with a gold strike in an isolated canyon near what would soon become Virginia City. The California Gold Rush became the rush to Nevada’s Washoe region. The Comstock Lode turned out to be one of the richest mineral strikes ever recorded when the sticky blue mud that had been in everyone’s way turned out to be silver. This event helped set the stage for Nevada’s astonishing legacy. Overnight, thousands of dreamers flocked to the area, and boomtowns like Virginia City, Gold Hill and Silver City sprang up. Growth spread to outlying towns, including Dayton, Carson City, (which became our state capital), Gardnerville and Reno, soon to be a transportation hub for people and goods going in and out of the Comstock. Reno officially came into being on May 9, 1868, on the site where the Central Pacific Railroad built a depot on land deeded to it by innkeeper and entrepreneur Myron Lake. As was the fashion for railroad stops then, it took its name from a Union Civil War hero, General Jesse Reno, who died in 1862 at the battle of South Mountain.

However, Reno took its reputation from something altogether different.

A series of gold and silver booms that put Nevada on the map eventually declined and with the start of the Great Depression, Reno Mayor, E.E. Roberts, positioned Reno as a “wideopen town,” working to ease laws against alcohol, gambling and divorce. Rationalizing that previous prohibitions did not work and that revenues could be gained from licensing and taxing these types of establishments, a law legalizing gambling was signed in 1931. It’s no surprise that prostitution also flourished in the mining days. A rarity among states— then and now—Nevada not only condoned prostitution, the state constitution assigned control to local jurisdictions. Reno itself boasted several legal brothels until 1942, when the Army prevailed upon city fathers to ban the practice. While the wedding industry was always important to Reno, it was the act of dividing couples that really put Reno on the map. Starting with a British earl, divorce became king. In 1900, the Second Earl Russell, a member of the House of Lords, came to Genoa to take advantage of the state’s generous six-month residency requirement and divorced Lady Russell. Sensing opportunity, the state legislature shortened the residency period to three months in 1927. In 1931, with the Great Depression hanging over the nation’s head, legislators shortened it again, to six weeks, and the floodgates opened. Between 1929 and 1939, more than 30,000 divorces were granted at the Washoe County Courthouse alone. An estimated $5 million annually was brought to Nevada by the divorce trade. Reno had become the divorce capital, echoed in movies like A Reno Divorce (1924), The Women (1939), and The Misfits (1962). Some of the famous last names on divorce decrees of that time included Pickford, Vanderbilt, Dempsey, Hayworth and Rockefeller.


Thousands of short-term residents idling around Reno, Carson City, and Washoe Valley for six-week stretches presented additional revenue opportunities. Still seeking ways to survive the Depression and realizing gambling would flourish with or without its approval, the Nevada legislature legalized it in 1931. Reno gaming halls opened to both men and women, thus developing casino gaming as we know it today. Of course, many divorce seekers had one thing in mind when their divorces became final – getting married again. By offering marriages without blood tests or waiting periods, northern Nevada found another industry: issuing marriage licenses would keep the county clerk’s office open 24-hours a day. Often, a judge would grant a divorce and then perform a wedding for the plaintiff.

The lack of a waiting period appealed to couples in other states. They began flocking to Reno and surrounding areas for their nuptials, giving rise to the first modern wedding chapel, built in Reno in the 1950s – just a convenient walk across the street from the courthouse. Widely known as a place to go for activities not tolerated in other states, Reno also hosted notable boxing events. In 1931, famous Heavyweight Champion Max Baer lost to Basque Heavyweight Champion Paulino Uzcudun in a legendary 20-rounder. Development was fueled further by the post World War II boom in automobile tourism, when the Lincoln Highway, now Highway 50, came into greater use. The idea of the Lincoln Highway sprang from the fertile minds of modern industrialists, who envisioned a

road that would stretch almost 3,400 miles from coast to coast, New York to San Francisco, over the shortest practical route. No look at the gaming and leisure industry in the area would be complete without mentioning the celebrities who played the showrooms in Reno and Lake Tahoe. From the late 1940s until the late 1960s, the biggest names in entertainment stopped here: Louis Prima, Jack Benny, all the Big Bands, Marilyn Monroe, and of course, The Rat Pack. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop not only performed in the area, but it became one of their favored hangouts. In fact, Sinatra owned the Cal Neva Lodge in Lake Tahoe for a few years in the early 60s.

By the end of the 60s, things were changing. The rise of the no-fault divorce in several states made it unnecessary to come to Nevada for one. Popular tastes in entertainment changed and the lights that shone so brightly only a few years earlier began to dim. But the era when Reno was a wide open town where, “…people can come to Nevada and do whatever they want to,” in the words of Mayor E.E. Roberts, is still alive in the sights and stops along this tour.


Passion how reno


Tahoe, Carson city, virginia city & washoe valley

For information on the following tours, see following pages.

Washoe County Courthouse, Riverside Hotel, Virginia Street Bridge @ S. Virginia St. at the Truckee River, Reno


Mapes Hotel Site @ 10 N. Virginia St., Reno Harolds Club Site @ 234 N. Virginia St., Reno


Nevada State Capitol and Nevada State Museum @ Carson City


Cal Neva Resort and the Crystal Bay Club @ Hwy 28, Crystal Bay


Thunderbird Lodge @ 5000 Hwy 28, Incline Village *IMPORTANT: not accessable via car. Visit online at


Nevada Gambling Museum @ 50 S. C St., Virginia City


Nevada Historical Society @ 1650 N. Virginia St., Reno


Fleischmann Planetarium @ University of Nevada, Reno campus


Pioneer Theater @ 100 S. Virginia St., Reno


Reno Arch @ Lake St., Reno


Southern Pacific Depot/Amtrak Station @ 135 E. Commercial Row, Reno


El Cortez Hotel @ 239 W. Second St., Reno


Chapel of the Bells @ 700 W. Fourth St., Reno


The Cribs @ Second St. and Wells Ave., Reno


Washoe Pines Divorce Ranch @ Franktown Rd., Washoe Valley




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survived the great depression downtown reno 9


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STOP 1 Washoe County Courthouse, Riverside

Hotel, Virginia Street Bridge S. Virginia St. at the Truckee River, Reno The Washoe County Courthouse is the third courthouse for Washoe County (one of the original nine counties in the Nevada territory established in 1861). Designed by Nevada State Architect, Frederic DeLongchamps, the courthouse was completed in 1911. Its busiest days came during the 1930s, when nearly 33,000 divorces were granted inside. Divorce had become Reno’s primary industry, symbolized by Alfred Eisenstadt’s famous photograph of a young woman kissing

a courthouse pillar, which appeared on the cover of the June 21, 1937 edition of Life. The Riverside Hotel took full advantage of the booming divorce business, opening in 1927—the same year the residency requirement went from six to three months. DeLongchamps designed the hotel for George Wingfield, a legendary Nevada power broker. The Riverside was known as one of the town’s swankiest hotels and had an excellent reputation among divorce seekers. Reno scenes in Clare Boothe Luce’s play The Women are set at the Riverside, and it was featured in many other novels and movies about the Reno divorce trade.

Left to Right: Life magazine cover 1937; Virginia Street Bridge; Court House and Riverside Hotel

Built in 1905, the Virginia Street Bridge was designed by John B. Leonard of San Francisco, a pioneer in reinforced concrete. The bridge is not only the site of C.W. Fuller’s first crossing of the Truckee River, but also the site of a famous bit of local lore. Legend has it that after receiving their final decree from the judge, the newly divorced would kiss the courthouse columns, sweep past the Riverside Hotel to the Virginia Street Bridge, also known as “wedding ring bridge” and “the bridge of sighs.” There, they would toss their wedding rings over the side into the Truckee’s cold waters.


Mapes Hotel Site & Harolds Club Site (Mapes) 10 N. Virginia St., Reno; (Harolds Club) 234 N. Virginia St., Reno The first combined hotel and casino in Nevada, the Mapes was built on this spot in 1947. Its success made it a prototype for modern hotel/casinos, and the Mape’s renowned Sky Room drew some of the biggest names of its day, like Sammy Davis, Jr. and Marilyn Monroe. Today, a bustling, open-air plaza occupies the site. Only a few blocks north is where the granddaddy of Reno’s gaming history once stood. Harolds Club, of the famous “Harolds Club or Bust” advertising campaign, broke new ground with billboards along America’s busiest highways. In its time, the campaign rivaled the Burma Shave campaign for exposure. A well-known mural of a pioneer scene was added to the club in 1949, reflecting America’s pioneering spirit. The mural was saved, and this depiction of Nevada’s rich history is on display at the Livestock Events Center, 1350 N. Wells Ave. on the south side of the main arena building.


Left to Right: The Mapes Hotel (top); Harolds Club (bottom); Nevada State Capitol; Cal Neva Resort


Nevada State Capitol & Nevada State Museum Carson City This 1870 building of native sandstone is part of a beautiful campus that includes the Legislative Building, Supreme Court, and State Library and Archives. Inside the capitol, where lawmakers legalized much of what made Nevada famous, is a portrait gallery featuring every Nevada Governor from the 1860s to the present, as well as a life-size bronze statue of Nevada Native American activist and teacher Sarah Winnemucca. The statue is an exact copy of the tribute to her that stands in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. One of the most striking features of the capitol building is its 120 foot, silver-painted cupola, a fitting monument to the incredible mining legacy of the Silver State.


Cal Neva & The Crystal Bay Club Highway 28, Crystal Bay The Cal Neva was built in 1926 by wealthy San Francisco businessman Robert P. Sherman. He patterned the lodge after a log cabin in the hit Broadway play Lightnin’, about the Reno divorce trade set at a hotel in Tahoe that straddled the California-Nevada state line. Originally a guesthouse for Sherman’s friends and associates, it soon became a playground for celebrities and socialites avoiding the public eye. In 1928, it was bought by Norman Blitz, known as “The Duke of Nevada.” After burning to the ground in 1937, it was quickly rebuilt, and during the 1940s and 1950s it endured a succession of owners. From 1960 to 1963 Frank Sinatra was one of them, and it

became a hangout for The Rat Pack. Sinatra’s gaming license was later rescinded when gaming authorities spied well-known Chicago mobster, Sam Giancana, in the lodge. Today, the Cal Neva offers tours of Sinatra’s secret tunnel installed from his private chalet to the main building, where celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Sammy Davis Jr. and the Kennedys enjoyed discreet passage. Tours highlighting the tunnel and stories of the Cal Neva’s famous guests are available Friday–Sunday. Call 775.832.4000 for tour information. The Crystal Bay Club was built in 1937 and was known as the Ta-Neva-Ho. With a small gaming operation and several retail businesses, it was designed for the developing community on Tahoe’s north shore. During

the rest of the Depression and through World War II, the property prospered. The casino has kept pace with the times, and today is one of north shore’s hottest music venues.


Thunderbird Lodge 5000 Highway 28, Incline Village is one of the best examples of grand estates on Lake Tahoe. During the 1930s, Nevada began a program to attract the wealthy and tax-burdened. This “One Sound State” program, as it was called, promised no income or inheritance taxes. As a result, Lake Tahoe, Carson Valley and Reno saw lavish mansions built during those years. A number of prominent San Franciscans built homes on Lake Tahoe, among them real estate tycoon George Whittell, who commissioned Frederic DeLongchamps to build the spectacular Thunderbird Lodge. The home showcases local building materials as well as Nevada craftsmanship. Natural stone, wooden roofs, and exposed trusses in the main house and outbuildings highlight a style designed to blend with the natural environment. The eccentric Whittell had a 600-foot tunnel connecting the main house with the boathouse, as well as passages to the card house and several rooms in the main house. Among the sights available for viewing is his custom, 55foot, triple planked, mahogany speedboat, the Thunderbird. With a hull and cockpit resembling the fuselage of his personal DC-2 aircraft, the boat would cost $3.3 million in today’s dollars. Whittell left most of his fortune to animal organizations and the 18,000 acre estate was purchased by Jack Dreyfus of Dreyfus

oh what a town

Investments. Del Webb Corporation, of south shore’s Sahara Tahoe fame, acquired the property, which later went to the U.S. Forest Service. The Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society now manages the estate, which can be rented for the ultimate special occasion. Visitors desiring tours of the property can reach the site exclusively via shuttle bus or by tour boat. Go to for more information or call 800.GO.TAHOE. Tickets can also be purchased online at


Nevada Gambling Museum 50 S. C St., Virginia City See more than $500,000 worth of gaming memorabilia featuring over 100 antique slot machines, cheating devices and gambler’s weapons. 775.847.9022

Thunderbird Lodge

Top to Bottom: The Bank Club; Fleischmann Planetarium; Downtown Reno at night; Right (next page): Pioneer Theater


Nevada Historical Society 1650 N. Virginia St., Reno Established in 1904, this is Nevada’s oldest museum. The Shepperson Gallery features the periods and themes of Nevada history. Visit the “Neon Nights” exhibit, which focuses on Nevada’s sin industries. As part of its efforts, the Society also maintains a unique research library, which is open to the public from noon–4pm, Tuesday–Saturday. 775.688.1190

STOP 8 & 9

Fleischmann Planetarium (8) University of Nevada, Reno campus The world’s first facility to offer views of the heavens along with other atmospheric phenomena, the Fleischmann Planetarium sits at the edge of the University of Nevada, Reno campus. Designed by Reno architect Raymond Hellmann and built in 1963, it is an excellent example of modern

architecture, characterized by space-age designs depicting motion such as boomerangs, flying saucers, atoms and parabola. Another example of modern architecture can be seen at the Pioneer Theater (9) 100 S. Virginia St., Reno The theatre opened in 1968 and was designed to look like a bird swooping to the ground with its wings spread. The 140-foot diameter, goldanodized geodesic dome pays homage to Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. Today, known as the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts, it is a focal point of Reno’s Truckee River Arts District and an important epicenter for Reno’s cultural expansion in the last 40 years. Both buildings provided a diverse and modern feel to Reno’s conservative architectural style.


Reno Arch Lake Street, Reno The first arch in Reno was built in 1899 to welcome soldiers back from the Spanish-American War. It was replaced in 1929 by one lit by individual light bulbs and bearing the city’s slogan, “The Biggest Little City in the World,” a phrase that dates back to 1910. The arch standing today, sporting modern and glitzy neon, was installed in 1935. It was removed and placed in storage in 1964, pushed aside for one with a more modern design located on Virginia Street. However, a film company working in Reno wanted to use the old sign in its production. The city agreed under the condition that the film company would restore the sign and keep it maintained.

Ronald Reagan, far left, joins hat-tipping famous Hollywood heroes Errol Flynn and Hopalong Cassidy in downtown Reno


all aboard to reno! From Left to Right: Southern Pacific Depot; El Cortez Hotel; Chapel of the Bells (top); The Cribs (bottom). Next Page: The Dog House.

STOP 11 Southern Pacific Depot / Amtrak Station 135 E. Commercial Row, Reno This is the third train station on this site. The first was built in 1869 for the Central Pacific Railroad but was lost in the Great Reno Fire of 1879. A second building opened in 1889, but it too, burned. A smaller structure was used until Southern Pacific took over Central Pacific and built the present station in 1925. This was the stopping point for divorce seekers from the east during Reno’s divorce heyday, and along with the Lincoln Highway, one of the main routes into the city.


El Cortez Hotel 239 W. Second St., Reno This Art Deco structure, designed by the firm of George Ferris and Son, was Reno’s

tallest building when it opened in 1931. It was built to accommodate anticipated divorce traffic when Reno’s divorce law was liberalized again in 1931. Business was so robust that the owner constructed an addition only one year later.


Chapel of the Bells 700 W. Fourth St., Reno In the mid-1950s, the first wedding chapel opened across from the Washoe County Courthouse. It was not long before others appeared on Reno’s landscape. The Chapel of the Bells has been in business since the 1960s.


The Cribs Second St. and Wells Ave., Reno Among the trees along the Truckee River sit the abandoned remains of a brothel.

Several brothels operated in Reno until 1942, when under pressure from the Army, the city outlawed them. Brothels are still legal in 12 of Nevada’s 17 counties.


Washoe Pines Divorce Ranch Franktown Rd., Washoe Valley Though it began as a working ranch, where cowboy artist Will James lived and worked, Washoe Pines was converted to a divorce ranch in the 1930s. Over the years, a number of rich and famous guests served their six-week residency terms there. The ranch was the inspiration for scenes in the movie version of The Women. Though on private property and not available for visits, a site so important to this era in Nevada’s history is worth a drive past.


The Dog House was an entertainment complex, dance hall, casino and restaurant named in honor of a wire-haired terrier named Poochy. During the late 30s and early 40s it became one of Reno’s most popular clubs, whose slogan, “The Divorcee’s Haven,” attracted multitudes. Claiming to be the largest cabaret in Nevada, the club provided 24-hour entertainment, including torch, hula, tap and jazz dancers, oriental fan dancers, striptease, vocalists and magicians. The building was razed in 1994 and the site is now part of Club Cal Neva’s parking garage.


Profile for Reno Tahoe

Passion in the Desert | Reno-Tahoe  

Passion in the Desert | Reno-Tahoe

Passion in the Desert | Reno-Tahoe  

Passion in the Desert | Reno-Tahoe