When it comes to the founding of Nevada’s biggest cities, it truly is the merry month of May. Las Vegas celebrates its birthday on May 15—the day in 1905 that the railroad auctioned off the townsite that became downtown. And on May 9, 1868, Reno was born in similar fashion.
Of course, Native peoples had been on these lands for generations before Euro-American exploration and settlement. What became Reno had been part of the trail to California in the 1840s and 1850s. Ten families comprised the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party in 1844. They followed the Truckee River past Reno to the Truckee River Canyon. Their travels marked the beginning of the Truckee Trail. In 1845, Caleb Greenwood devised a route through Verdi that still followed the river and became the more popular way to travel.
The Comstock Lode changed everything. Charles Fuller built a toll bridge to make money off travelers to and from Virginia City and California as they crossed the Truckee. A small community grew around the bridge, including a hotel. In 1861, Fuller sold out to Myron Lake, who expanded local services and named the place Lake’s Crossing.
Lake had big plans, but so did Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Leland Stanford. They built and owned the Central Pacific Railroad, the western branch of the transcontinental line. The Big Four, as they were known, were building east from Sacramento. The Union Pacific was building west from Omaha. Ideally, the tracks would meet—and they did, at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869. But in the meantime, as they built eastward, first they had to get across the Sierra Nevada. It took a lot of time, effort, and cheap labor. But they made it. As they went across Nevada, they planned to build stations and expand their footprint and profits.
Lake saw an opportunity and made a deal. He deeded land to the Central Pacific. In return, they built a station on it—at his crossing. The Central Pacific agreed. On May 9, the railroad held a land auction, with 400 lots for sale on both sides of the tracks. The land became the heart of Reno—from West Street to East Street, with Sierra, Virginia, Center, Lake, and Peavine in between, and from Front Street along the Truckee past Fourth. Alicia Barber wrote a fine history, Reno’s Big Gamble, and provides accounts of Reno’s history on the public radio station there. She wrote that by the summer of 1868, there were about 200 storefronts and homes around the tracks—all wooden-frame.
The community also got a new name. Crocker chose to honor Jesse Reno, who had died in 1862 at the Civil War battle of South Mountain. The town named for Reno soon prospered. It became a railroad distribution point for the Central Pacific, the Comstock Lode, and nearby farmers and ranchers. In 1871, it replaced Washoe City as the Washoe County seat. The next year, another railroad, the Virginia and Truckee, improved local fortunes still more. Today, the metropolitan area’s population is creeping toward half a million, and its name and origins serve as a reminder of the importance of railroad-building to our state. Railroads built several other communities, including Verdi, Sparks, Winnemucca, Elko, Wells, and, way down south, yes, Las Vegas. From one town born with a May railroad auction to another, happy birthday.