Filed Under Bridges

Virginia Street Bridge (site)

The bridge constructed across the Truckee River in 1905 became a nationally known landmark in Reno's divorce era.

A bridge has graced this site since 1860, when Charles William Fuller constructed the first recorded span of the Truckee River at what was then known as “Fuller’s Crossing.” In 1861, he sold the whole operation to Myron C. Lake, who had to replace the bridge after a damaging flood that winter. Lake introduced a toll and built an inn on the river's south bank. By the time of Reno’s founding in 1868, Lake was a wealthy landowner with control of the bridge and a large amount of property on either side.

Having finally acquired the bridge from Lake after a prolonged court battle, Washoe County hired a company from Des Moines, Iowa in 1877 to construct an iron bowstring arch truss bridge to replace the wooden one. The “iron bridge,” as the community called it, cost about $16,000 and featured a separate walkway to keep pedestrians safe from passing horses and buggies. With the dawn of the twentieth century came calls for a wider, more permanent, and elegant structure. Architect John B. Leonard of San Francisco chose a Classical design to complement the bridge’s urban setting. Built in 1905 by Cotton Brothers and Company of Oakland, California, the new span was one of the first reinforced concrete bridges in Nevada, with a classical design that quickly became a major architectural focal point.

It did not take long for the bridge to gain a national reputation. From approximately 1906 until the 1960s, Reno was known as the Divorce Capital of the World, and the Virginia Street Bridge was the main symbol of the trade. Known as "Wedding Ring Bridge," and the "Bridge of Sighs," the bridge became the subject of national folklore.

The legend, dating to at least the 1920s, holds that divorcees, upon receiving their final decree from the judge, exited the Washoe County Courthouse, kissed the columns supporting the portico and proceeded post haste past the Riverside Hotel to the Virginia Street Bridge, whence they cast their wedding rings into the Truckee River. In the 1961 film The Misfits, Marilyn Monroe’s character, Roslyn, is told the tale while standing on the bridge, considers it for a moment, then places her ring back in her purse and heads to Harrah’s for a drink.

The 1905 bridge was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. With the adoption of a new flood control plan, this icon of Reno’s divorce heyday was demolished in 2015. Its replacement, dedicated in April of 2016, was designed to combine a superstructure reminiscent of the old iron bridge with the rhythmic arches of the 1905 bridge. Four of the historic light fixtures were restored for use on the new bridge, and some of the historic iron railing is displayed nearby, paying homage to the beloved landmark.

Video

Discussing the "wedding ring bridge" myth Architectural historian Mella Rothwell Harmon speaks with Reno resident Neal Cobb about whether or not new divorcees threw their weddings rings into the Truckee River from the Virginia Street Bridge in this excerpt from the documentary series, Exploring Nevada. Source: Exploring Nevada Creator: Nevada Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs

Images

Wedding Ring Bridge
Wedding Ring Bridge The legend of the newly-divorced flinging their wedding rings off the Virginia Street Bridge may have been described first in a 1927 brochure, reinforced by Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., who wrote of the practice in his 1929 novel titled Reno. Reno's "Wedding Ring Bridge," as this postcard calls it, became world-renowned. Source: Alicia Barber
The first Virginia Street Bridge
The first Virginia Street Bridge This painting of Myron Lake was painted in 1882 by a local portrait painter named Cyrinus McClellan. Lake is depicted at a point decades earlier with Chief Winnemucca and other members of the Paiute tribe, with his modest inn and wooden bridge behind them. Source: VSA Arts of Nevada at the Lake Mansion Creator: Cyrinus McClellan Date: 1882
The wooden structure of the first bridge
The wooden structure of the first bridge Looking northward on Virginia Street from the Truckee River toward the railroad tracks, this photograph from the late 1860s or early 1870s shows a portion of the early bridge's wooden structure. Virginia Street appears dusty and windblown with raised wooden sidewalks. Source: Neal Cobb
The iron bridge on Virginia Street
The iron bridge on Virginia Street Constructed in 1877, the iron bridge seen here from the south bank of the river, kept pedestrians safe on a walkway separated from street traffic. Source: Neal Cobb
The bridge supports a growing community
The bridge supports a growing community Looking northeast from the south bank of the river with the boardwalk in the foreground, the new iron bridge can be seen amid the larger structures of the town. The large white building in the background is the Nevada State Fair pavilion. Source: Neal Cobb
Streetcar line
Streetcar line By the early 1900s, Reno had become a small but thriving transportation hub with three major railroads. Beginning in 1906, a streetcar line ran across the Virginia Street Bridge to serve areas to the south. The tracks can clearly be seen in this photograph ca. 1906. Source: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries Date: ca. 1906
The Virginia Street Bridge circa 1915
The Virginia Street Bridge circa 1915 This postcard of the bridge clearly shows the untamed riverbanks, sloping gently down toward the water on either side. Directly behind and to the right of the bridge (on its north side) stands the Masonic Temple, constructed the same year as the bridge.
Fishing under the bridge
Fishing under the bridge Boys fish beneath the Virginia Street Bridge in the 1920s, while onlookers watch from above. Source: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries Date: 1920s
Floodwaters
Floodwaters Crowds gather on the bridge to watch the surging waters of a flood in the 1920s. Above the arches, the bridge was a concrete shell, earth-filled to the roadway and sidewalk level. Source: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries Date: 1920s
Wedding ring toss enactment
Wedding ring toss enactment A stylish divorcee tosses her wedding ring into the Truckee River in a staged pose from the booklet The Reno Divorce Racket, published in 1931. Source: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries Creator: Graphic Arts Corporation, Minneapolis Date: 1931
Virginia Street Bridge ca. 1925
Virginia Street Bridge ca. 1925 John B. Leonard's bridge design employed concrete scored to resemble masonry, classical arches, and pilasters rising to the level of the ornate iron railing. Buildings, from left to right, are the combined post office/federal building, the YMCA, and the Majestic Theater, with the tower of City Hall peeking out from behind. Source: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries Date: ca. 1925
An old Reno custom
An old Reno custom This 1941 Lew Hymers cartoon of a newly-divorced woman flinging her ring into the Truckee River helped to perpetuate the popular legend of the "wedding ring bridge," prompting generations to search the shallow waters for castaway bands. Source: Mella Rothwell Harmon Creator: Lew Hymers Date: 1941
Wear and tear
Wear and tear Seen in 2001, the bridge was showing the ravages of more than a century of wear, but retained its elegant form and signature lampposts. Creator: Max Chapman Date: 2001
New bridge, 2016
New bridge, 2016 Completed in 2016, the new bridge at Virginia Street seems to gesture to the shape of the 1870s iron bridge that once crossed the Truckee River at the same site. Creator: City of Reno

Location

Metadata

Mella Rothwell Harmon, “Virginia Street Bridge (site),” Reno Historical, accessed May 24, 2024, http://renohistorical.org/items/show/22.