Virginia Street Bridge (site)

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.

Images

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. Image courtesy of VSA Arts of Nevada at the Lake Mansion View File Details Page

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. Image courtesy of Neal Cobb View File Details Page

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. Image courtesy of Neal Cobb View File Details Page

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. Image courtesy of Neal Cobb View File Details Page

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. Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries View File Details Page

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. View File Details Page

Fishing under the bridge

Fishing under the bridge

Boys fish beneath the Virginia Street Bridge in the 1920s, while onlookers watch from above. Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries View File Details Page

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. Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries View File Details Page

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. View File Details Page

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. Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries View File Details Page

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. Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries View File Details Page

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. Image courtesy of Mella Harmon View File Details Page

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. Image courtesy of Max Chapman. View File Details Page

Video

Cite this Page:

Mella Harmon, “Virginia Street Bridge (site),” Reno Historical, accessed May 1, 2017, http://renohistorical.org/items/show/22.

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