Tying and Untying the Knot

For more than sixty years, Reno was the divorce capital of the world. It was the place where you took “the cure,” got “Reno-vated,” and threw your wedding ring into the Truckee River from the Bridge of Sighs. Prior to 1970, divorce statutes in most states were so strict that some people seeking divorces traveled to places with more lenient laws. The business of attracting divorce-seekers was called the migratory divorce trade.

A high-profile divorce case in 1906 paved the way for Reno to become the divorce destination. The Reno divorce experience was popularized in film and fiction, and everyone in America knew what it meant when someone said, “I’m going to Reno.”

By the 1960s, Las Vegas had surpassed Reno in number of divorces, but by then it didn’t matter. No-fault divorce became the national norm by the 1970s and the migratory divorce trade came to an end.

Reno’s quick wedding trade developed as the result of Nevada’s lenient marriage laws. It got a boost in 1927, when the California legislature passed a law requiring a three-day waiting period. Though Reno remained famous for divorces, it wasn’t long before the Washoe County Courthouse turned out more marriage licenses than it did divorce decrees.

Washoe County Courthouse

This courthouse was the third for Washoe County, which was established in 1861 as one of Nevada territory’s original nine counties. In 1871, Myron C. Lake donated an acre of his land for Reno’s first courthouse, as the ambitious young town…

Riverside Hotel

Widely considered Reno’s birthplace, the site now occupied by the Riverside Hotel has offered some form of lodging for more than 150 years. It was vacant land fronting an obscure ford of the Truckee River until late 1859, when a bankrupt California…

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…

Thomas' Café (site)

Reno in the first decade of the twentieth century was a rapidly modernizing little city with an increasingly cosmopolitan flair. The arrival of well-heeled visitors, many in town from the East Coast to secure a six-month Nevada divorce, prompted the…

Colonial Apartments

The Colonial Apartments, located at the corner of W. First and West Streets, was built in 1907 by partners Charles E. Clough and George Crosby. In the first decade of the twentieth century, the temporary housing needs of Reno's divorce colony…

Nystrom Guest House

The stately Gothic-style house at 333 Ralston Street would be historic enough as the home Washoe County Clerk John Shoemaker built in 1875. However, the Nystrom Guest House also played an important role in Reno’s twentieth-century migratory divorce…

Nortonia Boarding House

The Nortonia Boarding House was built as a single family residence around 1900. It is an excellent example of the Queen Anne style of architecture popular at the end of the nineteenth century. The circular two-story porch with balustrade is an…

Miller-Rowe-Holgate House

The Miller-Rowe/Holgate House represents Reno’s changing trends in housing during the first half of the twentieth century. The Queen Anne-style house was built in 1903, as a single family residence that Jeanette Miller, the first owner, used as a…

California Apartments

In 1921, Reno's so-called "Divorce Colony" was thriving, and building in general was booming. In addition to a growing permanent population, Reno needed housing for its temporary residents, the divorce-seekers. On March 29 of that…

Tyson House

This stately Queen Anne-style building and a small carriage house behind it were built around 1905. Though it was probably built as a single family residence, from as early as 1907 the carriage house served as a rental cottage. By 1921, the house…

Rick's Resort/The Willows (site)

Rick's Resort was opened around 1909 by Rick DeBernardi, the son of Swiss immigrants, several miles west of Reno on what was then called the Old Verdi Road. In the summer of 1910, the resort shot to fame as the training quarters for prizefighter…

Chism's Auto Camp

Harry Chism started the Chism's Auto Camp during the summer of 1927 on property his father had acquired in 1880. The property was on the north side of the Truckee River, directly across from Idlewild Park, where the Transcontinental Highway…

Silver State Lodge (site)

The year 1931 was a pivotal one for Reno's developing tourism industry. That was the year the Nevada legislature legalized wide-opened gambling and lowered the residency requirement for a divorce from three months to six weeks. That same year,…

El Cortez Hotel

Late in 1930, Nevada’s legislators pondered boosting the state’s lucrative divorce trade even further by shortening the residency requirement from three months to six short weeks. In anticipation of their success, local real estate investor Abe…

Mapes Hotel (site)

The 12-story Mapes Hotel became the tallest building in Nevada when it burst onto the Reno scene in 1947. Its prime location on the northeast corner of the Truckee River and Virginia Street had become available in 1934, when the old post office was…

El Reno Apartments (original site)

In 1936, the architect Paul Revere Williams, who had completed at least two commissions in Reno by that time, designed two houses for the illustrious California House and Garden Exhibition. One was a French cottage, and the other was a three-room…

Park Wedding Chapel (site)

The Park Wedding Chapel, and the Sullivan Apartments next to it, were replaced by a modern commercial building in 2009, but the little chapel’s distinction comes from being Reno’s first wedding chapel. Joseph Melcher, a local advertising…

Chapel of the Bells

When George Flint opened the Chapel of the Bells in 1961 at its original location at 540 W. Fourth Street, there were only two wedding chapels in town, the Park Wedding Chapel and a small chapel farther out on West Fourth Street. In 1965, he…

Silver Bells Wedding Chapel

The Silver Bells Wedding Chapel is owned and operated by pastors of a local church who have been in the wedding business for more than 40 years. Once the first Reno wedding chapel opened in 1956, other chapels sprang up along major thoroughfares such…