Motels and Early Auto Tourism

Reno boasts an extraordinary array of tourist lodgings with ties to early motor tourism. It all started when the Lincoln Highway Association was established in 1913 to provide a continuous, improved highway from New York to San Francisco. The route–through western Nevada and passing through Fallon, Sparks, and Reno to the California state line–was set by 1921. A branch led southward along South Virginia Street through Carson City and the communities along the Lake Tahoe shore. The Victory Highway, named to honor the veterans of World War I, followed the Humboldt River Route, converging with the Lincoln Highway in Sparks.

With the establishment of the highways, automobile tourism became an economic force in the region. The first accommodations catering to motor tourists were campgrounds with a pad where travelers could pitch a text next to their “machine,” ideally with water and food nearby. Many of these early facilities, called tourist camps or auto camps, sprang up on the Lincoln Highway between Sparks and Reno. Soon, tourist cabins replaced tent pads and parking spots. Called cabin courts, cottage courts, auto courts, or tourist courts, the cabin complexes offered beds and bedding, bathrooms, and often kitchens.

By the end of World War II, legalized gambling, the migratory divorce trade, and the area’s beautiful natural setting drew increasing numbers of tourists to Reno. The term “motel” was coined in 1925, but it came into common usage after the war, when automobile tourism took a big leap forward. Individual cabins became attached, swimming pools were installed, and colorful neon signs beckoned travelers to stop and rest. By the 1950s, corporate America established the first motel chains.

Toward the end of the decade, motels sprang up along the proposed route of the new interstate (U.S. 80), where signs would be clearly visible from the highway. The old motels along the historic routes through Reno and Sparks lost most of their automobile tourist trade and many now serve as low-income housing. Still, many retain their historical integrity as well as their original neon signage, and offer great potential for restoration and revitalization, as many communities throughout the country have discovered.

Pony Express Lodge

In the early 1950s, ads for Harolds Pony Express Lodge directed tourists to “look for the gigantic neon sign.” It would have been hard to miss, towering then, as today, over Prater Way, at the western edge of Sparks. A classic Old West scene, the…

Farris Motel

The development of the Farris Motel tells a tale of early automobile tourism and entrepreneurialism along East Fourth Street. The entire area was parceled off as the “Kappler’s Addition” to Reno in 1906, two years after streetcar service had been…

Sutro Motel

The Sutro Motel, at 1200 East 4th Street, is one of the most picturesque motels along old U.S. 40. It is composed of two Spanish Mission-style structures straddling the east and west sides of Sutro Street, prompting many to guess that they were once…

El Rancho Motel No. 2

The 80-unit El Rancho Motel No. 2 was opened in 1954 by Pete Cladianos, Sr. on the former site of the Nevada Packing Company, which had ceased operations in 1947, and burned down in 1950. Its demise opened up a prime location for a motel on the…

Historic Reno Arch

The historic arch now located on Lake Street at the Truckee River is Reno’s most recognizable symbol. Fashioned after California city gateway structures, the steel arch was erected in 1926 at the intersection of Commercial Row and Virginia Street to…

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…

Osen Motor Sales Company

The Osen Motor Sales Company opened its beautiful new Frederic DeLongchamps-designed building at 600 South Virginia Street in 1923, when the neighborhood was still almost entirely residential. It was a bold move for the company, which had operated a…

Nevada Auto Service

In the late 1920s, South Virginia Street was heeding the siren call of the automobile age. Service stations, dealers, and repair shops were popping up all along the thoroughfare, gradually adding a different character to the formerly quiet stretch of…

777 Motel

South Virginia Street was an increasingly busy thoroughfare in mid-century Reno, with many motels cropping up to serve the traveling public. The 777 Motel was constructed at 777 S. Virginia Street in 1964, one year before the street was widened to…

Longhorn Motel

Known today as the Best Value Lodge, the single-story, 18-unit Longhorn Motel opened at 844 S. Virginia Street on May 15, 1954. The project was a joint venture of Joe Ginocchio and his sister, Katherine Ghiglieri, whose family had owned the land for…

Ho Hum Motel

Tucked between two commercial buildings on South Virginia Street, the Ho Hum Motel has one of the most charming names in the business. It opened in 1953, when Virginia Street was not only a major business thoroughfare, but the north-south highway…
This tour will continue to expand as more entries are added. Research assistance provided by RTC Washoe.