Riding the Rails

Tour curated by: The Reno Historical Team

Like countless cities in the American West, Reno was founded because of the establishment of nineteenth-century railroad networks. However, Reno's network did much more than simply inaugurate the town; it fostered the city's unique enterprises that popularized Reno in the following decades. The railroad was the force that not only allowed Reno to benefit economically from transportation and commerce rather than mining (as with other northern Nevada railroad towns) but it also fed the city's lucrative "sinful industries"—divorce and gaming, in particular—and helped them prosper by bringing people from all over the country to Reno. Essentially, the railroad became Reno's lifeline, promoting commerce by freight and passenger trains, ensuring that Reno would not be dependent on boom and bust industries like most other towns in the state.

Surveyors for the Central Pacific Railroad arrived in the valley as early as 1863, but by March 1868 railroad officials had selected a site for the station on the north side of the Truckee River near an important river crossing owned by Myron C. Lake (Lake's Crossing). This favorable locale was both distant from the hills to the west (an important factor for locomotives gaining speed to ascend the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada) and above the eastern marshes. It also was a suitable site for the junction with the proposed Virginia & Truckee Railroad (V&T), joining the Central Pacific with the booming Comstock Lode.

Lake deeded Central Pacific Railroad founder Charles Crocker forty acres of land to build the railway near his crossing. In exchange, Crocker agreed to build the depot in what was anticipated to be the center of town--a junction originally known as Argenta, but soon renamed Reno after Union Army General Jesse L. Reno. Connection to the completed V&T Railroad followed in 1872. Within a few decades, the Nevada-California-Oregon Railroad was established, connecting Reno to points north, and from 1904 to 1927, several streetcar lines also criss-crossed the town.

Locations for Tour

The Reno Southern Pacific Railroad Depot was completed in 1926. It was the fifth Reno depot since 1868, the first four having burned down. Constructed of brick with a stucco finish, it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2012 in…

The American Railway Express Agency building and the new Southern Pacific Railroad Depot were dedicated in civic ceremonies on February 8, 1926. From 1918 until that day, Reno’s American Railway Express operations had been located inside the…

The Southern Pacific Railroad Freight House was built in 1931, replacing a smaller wood-frame structure that had outgrown its usefulness and blocked a major thoroughfare. Despite the economic problems of the Great Depression, freight traffic through…

The elegant Nevada-California-Oregon (NCO) Railroad Depot was constructed in 1910, replacing an earlier depot that had operated on leased land at the corner of Lake and Plaza Streets. The railroad line it served was founded in Reno in 1880 as the…

This sturdy yet unassuming building at 401 E. Fourth Street dates back to the late 19th century, subtly evoking Reno’s rich railroad heritage. It was constructed in 1889 as the locomotive house for the Nevada-California-Oregon (NCO) Railway, a…

In the early 1900s, the establishment of an electric streetcar system was a clear sign of a city’s growth as well as faith in its potential for future expansion. There was therefore cause for great celebration on Thanksgiving Day, 1904, with the…