Riding the Rails

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 industries of migratory divorce and legalized gambling, 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 (V&T) Railroad that would connect the Central Pacific to the booming Comstock Lode.

Lake, who owned land both north and south of the river, sold Central Pacific Railroad founder Charles Crocker enough acreage on its north side to establish a townsite centered on a new railroad depot. The junction was originally referred to as Argenta, but by the time of the original townsite auction on May 9, 1868, the railroad had officially named it Reno after Union Army General Jesse L. Reno. Connection to the completed Virginia & Truckee 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.

Today, the presence of the railroad in Reno is not nearly as visible as it once was. The V&T Railroad shut down in 1950, and the tracks between Reno and Virginia City were removed. The transcontinental railroad line still runs through the center of town, but in 2005, the Reno ReTRAC project lowered the two miles of tracks in the downtown area below ground level where they cannot easily be seen. Still, the whistle of the trains can still be heard as they enter town, reminding us of the reason Reno was founded in 1868 and representing a continuity that remains to this day.