The second largest city in Nevada with a population of 165,940 (as of 1998), Reno sprawls across the Truckee Meadows, a fertile high-desert valley fed by the Truckee River just east of the Sierra Nevada range. The city started out as a small emigrant way station, the staging point for parties preparing to climb over the mountains. It was here that the Donner Party stopped briefly in October 1846 before embarking on its doomed crossing. Construction of the Central Pacific brought more traffic to Reno, and the completion of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad's line to the city in 1872 connected Reno to Carson City and the Comstock. Clustered around the railroad and along the Truckee River, the town's buildings were mostly wood-frame, with one or two stories and little architectural style or ornamentation. Numerous truck farms and ranches supplied nearby towns with agricultural products. The University of Nevada's move from Elko in 1885 established Reno—then a small town of a few thousand people—as an educational center in the state.
During this period Reno was also becoming a political center, drawing the rich and powerful from the fading mining towns of Tonopah and Goldfield. Influential people such as Senator Francis G. Newlands, Senator George Nixon, and financier George Wingfield built mansions near the downtown core. As the population of the city grew, Reno acquired political power that would not be eclipsed for half a century.
It was the divorce trade that brought a thriving economy during the 1930s. Until 1927, the residency requirement for a Nevada divorce was six months. The Washoe County Courthouse was the center of the burgeoning industry; the Riverside Hotel next door on the south bank of the Truckee River became known for offering the most desirable accommodations for those awaiting divorces. The legislature's reduction of the residency requirement in 1927 to three months and in 1931 to six weeks brought new surges in business.
The legalization of gambling in 1931 created an industry that surpassed even the divorce trade. Hotels, clubs, and bars quickly added casinos. Reno's downtown soon pulsed with neon lights and throngs of gamblers. By the 1940s Virginia Street had become the main thoroughfare, serving as the center of activity from its crossing of the Truckee to 9th Street. The railroad, passing through the center of downtown, disgorged tourists daily, and the completion of U.S. 40, which traveled along Reno's 4th Street, brought a steady stream of motorists.
By the 1950s, however, Las Vegas clearly posed stiff competition to its older, northern sister, and by 1960 it surpassed Reno in population. The popular Las Vegas Strip casinos and the already large and flourishing Los Angeles metropolitan area provided Las Vegas with a tourist base that Reno could not match. For thirty years after World War II, Reno had attempted to control the spread of gambling by restricting casinos to the downtown area. However, in 1971 the city threw out its redlining policy in order to compete with Las Vegas. New casinos quickly spread in all directions along Reno's main roads and highways, where sprawling complexes could be built based on the Las Vegas Strip model, surrounded by acres of parking lots. Recently some of Reno's downtown casinos, such as the Silver Legacy, have tried to compete with the Las Vegas mega-resorts by building enormous structures with diverse attractions and towering parking garages. Las Vegas, nevertheless, still far outpaces Reno in terms of growth and attracting tourists.
Like Las Vegas, Reno has grown at a rapid pace since the 1950s. Once bounded by vast stretches of open space, Reno now has subdivisions that are gradually covering the valley floor. Downtown has become the nearly exclusive domain of the casinos and is given over to tourists. Businesses and light industry have consequently grown along the freeways and on the edges of town, erasing the decades-old ranches. However, not all of them are gone; driving south or north of Reno, one can still spot an occasional collapsing barn or octagonal chicken coop—remnants of Reno's early days as an agricultural center.
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