Founded by the Southern Pacific, Sparks is one of a few twentieth-century railroad towns in northwestern Nevada. The Southern Pacific acquired the Central Pacific in 1899 and began upgrading the rails, relocating more than half of the old railroad's track to reduce grades and make curves easier to maneuver. The rerouting bypassed Wadsworth, the old Central Pacific division point, where the railroad had large repair and maintenance yards. Southern Pacific bought several ranches east of Reno as sites for large maintenance shops and in 1904 moved nearly all of Wadsworth's 700 residents and their buildings to the new railroad yard, thirty miles west. In that same year the new town adopted the name Sparks, in honor of John D. Sparks, a cattle baron and Nevada's fourth governor. The townsite, laid out in a grid north of the railroad tracks, is largely intact today. Houses dating from the early years stand among mid-twentieth-century ranch houses. The construction of I-80 in the 1970s and the ensuing development near the freeway have obliterated several blocks of the historic downtown.
Sparks grew steadily, eventually becoming contiguous with Reno. The railroad supported the economy until the 1950s, when the shops closed. However, in 1949 the state legislature passed a free-port law providing a property-tax exemption for goods in transit. Sparks jumped at the opportunity to attract companies to store and assemble products, successfully encouraging a large warehousing industry. The city's location near a major railroad line, interstate highway, and international airport has accelerated growth.
Sparks's urban fabric has suffered from this growth-at-all-costs policy. The former downtown has been carved up by huge casinos and urban renewal projects, which have killed most local businesses. In the late 1980s, in an attempt to create a more appealing public space, the city renamed B Street, the main road through downtown, calling it Victorian Avenue to capture an old-time feeling. The city curved the road, converted cross streets into pedestrian malls, added a small railroad park and amphitheater adjacent to the elevated freeway, reconstructed an old depot, and moved a historic school to the park. Casinos down the street built structures in an Old West style. Surprisingly, a few historic buildings survive to provide a semblance of the early commercial district. However, the city has moved on to a new project along C Street, demolishing several other historic buildings to erect a huge theater complex with a multistory parking garage. Both redevelopment projects are excellent examples of planners' attempts to revive downtowns by destroying historic buildings and streetscapes. Likewise, many older residential neighborhoods have been abandoned for developments on the edges of town. In this way, Sparks resembles many other booming late twentieth-century Nevada cities.
Sparks stands on the eastern edge of the Truckee Meadows. To the north, Nevada 445 climbs out of the valley and heads to Pyramid Lake, passing numerous subdivisions along the way. I-80 east of Sparks parallels the railroad and the Truckee River, following both through a narrow canyon that quickly shuts out the traffic and noise of the Reno-Sparks area. Some ranches, scattered houses, power plants, junkyards, and brothels can be found here.
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