No mystery about the history of Sparks

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While the city of Sparks was formally incorporated on March 15, 1905 — meaning it will celebrate its 115th birthday next year — the community can trace its roots to a few years earlier when the Southern Pacific Railway Co. decided to straighten its main line across Northern Nevada.

The railroad rerouted its tracks along the eastern Truckee River corridor to eliminate several dangerous curves and grades.

In about 1903, the railroad announced that as part of this realignment it would relocate its main division point in the region from Wadsworth to a site about four miles east of Reno. It originally looked at Reno for its new shops but went east because of cheaper land.

To entice its workers to move to the new site, the railroad made a generous offer — a tract of land would be set aside adjacent to a new roundhouse and the railroad would give each employee clear title to a 50-foot-by-140-foot lot. Additionally, the railroad offered to transport any existing house in Wadsworth to the new community at no charge.

Records show that in the summer of 1903, a drawing was conducted with employee names in one hat and lot number in another, and each was randomly awarded their lot. About 67 lots changed title that day at a price of $1 per lot.

The new town was called “East Reno” for a short time, then “Harriman,” after E.H. Harriman, owner of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Finally, in April 1904, Harriman decided to name the community in honor of Nevada’s popular Gov. John Sparks.

One hundred years ago, the new town was incorporated and, during that same year, saw the opening of a depot and freight yard. Additionally, in 1905, the community’s first school was built and a volunteer fire department was organized.

During the past century and change, the railroad has become a less important part of the town’s economy but has remained an important symbol of the past. The Sparks High School athletic teams are called the “Railroaders” and the downtown’s “Victorian Square” development theme evokes the architecture and style of an earlier rail era.

The Sparks Bicentennial Railroad Park in the city center also boasts a couple of reminders of the city’s rail roots. One is Locomotive No. 8, built in 1907 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works. The 10-wheeler was one of the last steam engines to operate on the Southern Pacific line and was retired in 1954.

Attached to the engine are two historic Southern Pacific train cars, including a 1911 Pullman Car, said to have been used in 1948 by President Harry Truman on the successful whistle-stop campaign that helped get him reelected.

The park also includes the original Sparks depot, which blends nicely with downtown Sparks’ Victorian Square theme.

The city has also adopted other Victorian-style touches, including a large outdoor gazebo and partially covered theater, street lamp fixtures, kiosks, fences and benches.

Railroading was an essential part of Sparks’ early development. Displays in the Sparks Heritage Museum, across the street from locomotive No. 8, illustrate the town’s rail links.

For example, dozens of historic photographs depict the railroad buildings and equipment used at the Sparks railyard. A huge black and white wall print shows the massive roundhouse that once serviced the Southern Pacific engines.

Another object of special note is the 32-foot-tall statue named “Last Chance Joe,” which has been restored and parked adjacent to the museum. Joe stood in front of the Nugget Hotel and Casino for 56 years and was a well-known local landmark.

The Sparks Heritage Museum is located at 814 Victorian Ave. For more information about the history of Sparks, go to

Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.


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