Belle Isle was once a popular Reno amusement park
But often overlooked amidst all the bright lights and concrete of downtown Reno is an island of serenity that is known as Wingfield Park.
Interestingly, what most people think of as Wingfield Park actually encompasses several smaller parks including Barbara Bennett Park, the Truckee Riverwalk and the West Street Plaza.
The area that is specifically called Wingfield Park includes the small island that sits in the middle of the Truckee River at about First and Arlington streets.
Wingfield Park is one of the city’s smallest and oldest parks. Created in the early 1920s, the island portion of it was originally called Belle Isle and has a colorful history.
Records indicate that discussion of a park on the island dated back to the early 1890s. In 1911, the efforts to create a public park seemed lost when a local attorney, Lewis E. Hinkley, acquired ownership of the land and built a small amusement park complex that included a carnival, wooden dancing pavilion strung with lights, a 700-seat open air theater, row boats, a skating rink and a 60-foot Ferris wheel.
Under the headline, “New Aerodome a Big Success,” the July 10, 1911, Nevada State Journal noted that “the new open-air theater was crowded at the different performances for it was the first time that moving pictures were shown outside of an enclosed building.”
In a 2005 article in Reno Magazine, historian Alicia Barber wrote that Belle Isle “offered an instant escape from the growing town’s hustle and bustle, and crowds flocked to savor its ‘cooling refreshments and cooling breezes.”
That same summer, a barnstorming pilot, Eugene Ely, landed in the field adjacent to Belle Isle — the area now known as Barbara Bennett Park. Ely’s visit was the first time an airplane was seen in the Reno area.
Ely, a pioneering aviator who was the first man to land on and take off from a naval vessel, brought his single engine biplane to Reno for an exhibition. According to some reports, tens of thousands of spectators were on hand to watch Ely’s flying machine.
Unfortunately, Ely’s plane developed mechanical difficulties after about seven minutes in the air and he was forced to make an emergency landing in the same field from which he had taken off.
From 1913 to about 1914, Belle Isle was used to host boxing matches, fair exhibits and presentations of motion pictures. During that time, one optimist even filed a mining claim on the island.
In October 1914, the owners of Belle Isle filed for bankruptcy. It was acquired by George Wingfield, an extremely influential political and financial figure in the state, who was once referred to as “the Prince of Nevada.”
In January 1920, Wingfield agreed to donate the land, including Belle Isle, to the city of Reno for a park. Work quickly began to landscape the property and within a year Wingfield Park was born.
The park has undergone changes over the years. In the 1920s, the center of Belle Isle became part of the Arlington Street Bridge over the Truckee River. Footbridges were first constructed to the island during the 1920s, although the current ones were installed during riverfront renovation done during the mid-1970s.
In the 1990s, the Raymond I. Smith River Walk was built along the southern shore of the Truckee. In addition to offering a pleasant walk along the river, it has seven water features and original sculptures of native Nevada wildlife.
Additionally, a large amphitheater was constructed on Wingfield Park, which hosts outdoor concerts and performances throughout the summer months.
A visitor to Belle Isle today will also notice that it is the site of the Reno municipal Christmas tree. Records indicate that the tree was planted there in the mid-1920s and has since served as the official city Christmas tree.
Despite its urban setting, Wingfield Park remains a quiet haven away from the lights, noise and glitter of the nearby hotels. For much of the year, numerous ducks and geese can be seen wandering across the grass or frolic in the surrounding river.
The park also has the distinctive feel of old Reno. Standing at the eastern edge of the island, you can see the magnificent First Methodist Church to the north and Trinity Episcopal Church to the south. Farther east is the renovated Riverside Hotel, built in 1927, which is now a complex of artist lofts.
Above the island, to the south, you can see a few of the remaining historic homes of Court Street. And as the wind rustles through one of Belle Isle’s trees, it’s easy to imagine that you’re once again standing in the city of trembling leaves.
For more history of Belle Isle, go to http://renohistorical.org/items/show/39.
Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.