Reno’s roots intertwined with Virginia Street’s bridges
September 14, 2017
It all began with a bridge.
The city of Reno traces its beginning to a crude wooden bridge erected over the Truckee River more or less in the small spot where modern-day Virginia Street crosses the river.
In 1860, a former Missourian, Charles William Fuller, built that first span, along with a small trading post, and named the site "Fuller's Crossing."
In "General History and Resources of Washoe County, Nevada," published in 1888, author N.A. Hummel noted that Fuller benefitted from the discovery of rich silver deposits in Virginia City around the same time.
"In 1861, a road was constructed to Virginia City to this point, and Fuller built a bridge over the Truckee, and was allowed a franchise to collect toll," Hummel wrote.
The first bridge, however, was damaged later that year when the Truckee rose up and washed away the bridge's supports. Fuller built a second bridge on the spot in the spring of 1861 and then decided to sell his holdings to the ambitious Myron C. Lake, who promptly renamed the facility, "Lake's Crossing."
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Initially the bridge seemed as big a headache for Lake as it had been for Fuller. In the winter of 1862, rising river waters damaged the structure and it had to be reconstructed yet again.
But Lake was a much cagier businessman than his predecessor. After rebuilding the bridge, he persuaded the Nevada Territorial Legislature to grant him a 10-year exclusive franchise to operate his toll bridge, with the restriction that no one could build another bridge within a mile of his span. It was an agreement that made him rich.
In 1868, Lake persuaded the Central Pacific Railroad to establish a community, which was named Reno, on the north side of his bridge (on land he deeded to the railroad) while he retained ownership of the property south of the bridge. This arrangement added to his personal wealth.
Local officials, tired of Lake's stiff tolls, which angered many residents, began the process of acquiring the bridge. Finally, in 1877, Washoe County officials managed to wrestle ownership of the structure from Lake.
According to Reno architectural historian Mella Harmon, later that year the county hired a Des Moines, Iowa, firm to construct a sturdier and more reliable bridge over the Truckee. The result was the erection that year of the so-called "iron bridge," a more substantial span that cost $16,000 and had a separate walkway for pedestrians.
The iron bridge served the community well, lasting about 29 years, before it was replaced by the ironic concrete Virginia Street bridge that would stand (and remain in use) from 1905 to 2015.
The 1905 version was designed by San Francisco architect John B. Leonard and, according to Harmon, incorporated a classical design to accommodate the bridge's urban setting. It was built by Cotton Brothers and Company of Oakland, and was one of the first reinforced concrete bridges built in Nevada.
Within a few years, the '05 bridge became a sort of symbol for not only the community of Reno but for the burgeoning divorce business.
Particularly between the 1920s to the 1950s, Reno was known as the "Divorce Capital of the World" and the bridge gained a few nicknames in the popular media such as Reno's "Bridge of Sighs" and the "Wedding Ring Bridge."
A legend cropped up, which appeared in popular magazines, books and movies, that newly-minted divorcees, after their divorce was finalized by the Washoe County judge, would exit the courthouse, plant a kiss on the pillars in front of the building and stroll over to the bridge to toss their old wedding band into the river.
While the bridge made the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, its days were numbered. In the early 2000s, the city approved a new flood control plan, which included removing the bridge because its thick support columns served to dam the river during the highest water periods, which contributed to flooding problems.
The iconic bridge was demolished in 2015 and replaced by a modern span designed to echo the look of the old iron bridge as well as the classical look of the '05 bridge. Four of the '05 bridge light fixtures were restored and placed on the new bridge, which is made of reinforced concrete with a rigid frame.
The new bridge — the sixth to be built on the spot — cost about $18.3 million and opened on April 12, 2016. It measures 166-feet in length and varies in width from 84- to 98-feet.
The story continues.
Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada want to visit.