The Mayberry Bridge vs. 20 tons of strawberries….

BaffertOn a clear spring 1970s morning by dawn’s early light one Mr. Thomas J. Armstrong of Des Moines, Iowa peered from the cab of his 18-wheeler truck at the sign “Load Limit 5 Tons” on the one-lane steel-girder bridge spanning the Truckee River. Mr. Armstrong was the sole occupant of a vehicle whose estimated weight that morning was 35 tons, which consisted of a semi-trailer, the tractor pulling it and the 20 tons of strawberries in the trailer. He might have noted the five-ton limit sign, done the math, then employed some aberrated logic and decided that if perhaps he went fast enough he could make it across the stream without incident. He couldn’t. Several fisherman were wetting their lines near the bridge on that peaceful morning just west of the present Mayberry Drive span, and looked up to see the truck moving at a high rate of speed to the south. They witnessed the front axle, followed by the rear axles of the tractor splinter the wooden deck of the bridge as it approached the south landing. They dove for cover as the iron trusses on either side of the bridge ripped the trailer open, the momentum from the weight of the cases of strawberries pushing the front axle of the truck to the south landing, and the axles of the trailer then falling through the deck to dangle above the Truckee’s channel.

StrawberryBridge The fishermen on that morning saw case after case of strawberries break open, and the berries, which do in fact float, start their journey downstream, reaching by some disputed accounts all the way to Pyramid Lake. And the fishermen noted Mr. Armstrong of Des Moines, Iowa climb out of the cab of the truck, shake his head and utter the words, “Well, son-of-a-gun,” or an epithet something to that effect. Mr. Armstrong a few minutes later would be escorted by the responding Washoe County Sheriff’s deputies to the county hoosegow, for the initial infraction of driving under the influence of something better than strawberry Coca-Cola, with additional transgressions like destruction of property, failure to heed, misdemeanor general stupidity and a bunch more being added as his journey progressed to his cell awaiting in the old sheriff’s office on South Sierra and Court Streets. Needless to say, his life changed dramatically in a heartbeat that early morning of May 20, 1974.

So now, what needs to be done? Strawberries were there for the grabbing in the Truckee, and were being grabbed with great glee downstream, later that morning and in days to follow, with the reports of waders entering the river near the California Building in Idlewild Park and from the Dickerson Road shore, and nearer to downtown Reno in the Riverside Drive area. Every eddy, rock pile and tiny oxbow contained two or three of the edible little treats swirling around it. But most of the cargo remained in the carcass of the trailer, which continued to hang precipitously from what was left of the bridge. Salvors were called, I think but can’t confirm as being from one or two of the local produce companies, who off-loaded the strawberries into refrigerated trucks.

As memory serves, they later had to be destroyed per the decree of the health department and I’ll take help from a reader on that [help never came]. Mayberry Drive, which had long been called the Old Verdi Road in years preceding 1974, was then closed at Fenno Lane west of the later McCarran Loop and at old Highway 40 on the west end, and would stay closed for quite a while. The trailer was hauled off and that remnant of the bridge – the part that Mr. Armstrong didn’t beat the county to – was disassembled. Curiously, a contract had already been let to Holcomb Construction for $1.479 million for a vehicular undercrossing and a railroad bridge. The 1907 Mayberry Bridge, a twin to a railroad bridge upstream, was already destined for removal, a fact probably used to no avail in the defense of Mr. Armstrong for his litany of offenses. In a perfect world, the bridge he demolished would have well served the community until the new structure was completed. And that’s the story of the Strawberry Truck vs. the Mayberry Bridge – Truck 1, Bridge 0. I’ve started to weave this tale a dozen times but it took a similar crash, not involving a bridge, of a trucker dumping 7,000 pounds of watermelons into the Truckee River  a couple of weeks ago to shake this long-overdue strawberry column loose.

A final note on hauling strawberries: In the golden age of railroading, a passenger train had priority over all freight trains, except for a train hauling strawberries, for which the passenger trains would take to a siding while the strawberry train passed.

A column inch remains, so for this week of May 1974 let’s speak of Governor “Big Mike” O’Callaghan who is scheduled to cut a ribbon opening the last leg to the new I-80 freeway from Keystone Avenue to Center Street in a few days. Meanwhile, Sandler & Young are playing at Harrah’s downtown, every cop and G-Man on the West Coast is looking for heiress Patty Hearst who was abducted a couple of days ago, and finally Vario’s on South Virginia will be open for Mother’s Day.

Personalized license plate of the week is on a Camry, KSRASRA, driven by a woman who quite resembles Doris Day.

Thanks for reading, and God bless America.

Photo credit and text clip © RGJ


Swing and sweat with – oh, you know…

JohnnyFeverIt’s alway nice to start the day, as I did yesterday, with an email wishing me a Happy New Year, on the 8th day of June. I don’t know if seasoned-contributor Bud Holland sent it early for next year or the thing’s been banging around in somebody’s computer for five months plus. But it was pleasant and I’ll now share it. It’s Sunday morning now and I’m in a cantankerous mood so I’ll post Bud’s letter and the postcard without his prior permission while giving attribution to none – that’s just the kind of guy I am. And I hope he will send those pictures he refers to toward the end of his note – maybe by the Pony Express or some carrier that will get them from Tacoma to my home in several days – I’m no spring chicken and these five-month transmittal times are killers! In sincerity, I’m grateful to Bud for this info….

“Happy New Year Karl (aka: Ol Reno Guy!),
   First, I have sure enjoyed reading your updates since chancing upon 
your site last year. I went back through some of the archives and found 
the article on Reno homes with a reference to Tony Pecetti’s home on 
Wonder Street. I have attached a scan of a 1942 postcard for ‘Tony’s El 
Patio Ballroom.’


“There are some notes on the back that the ballroom was located on Commercial Row & Chestnut Street [Arlington Avenue] and that Tony was a part-owner of the “El Rancho Drive-In Theater” at the Sparks “Y”. As you can note the appearance of Ina-Ray Hutton was filled in in purple ink and has smeared over time or going through the USPS as it was sent to a Rural Route in Lodi, California.
   “Keep up your good work and if it meets with your approval, I will 
periodically scan some of my late 1890s and early 1900s photos for you 
to view and share if you so desire .. oh, a few of the snapshots I’ll 
need help on exact locations.”

   R. Bud Holland
   Tacoma, Washington

Here’s another piece about Tony Pecetti

Reno hits the gas, 1905

BaffertRecently a man was seen a couple of thousand feet above Lakeridge, free-falling at a terrifying rate of speed. As he fell, another man shot straight up from the ground near Swope School, climbing toward the path of the falling man like a homesick angel. The falling man shouted at him as they passed, “Hey, you know anything about parachutes?” and the other man replied as he rose above the first, “No. You know anything about gas barbecues … ?”

That anecdote is of dubious veracity, but it will get the casual reader in the mood for Topic A: The introduction of gas, be it natural, manufactured or LPG, to our valley. And not to be confused with gasoline for engines, a whole ’nother product entirely. Here we’re speaking of gas being supplied through a pipe below ground and routed out to homes and businesses to burn. And in its earliest use, gas to provide illumination – for streetlights and building interiors. It wasn’t until after World War II that gas would be more commonly found in cooking ranges and heating appliances.

The basis for this is not the two human cannonballs on a collision course seen over Reno recently, but a reader question which asked about the predominately vacant CookGaslot bounded by Wells Avenue on the east, Fifth and Sixth streets, and Eureka Street to the west. Coming off the crest of Wells Avenue northbound and looking to the west, or left, an attractive building is visible on the northeast corner. But picture in your mind’s eye on that lot two tall slim tanks, 50,000 gallons apiece, side by side and towering four stories near Wells Avenue. Then, picture adjacent to those big black tanks, a metal framework supporting a round steel tank, six stories high with an 80-foot diameter enclosing 300,000 cubic feet. And, in proximity to all this, a big masonry building with a prominent smokestack and some little shop structures filling out the rest of the block.The tall twin tanks were filled by railcars in this gasification plant’s earliest incarnation with crude oil – heavy, dirty stuff. In the airtight masonry building were a myriad of stacked bricks, laid in an open pattern to allow air and gas to flow between them. The crude oil was sprayed onto the bricks and ignited, resulting in a blaze of terrifying proportion, which in this environment of limited oxygen would produce methane, ethyl hydroxide and ethylene.

These gases would be captured and transferred to the big round tank, the tank GasTankrising as it was filled. And the fire would be extinguished for a while as that stored gas was consumed. This gasification plant was opened per the Nevada State Journal in September of 1905 by the Reno Light &  Power Company. And it wasn’t the earliest plant; it replaced a similar, yet smaller plant at the south dead end of Center Street at the Truckee River. Parts of that original plant were found when the Center Street Bridge was under construction in 1938. My research was somewhat inconclusive on the issue of gas service crossing the Truckee River, but it would appear that the product became available south of the river upon the completion of the Sierra Street Bridge in 1937. And by one account the gas explosion and incipient Sierra Street fire on Feb. 5, 1957 was the result of a failure in the connection when it was made from that new bridge into existing utility infrastructure in the West First Street and Sierra intersection. Curiously, no connection apparently was made in 1936 when Wells Avenue to the south was connected to Alameda Street to the north, with an underpass under the SP tracks and a bridge over the Truckee River.

The crude oil-firing process and resulting smoke over east Reno and Sparks was discontinued in 1948, when then-owner Sierra Pacific Power switched to a mixture of propane gas and air and the huge holding tank taken out of service and dismantled. Many of us remember that floating tank that would rise and fall on the water as the volume of gas being stored within it varied, its weight used to maintain pressure in the lines around town.

Few northern Nevada residents knew in the frigid early days of 1952 how close the then-5,200 Sierra Pacific customers were to losing gas service. By that year gas was being used liberally in furnaces, and the supply of propane used in the system was interrupted by the closure of the railroads over Donner Summit. By a couple of accounts, obviously hard to confirm, we were scant hours away from the area plunging into a deep freeze.

The Wells Avenue plant was relocated northward to Sutro Street in 1955, resulting in a task of epic proportions to relocate the underground mains to the source. And the system took on its present operating structure in 1964, when it was moved westward to a site closer to Vaughn Millworks and natural gas, replacing the propane-air mixture, was brought in from suppliers toward the southern Oregon border. A 1982 “Pipe & Wire” SPPCo magazine pegged the system’s daily gas distribution at 50 million cubic feet. And on a certain day in a certain light when the desert is as verdant as it ever gets, if one knows where to look one may see the route of the natural gas supply lines rising into the hills east of Sparks.

A hundred-plus years ago, you’d have heated the manse with white gas in a Perfection heater, or coal or wood, and lit the sconce on the wall with a wood
match to bring enough light to read this column, written on an Underwood Standard. Now, we take it all for granted, turning on the range and hearing the welcome “pop” of a burner lighting. And I’m going to thank you for reading, email these words and a couple pictures off to editor Brett McGinness who’s still euphoric from seeing his name in his first byline of the USA TODAY this week – catching the brass ring of journalism. And with any luck you’ll read, God bless America.
contact the writer at

© RGJ Feb. 2016

WALKIN’ EAST FOURTH STREET, ca. 1955, with a great reply from a reader added at the end, and the picture of downtown Reno that she wrote of

LittleKarlA strange effect is starting to occur: The Six-Year-Old Kid from Ralston Street was going to saddle up his bike with his neighbor Hank Philcox and ride out to the Sparks railyard and get a last look at the old roundhouse as it’s being torn down; our school Mary S. Doten elementary on West Fifth Street closed this Memorial Day weekend for the summer, Hank’s mom Corrinne packed us some sandwiches and goodies for ou trip – but – I started researching our journey with City Directories and an old Gazoo column that I wrote in 2004, and got lazy. “Why rewrite all this when I can cut-and-paste it?” So I did.

But, that said, Hank and I are riding all the way to the Mighty SP’s railyard, soHankPhilcox watch this space as I chronicle our trip down B Street and within the railyard – probably two columns you may come back to in a week or so.

In the meantime, here’s what we saw on that first leg of our bike ride, pretty much as it appeared in print a decade ago:

“You’ve walked all over town in past columns, why don’t the RGJ readers walk East Fourth Street?”  Or so a few readers wrote.

            It’s mostly because the RG-J recently carried an excellent three-issue overview of East Fourth with more ink and graphics than I could ever hope to squeeze out of the real estate editor.  This morning’s piece started as a commentary on old signs, but while riding around with a notepad some quirky thoughts of East Fourth in Reno and B Street – Victorian Way – in Sparks still beckoned to be heard, so we’ll mix up the two themes this morning.

            The two neon signs that most interest me while I’m enjoying an ale or three at the Great Basin in Sparks are first, the Pony Express Motel sign at the Prater/Victorian “Y”, a late-1940s product of Pappy Smith’s (Harolds Club) and Young Electric Sign’s imaginations.  I started to write that it was the first “motion” neon sign in town – (the arrows being shot from the Indians’ bows) – but I now spell-check-eliminate any superlatives, like first, oldest, highest, etc.  And “railroad,” “church” or “architect” for that matter.

            It’s much too big to steal, but the second sign I lust after is more portable [and now gone in 2019], in front of the old Park Motel on Prater Way; the Phillip Morris-type bellboy with the once-waving arm that used to beckon travelers into the “motor lodge.”  It’s a creation that would blow the CC&Rs of the God-forsaken desert to smithereens if I lit it up in my backyard, waving at the architectural committee.  No chance.  Note the other remaining motor hotel signs on East Fourth – the Sandman, with the tires on the prewar sedan that once appeared to rotate.  And the classic neon art style, with no name that I know of attributed to it other than post-war contemporary, on Everybody’s Inn and Alejo’s motels’ signs, and a few others – hopefully they will all be saved, rehabilitated and displayed somewhere as signs of a bygone era, pun intended.   

            Check out the architecture on East Fourth – the brick patterns in the Alturas Hotel, J.R. Bradley Company, the buildings that flourished in the early postwar period like Siri’s Restaurant, Reno Mattress and some of the retail stores.  Replicating the rococo brickwork style in some of those buildings today would cost a fortune.  And Ernie’s Flying “A” truck stop, we called it then, now signed as RSC Something-or-other: The fluted column-tower signature of Flying “A” stations has long since been all but removed from this garage, but look close and you can easily detect a close resemblance to Landrum’s Café architecture on South Virginia – a very prevalent commercial style of a prewar period.  (Ernie’s was, with McKinnon & Hubbard on West Fourth Street, the forerunner of Boomtown, the Alamo and Sierra Sid’s to old U.S. Highway 40 truckers.)  And, if I’m permitted to editorialize, hats off to my old buddy Steve Scolari, whose family business Ray Heating – now RHP – has been on East Fourth for 70-plus years.  Faced with the need to expand, he turned the main office building facing East Fourth Street into a great-looking little office, retaining its pre-war nuance, then upgraded a half-dozen industrial buildings on the street and railroad land to the south into very serviceable first-class modern shops, preserving the workforce and tax base in the East Fourth corridor.  A gutty move, but a lead that more property owners in areas like East Fourth and South Wells Avenue should follow.  And progressive city management, now hell-bent on plowing two or three hundred million dollars into a hole in the ground for choo-choos, should offer tax incentives for this “infill” redevelopment like other cities do.  End of tirade. 

Evidence of a bygone retail presence on East Fourth is Windy Moon Quilts on Morrill Avenue, the only quilt shop in town with a drive-up window.  Why?  ‘Cuz it once was a busy and highly profitable branch of First National Bank, that’s why.  [And Windy Moon has since moved to the Velvet Ice Cream building on Kuenzli Lane, at one time known as North Street. But wait: now that’s the home of Road Shows – Street Vibrations. Still a pretty brick building]

            We couldn’t tour East Fourth without stopping at the architecturally resplendent Tap ‘n Tavern Saloon, and then mosey on down Highway 40 to Casale’s Halfway Club for world-class pizza. And if host Mama Stempeck ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.  What a great lady…

            Many notes remain and readers will kick in a few more, so we’ll probably go back and finish this tour soon.  I detected a slight deterrent to retail development on East Fourth while driving, starting, stopping, backing up, making notes and taking pictures, stopping again: On several occasions local ladies practicing the world’s oldest profession invited themselves into my pickup for a good time, some of whom were probably undercover police.  “Honest, officer, I’m researching a column for the Gazette-Journal.”  (Good story, buddy, tell it to Judge Salcedo.)

  • • •

And we walked some more…

We took a little stroll around East Fourth Street last week, and one observation that just wouldn’t fit was of the arachnid – OK, scarab – atop the roof of the building visible best from the Wells Avenue overpass.  The bug first appeared in the late 1970s, some say as a dare, others say a work of art, still others as the result of seven Sigma Nu frat-rats finding four cases of beer, a blowtorch, and an SAE’s Volkswagen.  As the sun rose over Lagomarsino Canyon it appeared on a field south of a Quonset hut-barn so far out South Virginia Street that you had to pack a lantern and a lunch to get there (but now the only Quonset hut in the South Meadows techie park.) Bug you a little?  [A column about that Scarab appears somewhere in this book.]

The structure that the big bug sits on was Reno’s most modern and largest fire station (Station 2, the first numbered station, replacing the former system, Central, North, etc.) when it was built after World War II.  It replaced Reno’s East fire station across East Fourth Street then west a few blocks, and was a twin of the now-gone Station 3 at the dead-end of California Avenue and South Virginia Street.  Walker Boudwin Construction converted Reno East into a construction office many years ago; it became an independent-living resource for the handicapped, and now it’s a halfway house.   

I had a call or two about the old Wells Avenue bridge – this is the second modern one.  Seven more frat rats (probably ATΩs in this case) with a trunkful of Burgermeister might have built that earlier bridge – swayed in the breeze, it did; no trucks bigger than a Ford Excursion could use it and it ended in mid-lane on the north landing at Wells Avenue, creating basically a one-lane northbound affair.  So much for the low bidder, railroad trench proponents take note.

Akert’s Market?  Right across from Hale’s Drugs.  Benny Akert – as in Ben’s Discount Liquors in years to follow – and his sister Betty (Brown), later one of my favorite Realtors, worked Akert’s for their parents, at the corner of East Fourth and then-Alameda Avenue – now renamed North Wells.  [And no it wasn’t the first Ben’s Discount Liquors – that was at Pine and Center Streets.]

Did I tour East Fourth without even a whisper of Louis’ Basque Corner (picture on the Facebook  page)?  Did I do that?  I owe you all a picon…

Here’s the photo that Sheila referred to in the “Comments” below:



A Record column!

BaffertI’m re-posting this by request for a good friend and longtime reader; it appeared in the Gazoo April 17, 2017  © RGJ

The casual reader may recall that a week ago I sent out a plea for some info about a popular Reno lady named Nikki. This was in response to a reader’s query about a lady so named who made the grandest ravioli in the land for dinner parties and gatherings.

My plea was answered by a childhood friend, with coöperation from another old friend and veteran reader, Jackie Manoukian. The info about Nikki, two “k”s, came from another Niki, one “k”, Niki Schraub. She fleshed out the story of Nikki the ravioli lady.

 Niki writes, “Nicoletta (Nikki) Pistone was my grandmother…her kitchen was about 6′ x 6′ and she was able to produce tons of gourmet food for special occasions here in Reno, (including her fantastic ravioli). I felt so fortunate that she was in my life…unfortunately, she took her gourmet cooking for granted…kept her two granddaughters [Niki and Dale] out of the kitchen…she was the reason I got even a halfway decent education …but I never learned to cook….”

“I only remember my grandmother, Nicoletta, living next door to us on Stewart Street. Oh, also, my fraternal grandmother was Maude Pennell Record and she did live up near sorority row on Sierra Street…..” And that Sierra Street reference validates my fuzzy memory of last week that upper Sierra Street played a role in this mystery.

RecordNow, a new door opens; one that I’ve wanted to journey through for many years, usually while driving along East Fourth Street. The key word here is “Record,” and the journey starts with a popular Reno couple – Niki and Dale’s parents – Ann and Dick Record, who passed away in 1984 and 1986, respectively. Dick was the owner of Record Supply Company, which supplied not phonograph records as I once read somewhere, but in fact plumbing and building supplies. I would speculate that darn few homes and buildings in Reno and Sparks built in the latter half of the 20th century didn’t have a part or piece that started at Record Supply. And Dick and Ann gave back mightily to the community.

Record Supply had an entrance on a little stub street running south off East Fourth Street, more of a railroad easement than a street. Years ago I could never find its appellation “East Street” in any records, but rather the name of the easement that ran northward from East Fourth Street by the bygone Orvis Ring Elementary School to and past the University of Nevada. The street south of Fourth Street became known, rightly or colloquially, as “Record Street.” That name got hammered into use, complete with street signs so marked. And thereafter became the name of the railroad right-of-way weaving up to the campus. The street may now be a named city street.

I’ve always been a bit miffed that the Record family, for all they did for this town, is now frequently remembered in conjunction with the “Record Street homeless center.” The northern tip of “Record Street” became the site of the once-Record Street Café, now Bibo’s, a trendy little building built like a Mack truck that was in a past incarnation the shop for Geister Hardwood Flooring, and originally the locomotive maintenance shop of the NCO and later Western Pacific Railway. But seeing the name of the family on that pleasant little café somewhat assuaged my disappointment in hearing the name only in conjunction with its more southerly use.

Targeting now the readership more of my increasing vintage, I’ll thank Niki for contacting me. I remember her only vaguely, but recall her as being as attractive as her younger raven-haired sister Dale. Dale was one of the mature senior girls who put the pep in the step and glide in the stride of a bunch of gawky freshman boys entering Reno High School, making the high school experience somewhat palatable. (I include in this bevy of beauties our teacher Miss Menu, in her rookie year of teaching English!) “Miss Menu” now hails as “Joanne Kimball,” and stays in touch with the column, always grammatically perfectly. Dale Record-Johnstone, we regret, passed away in 2014; her daughter Shelby Lively resides in Reno. Niki Schraub’s son Richard also resides in Reno.

Switching gears now but still writing of popular teachers, I’m pleased to report that our teacher and later administrator John Gonda, who like Miss Menu was another teacher we had in their rookie year (1951 for John) was named earlier in the week to the Sparks High School Athletic Hall of Fame. I thank John’s son Jeff – born when John taught us at Central Jr. High – for bringing this to my attention!

It’s been a tough week for the classmates of Mr. Gonda’s class of 1951. Here we say, thanks for reading; so long, Ma Bell, and God bless America.

contact Breck at



Breckenridge 1, Renown 0

cropped-cropped-kfb-bow-tieAn email arrived yesterday from a lady who reads this blog: “Why don’t you write a column about writing columns to get yourself back into the swing?” – a meritorious idea indeed. That email, plus some good words from a friend in Gardnerville, pointed me toward a reunion with the laptop that I was yesterday going to give away.

I tried it – after writing columns for about 40 years, 31 with the Gazoo at the invitation of of Rollan Melton – I find that writing about how it’s done is akin to thinking about driving a car with a clutch – gas off, clutch in, shift the lever, clutch out, gas pedal up – you’ll grind a gear every time if you think about it and don’t just DO it! So I’m going to grind a few gears right now – let’s write a column, best to start by putting your brain out of gear…

For openers, the doctors stole a rule from columnists: “First do no harm.” I’ve been counseled, and occasionally asked, to raise hell about something or someone or some restaurant’s service or some politician’s mindless ramblings (the rule of “no politics” probably contributed to my longevity!). And no; not gonna happen – this column has never been a bully pulpit. Guidance, possibly; but never “avoid this place like the plague” after a bum meal.. I’ve written, “We said ‘Grace’ after our meal” and let the chips fall where they may with readers.

If you’ve seen a name here, it’s after I contacted and gained permission to use that name. I was told that by a San Francisco Chronicle columnist who passed away in 1997 whose name I don’t have permission to use. And occasionally I’m told, “Here’s an item, but don’t use my name…” My response to that has been “OK” if I trust them, “But if I get bounced for it, your name comes out.” And occasionally if it’s iffy enough I just say no, thanks. Not being a true reporter, I can do as I will in that regard.

I should mention in that regard that the Christmas poems, which I’ve done a dozen of with upwards of 140 names in each, that that rule about gaining permission is suspended. If your name rhymes with someone else’s, like “Arrizabalaga” or “Parkenfarker,” I’ll probably roll the dice and use it. I’ve caught hell a few times over names, like the time I mentioned Esther and Lester Westergard and his brother Chester. “Please don’t do that again,” I heard from the whole family. OK.

The most popular columns over the years? One was clearly of Eugene’s restaurant, a link from 1950s Reno to an element of metropolitan style. The 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Olynpics. Downtown “Walks.” Old schools and the teachers who taught in them. And of my “Faded Menus” accounts – from Vario’s and the Liberty Belle to Henry’s Corner and Landrum’s and all falling in between. Anything to do with the Mapes Hotel, including accounts of The Misfits movie. Anything to do with Harrah’s Club and Mr. Harrah, now cloaked in a Non-Disclosure Agreement with its late former employees and the few surviving NDA signatories – like yours truly – who still honor the contract 41 years following his passing. I’ll explore that in a column soon.

Some things I jokingly don’t write about (actually I do sometimes!): architects, irrigation ditches, churches and railroads. Many popular architects had their plans “stamped off” by another mentor and don’t show as the architect-of-record. Irrigation ditches’ records exist, sort of, in Italian and thus are hard to research. Church records are kept marginally by Suzy until Suzy dies, and is replaced by Tilly, who didn’t like Suzy in the first place, and changed all the records to match Tilly’s also-marginal recollection and then along comes Breckenridge, uses Tilly’s records and gets fed his column by those who know, or think they know, what really happened. And railroads have sets and subsets of files, most of which vary, and I gave up on them when ace SP historians Richard C. Datin and Dale Darney passed away.

I later added LaVere Redfield to that list, and loved the book about him written by my friend Jack Harpster. Better Jack than I.

An element of journalism I’ve become constantly in awe of, took place during World War II when I was a pre-schooler: the press’ ability to suppress wartime intelligence. Try finding out about the ordnance depot just north of Washoe General Hospital (Renown), or Reno (Stead) Air Force Base, or for that matter even 1960s Rocketdyne north of Reno. No text accounts, if I’m lucky a slim handful of bootlegged pictures. The writers and editors really knew what they were doing back then.

I’ve tried to give some “under the radar” folks their fifteen minutes of fame: Mr. Minetto, who had no first name, our janitor at Mary S. Doten Elementary School.  Dozens of old schoolteachers who will never get a school named for them. Friends. The chef at Harolds Club, no apostrophe, when I was asked by a reader for the recipe for Harolds Club’s famous banana cream pie cake. That one ended backfired on me; I found him through his daughter, who spoke his Italian. “Dad says unless you’re making ten restaurant sheet cakes and need that much of the mix the club bought by the gallon, go buy a Betty Crocker mix – dad says it’s as good as ours ever was.” Honesty is a byword of this column.

Some stories don’t need to be told. I hear twice a year about the guy who shot up a fleabag motel west of town and got dead after ruining a bunch of Rembrandts in the 1970s. “You should do a column about it…!” Or I should write of the (husband, wife, cleaning lady, plumber) who found the two, four, six kids shot dead by the husband, wife, cleaning lady, plumber in the fancy home on Nixon, Dartmouth, Arlington, California, or Gordon Avenue in the late 1950s or early ‘60s. Or the scion of the uranium king and his buddies that had the mother of all fistfights in Wingfield Park and killed a kid, or the doctor who drowned his wife in a fashionable house in northwest Reno in the 1960s. Or a few others that keep coming up. The motel stunt was 1966 and they were Modiglianis from Wilbur May’s ranch, not Rembrandts; there were three children shot by their mother in 1958; no child died in Idlewild Park not Wingfield Park, (but some notable families were involved); I lived half a block from the doctor who broke his wife’s neck, not drowned her, in 1954. I have more info about them all than that in the morgues of the Gazette or the Journal, most written out in column format, but the common thread to all is that some family remains in Reno for each incident (and a dozen others), or in the case of the three children shot by their mother who then died by her  own hand, the home where it happened,  which is in truth on none of those streets I named, is occupied and the occupants don’t need to read about that aspect of their residence.

Those will never see the light of day in the Ol’ Reno Guy column. The Galaxy crash and Pacific Air Lines story appeared only after discussion with surviving family members……..

How long are columns? I always shoot for a thousand words, but usually fudge it up to 1,200 by the time I’m finished (get this: I’m looking at my word counter now and am at 1,171!) Columnists develop a “sixth sense” for space. This one is longer due to its content. How long does it take to write? I might have one written in my head driving between Vallejo and Truckee then sit down and type it. Yes, I did in earlier days my columns on a Brother typewriter, and have to end with a tale from the past, of an old lady reader from San Rafael who would monthly send me a couple pages typed on vellum paper with a relic typewriter with a fabric ribbon. I responded on vellum paper with my Underwood Standard using a fabric ribbon, and she thought I was the greatest thing since night baseball ‘til she passed away in 1999. Her family let me know of that on, you guessed it, vellum paper typed with a fabric ribbon. Still got that letter….

So, there are 1,311 words about the column – I’ll end it with “God bless America” for old time’s sake, and thank my friend Mike Fischer for getting me off my ass to write another column. More will follow – you can thank or blame Mike for that!



On the mend…..

cropped-cropped-kfb-bow-tieThis site has been in free-fall for a month now, since I opted to have a procedure done on my spine to alleviate a constriction in the spinal column. This contemplates opening up the spine with a carving knife and then taking a Dremel bit and grinding off part of the knots in the spinal column so brainwaves, if any, can travel up and down from my noggin to my feet. Then the whole thing is sewed up with 34 staples, I regain conciousness, and pay the girl on the way out. Fortunately, I’m sedated during the process.

But it hurts. A tip of the hat here to Dr. Perry at SpineNevada, who orchestrated the whole three hours masterfully. I’d send a friend back, which is a sign of huge appreciation.

Now I’m feeling the urge to write something – the six-year-old kid on his bike – stories of Reno and Sparks back in the day – or now a few hilarious anecdotes about hospitals and those who moil in them, and a couple of true stories about HIPAA and its ramifications – the bad guys don’t need to bomb our motherland; we’ll do it to ourselves sooner than later, with privacy.

The message is, come back and see me in a few days. And don’t pay the ransom, I escaped. signed, Karl Breckenridge AKA Ten-twenty-nineteen-forty-one. The drive-by writer with little spring in his step nor glide in his stride. But that’s coming back also…










the Sparks Southern Pacific engine shop addition

From the dark reaches of our choo-choo file we find an old photograph taken inside the addition to the Southern Pacific locomotive repair shops, still standing just west of the tank farm in Sparks. This wartime steel addition to the old brick loco shop is here seen inside, the windows are those seen from the freeway.


sp_shopThe lettering on the picture indicates “lifting first locomotive in new erecting shop – Sparks, Nev. – Feb. 9, 1944”  Loco 4046 was brought in from the turntable serving the roundhouse near the south dead end of present Pyramid Way. Separated from its tender, it was backed through the old brick loco shop and into this new building, where it was lifted clear of its axles, wheels and cylinders, for a complete tear-down and service.

Here’s a link to an old story about what work was done in the loco shops in Sparks. You may have already read it. It opens in a new window.

Below is an aerial view of the Sparks S.P. roundhouse looking northeast to southwest, note B Street/Victorian Way diagonally to the lower right, 8th Street/Pyramid Way just to the right of the uppermost white building on B Street. The locomotive shops with the later 1944 addition are seen to the east/left of the roundhouse and turntable (the roundhouse was razed in 1959). The Sparks Nugget is now located near the grove of trees to the upper right corner of the picture. The Pacific Fruit Express icehouse, later housing the original Harrah’s Auto Collection,  is seen to the upper left in the photo. Both photos © Southern Pacific Railroad, pleasesp-sparks-roundhouse

The Flight of PAL 773

          This  yarn begins in midweek over 55 years ago (May 6, 1964) at the San Francisco airport, where a man, described later by acquaintances and family as debt-ridden and erratic, purchased two life insurance policies with a value of over $160,000 from an airport vending machine, naming his wife as the beneficiary.

          To add relevance to that figure, I’d guess that 80 per cent of the homes in Reno could be bought 50 years ago for under $25,000.  He flew Pacific Air Lines to Reno and knocked around most of the night in the casinos.  And, in the laissez-faire world of the early 1960s, he was able to both purchase a Colt .357 on-the-spot from a downtown Reno hock shop, and to board San Francisco-bound PAL flight #773 in Reno early the next morning, carrying the gun aboard.  [Follow-up correspondence – unconfirmable – speculates that he bought the gun not in Reno, but in his Bay Area home town.  Were that the case we could surmise that he boarded an airliner not once but twice with a gun.]

          PAL 773 was under the hand of Captain Ernest Clark, a 22,000-hour commercial and Army Air Corps pilot with 3,000 of those hours in the Fairchild F-27 in use that day – the plane a twin-turboprop favorite workhorse of short- and medium-range regional carriers.  The flight stopped briefly in Stockton, and passengers who deplaned in Stockton recalled the man seated in the front row, behind the open cockpit door.

            Departing Stockton, the flight was on schedule over the East Bay on a long final approach into San Francisco International Airport when a frantic voice broke over the SFO arrival traffic frequency “PAL seven-seven-three, Skipper’s shot…we’ve been shot…trying to help” – the voice of 6,000-hour co-pilot Raymond Andress.  One account suggested the phrase “…passenger in the cockpit” followed by a gunshot.  Medical examiners would find the pilot and co-pilot shot in the backs of their heads, and all six rounds of the revolver fired.

            Investigators speculated that the F-27, trimmed for landing, would, if left unattended, maintain level flight for a while, and that the hijacker must have exerted considerable pressure on the yolk to start the plane into the near-vertical dive that eyewitnesses on the ground reported seeing.  The plane impacted on a grassy hill near San Ramon, which on that early hour of May 7th of 1964 was just a wide spot in the road in Contra Costa County.

            The incident had worldwide repercussions, inasmuch as it was the first intrusion by an armed passenger into a commercial airliner cockpit.  And the PAL 773 hijacking became even more heinous by the catastrophic loss of life.  Living in San Francisco at the time, I was amazed and amused, but saddened to see my ‘lil ol’ hometown making the news so often for days and weeks – the “Reno hijacking” this and “Gamblers’ Special” that – (which it wasn’t).  The flight originated in Reno with only one Nevadan aboard, with an intervening stop in Stockton and ended in San Ramon, all by a plan premeditated by a San Francisco resident, but around the nation’s newsrooms the unheard-of first-ever hijacking had to be an only-in-sin-city-divorcin’ and gamblin’-Reno occurrence.  The siege of take-me-to-Cuba diversions and D. B. Cooper’s stunt would come in years to follow.  (And none originated in Reno.)

            The fatal flight’s occupant manifest listed 44 souls, inclusive of the pilot and co-pilot, 30-year-old stewardess Marjorie Schafer, the skyjacker (thanks, Herb Caen, for that slang), 39 mostly-Bay Area residents, and …Roger Brander, 34, gnrl. mgr. KBUB-AM radio, Reno, Nev

Endnote: Slain pilot Ernest Clark’s daughter, Julie Clark, who was 15 at the time of the tragedy, went on to buy an ex-Navy T-34 trainer (think Beechcraft Bonanza with tandem seats and a conventional tail) that she flew to numerous international aerobatic championships and demonstrated at the Reno Air Races…