OK, we’re going downtown…


Boy, you skip one day writing a post after you make the public declaration that you’ll strive to post once-a-day, and find out who your friends and readers are. To put it differently, I get more response when I miss a day than when I post something, which tells me that I’d be better off to leave the laptop alone!

OK, today we’ll post an ad that I dredged up when I was writing about the Granada Theater, which was also the home of the Siamese Room, a venerable Reno establishment on West First Street that had about ten seats, and would be considered full to capacity if Tad Dunbar was occupying one of them.

The best part of the ad, save for the recollections of the Siamese that so many of us have, is the map that goes with it. Check out the establishments named on the map, and how many of them are now bygone memories…

Now I hit the “post” button, and with any luck at all, you’ll read this, and frankly the website hasn’t been cooperating lately. Like right now when I try to make the second “o” in cooperating a dieresis and it won’t let me. I think the smoke is getting to me.

Craig Morrison says I have to make two posts today to get even. Maybe I’ll post something about him going into the Reno High School Athletic Hall of Fame next month. But the only picture I have of him is when he was ten, sitting on a pony with a bandana on (Craig, not the pony). Somebody should write a column about the little corral out at the corner of Mt. Rose and Plumas Streets, the edge of Reno, where I think Craig’s picture was taken.

Check back, maybe Buckaroo Morrison will grace our pages.

The Donner Ridge Fire – August 20, 1960


On a bucolic late-summer day, a plume of smoke was spotted against an overcast cloud ceiling, emanating from a ridge high above Truckee, somewhere near the new Interstate 80 freeway then under construction. It was a Saturday afternoon, August the 20th of 1960, and countless Tahoe vacationaers were loading up the family wagons for the trek back to the Bay Area and home. If they’d gassed up their cars, they stood a chance, but a slim one, of getting home. If not, they were probably still sitting at Kings Beach or Tahoe City or South Shore on the following Tuesday morning.

The small smoke column above Truckee and Donner Lake grew with phenomenal intensity, spreading at its base and moving to the east at a speed fast enough to “crown” across the treetops over the earliest firemen on the scene, forcing them to retreat at a virtual dead-run, in some cases leaving their tools, and at least one Caterpillar dozer behind.  The new freeway was closed almost immediately to preserve it for fire equipment – most of which were the on-road variety with few brush trucks capable of getting to the gnarly terrain of the fire’s perimeter, which was enlarging exponentially above the highway toward the town of Verdi.  A summer employee of Standard Oil, I recall leaving Kings Beach with a truckload of diesel fuel drums for fire apparatus and being slowed to 15 miles an hour five miles south of Truckee by the heavy smoke lying over the Brockway Shortcut (Highway 267).  The smoke soon engulfed the Lake Tahoe basin.

          At 4:15 p.m. the power went out, and not just in Truckee and Donner Lake; the outage reached from the state line as far east as Carlin and Battle Mountain, to Yerington and Hawthorne, and naturally, Sparks, Carson City, Minden, Gardnerville and Reno.  Basically, the northern half of Nevada was in darkness as evening fell that Saturday.

• • •

The fire effort was legendary, with firefighters arriving hourly from distant points in the west, cutting lines similar to the effort last week on the Martis fire but without modern protective clothing, the heavy-lift helicopters and air tankers overhead, the handheld communications and on-site meteorological advances.  Few were spared; gawkers stopping along the adjoining roads found themselves with a shovel in their hands conscripted to building a line.

      Cloaked in darkness, we all fumbled our way through grocery stores with no refrigeration for provisions – in the store or at home – unsure how long the outage would continue.  Harrah’s cancelled Jack Benny’s show at Stateline (that showroom then only eight months old!)  We conserved fuel in our cars, as the service stations were out of business, the fire agencies all raising hell about some operators’ efforts to pump by hand from underground tanks.  This newspaper, actually two papers then, the Gazette and the Journal, relied on a heavy on-site generator at their building on West Second Street, and got newspapers onto the street almost on schedule, keeping residents and the tourists held hostage by the fuel shortage apprised of information about the fire and the future. (A major problem was created by the huge population of tourists who would normally have left for home, but were now left stranded in Reno, Sparks and the Lake Tahoe basin and requiring food and housing.)

            One radio station in Sparks and another in Reno were able to stay on the air, their audience confined to listeners with battery radios or those willing to run their cars.  The Reno airport continued to function, albeit hampered by the smoke that darkened the city to virtual nighttime visibility – the airport managers mustered up smoke pots, used liberally as warning devices in the late 1950s around construction sites, and lined them up to form approach lanes and runway and taxiway lighting.  Oceans Eleven fell dark at the Majestic Theater.

   DonnerFireJournal   The Wednesday morning Journal reported that power had been restored to almost all Sierra Pacific customers all over Nevada (the paper had carried the news the day before that a 120,000 kilovolt line in the Truckee/Donner Lake vicinity had been an early casualty of the embryonic fire on that Saturday afternoon, almost immediately followed by 13 poles burning out from under a 60,000 KV line nearby.)  Few, if any, other significant structures were damaged by the fire.

      After a long week, the fire was controlled, later confined, and then out, at least to the casual observer.  California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, federal and tribal agencies had been on the fire line for the week it took to control it, then remained in the burn area until the first snows fell in 1960, searching for hot spots, still finding some even in the cooling fall temperatures.

      It was named the Donner Ridge fire – August 20th, 1960.  Was it bigger than the Rim (Yosemite) Fire?  Possibly not in terms of acreage, but in terms of disruption to a huge number of residents, tourists and the economy — and the heartbreak of ravaging the natural beauty and creating a scar that’s still visible 41 [58!] years later — at 43,000 acres it was certainly one of our area’s major forest fires. And how was it caused?


• • •

[Epilogue: The cause was eventually determined to be a spark off the blade of a bulldozer working on the new Interstate 80 high on the mountain above Truckee.  This column originally appeared in the RGJ on the Saturday following the nearly-disastrous Martis Creek Fire, starting on Fathers Day, 2001]

Reno Evening Gazette hed courtesy of Jay Robinson

The photo in use for many insertions depicting the forest fire was later determined to not be of the Donner Ridge fire… mea culpa…

© RGJ 2001




The Mason’s Child ID program

Child ID

Not a scene I’d usually use on this website, but today, that’s the scene I worked for three hours at the Terry Lee Wells Discovery Museum, in the old Reno City Hall. It was a congregation of fire and safety officers and equipment, bomb squad  trucks, a ladder truck (OK, an aerial) with the Jaws of Life for the kids to see, a SWAT team truck, black, natch, as all SWAT team trucks must be. And inside, guys from Reno Fire and Reno Police with cool stuff to give away for kids’ safety, and a K-9 dog show. A good afternoon.

The Masons were invited to host a Child ID program, as Masonic lodges from the Atlantic seaboard to the broad Pacific’s shores do with great regularity, in conjunction with local law enforcement officials. It’s a good program.

We photograph the kid, get his or her thumbprints, their height and weight, birthplace, age (birthdate), parents’ names, and give them a kit to gain the child’s DNA – pretty simple. It’s a little plastic envelope that the parent puts the child’s fingernail and toenail clippings, and a hair extracted with the root. That’s all that’s needed to determine DNA.

Neither the Masons nor the sheriffs’ offices keep the records. The parent is given a sheet with a photograph of the child, thumbprints, and the information above, and the DNA envelope to collect the samples later at home. No records are retained after the afternoon’s over – the computer is wiped clean.

It’s a good program. We do it, every couple weeks in Reno and Sparks, twice coming up at Lake Tahoe venues, Truckee and Carson Valley and Carson City locations, anywhere kids are likely to be gathering. It takes about five minutes, sometimes we have a five- or ten-minute backlog. And it’s free!

But the parents leave with a thumbnail of their child, for their own use and a copy to grandma, summer camps, baby sitters, anywhere the child might be.

In the picture above, Bill Sullivan in the yellow Best-in-the-West Rib Cookoff t-shirt, from Pyramid Lodge #43 has a child looking at the digital camera on the tripod, to send a photo to the computer (he’s just fingerprinted the kid electronically); while Rod Stahl from Reno Lodge #13 assists a volunteer from the Washoe County Health Department.  In the distance, another volunteer measures a boy’s height and stands him on a scale.

If you’ve a child or a grandchild and you’re out at some shindig where you see the Masons doing a Child ID program, take the five minutes and we’ll send you home with a package of information that may save a lost child’s life!

Reno’s Ground Cow diner

Ground Cow</a

A friend e-mailed, following a mention of the Ground Cow re-opening under it’s own name in Penryn a year ago, “Didn’t we have a Ground Cow in Reno?”

Indeed we did; back before the freeway came through Reno, back before there was a McCarran Boulevard – “Ring Road” – running north/south west of Keystone Avenue, there was a Ground Cow. It resided approximately on the corner of West Seventh Street and Keystone, which was known as Peavine Row in my youth.

In the photo above, a familiar scene, traveling north on Keystone, the car on the right coming off the freeway, the antenna array on the site of the ole Ground Cow.

It was a popular place, food was good and the prices were right, but, it was a casualty of the freeway construction in the mid-1960s.

The Ground Cow was an Oakland-based “chain,” if three restaurants make a chain. The first was in Oakland, and in the early 1950s another opened in Auburn, on the north side of Highway 40 just about across the path from Lou LaBonte’s. In 1962 that one relocated westward to Penryn, flourished, then for reasons unknown seem to go to hell. It reopened again other other names, each new tenant being worse than the last (in my humble opinion. I am not a restaurant reviewer.) It’s now back to being the (only) Ground Cow, and I’ve had so many bum meals there I can’t bring myself to go in and dine. Maybe this fall I’ll put that on my list of columns that need to be written. Or, in the alternative somebody from my burgeoning reader base may actually consume food there and I can do a review.

Jeremiah’s joins my list of faded menus


Back in the mid- to late-1970s a whole new way of eating burst forth, in French, Roquefort or Thousand Islands: A diner could make his or her own salad! Just the way they wanted it! Well, let’s all go down to that new joint at East Plumb Lane at Kietzke – Jeremiah’s Steak House – yippee.

Jeremiah’s was a great place to dine, dinner or lunch; a pleasant series of rooms on different levels that would drive the ADA freaks crazy today. An upstairs loft, a comfortable bar. Lots of wood, nice-looking servers, a real trend-setter in Reno.

And it did a good business from the get-go. A hot place for lunch, business or pleasure, with Strolling Fashions a day a week. The upstairs loft for group lunches, quiet, but not to the extent of tomb-like. Proximate to the airport, if you were dropping someone off or had just landed, a nice meal on the way home.

And steaks! Jeremiah’s Steak House. What’s in a name – that said it all. This was truly a nice place to eat, good prices, service, menus.

What happened? Who knows – somebody probably does, I don’t. One day, a day quite a few years ago, it fell off the radar. It went to seed overnight, it would seem. It closed, and reopened, and opened as a Mexican joint, I think, later a Chinese buffet. And closed some more.

Now, it’s going, going, gone. Too bad. Why do all the nice restaurants in Reno close? Remember Marie Callender’s (on South Virginia)? Hobo Junction to the north? I won’t even mention Eugene’s and Vario’s, but am somewhat proud to have a Bricks in our town. Even although when I wrote about it in the RGJ, twice, some well-meaning editor put in a possessive apostrophe: Brick’s. Twice. If I wanted an apostrophe, I’d have typed one. Like Harolds Club. No apostrophe, Pappy Smith says so. But how often do you see it? Every time you see it.

What’s this to do with Jeremiah’s? I don’t know either. But, if I had lunch with you there, or a nice dinner, let’s look back fondly on that night!

Heritage Bank brightens up Midtown Reno!

Heritage Bank

A day or two ago I wrote a piece about the old Union Federal Savings & Loan building on South Virginia Street, that was less-than-complimentary about its design. I pulled it at the last minute, inasmuch that it was in fact designed by an architect, I guess, who might still be with us and whose mother might read this blog.

The thrust of the story, the building’s style be damned, was a huge pat on the back of Heritage Bank, for going into that project full-bore and alleviating some of the design drawbacks of the building. So, we’ll just take the high road here, and pay compliments to Heritage Bank and its leader Stan Wilmoth,

The building went up, I’d guess about 1972, and I don’t know who the architect was. I do recall that there was a pretty good dust-up about its placement on the southwest corner of Park Lane, which had been built four or five years before. (You do remember, that there was a rather significant shopping center on the lot adjoining the Union Federal, now Heritage building northward to Plumb Lane?)

The rancher who sold some of the dirt under Park Lane to the developers, ceded to Park Lane a commitment to maintain the land occupied by Union Federal, now Heritage, as a view corridor from South Virginia Street to the new center being built. That was all well and good, but in a few years to follow the rancher said to hell with that, and sold the land to Union Fed, and all hell broke loose.

I don’t remember the eventual outcome; for as big as beef as it was then I can’t find anyone now who remembers who prevailed in this brouhaha. The fact that the building is there would suggest that Park Lane lost, but maybe some $$ exchanged hands in recompense. Couldn’t say.

Anyhoo, the building, which is most charitably described as interesting, is getting a makeover and some rockwork to break up the endless corners and angles in the front, if it is indeed the front, of the building. Thanks, Heritage Bank, for brightening up the southern edge of our little hamlet’s developing “Midtown” district.

Two points must follow: No, the building was not built of Legos, as some suggested 40 years ago, and yes, Heritage Bank, who deserves a great deal of credit for amassing and maintaining a “local heritage” library in their present quarters in the old FNB building on South Virginia, does indeed have a copy of my book, Which makes me feel very honored!

Harrah’s bygone gateway to the stars

Harrah's hanger

In the halcyon, bygone days of our little town on the Truckee, the swells of the entertainment community came to Reno and Sparks in droves, or more often in Lears, Falcons and Grummans. They came to sing and be seen, to amuse us with their words, or amaze us with their Terpsichore, or their command of strings, brass, or their reeds. And some, like Sammy, did all of the above.

Contemporaneously, those with demonstrable disposable and discretionary income and assets arrived in our town, and it was seldom in a Pontiac station wagon or the City of San Francisco choo-choo. These sorts traveled well, either in their own Lears and Falcons, or in one provided by, well, in this case, Harrah’s Club, for some of these travelers, accompanied by their wives or girlfriends or both, liked the green felt tables and the rewards there available so much, and felt so good about Lady Luck, that Harrah’s was more than eager to send a jet to their home town, haul them here, house them in the new downtown hotel tower or the companion at the South Shore, to get them standing before the green felt tables.

Experience had shown that these of the disposable wealth would in a few days Keep Nevada Green, and buy a lot of jet fuel with the wealth that the casino retained, the “drop,” I believe they call it. But hey, they had fun, stayed in the VIP suite, got a ride in the Falcon, a limo, saw Sammy in the showroom and probably rubbed elbows with him, and left on Runway one-six for home with a great weekend under his belt. Or, her belt.

But where to disembark in Reno? Sammy, and Dean and the Coz and Debbie and Gomer and Red and Olivia and Willie and Waylon and the rest weren’t too nutty about climbing out of Harrah’s planes, or often their own planes, with the unwashed at Reno Flying Service or Silver State. Nor were the high-rollers – “whales,” as they were often called – anxious to start their Reno stay with a bunch of strangers.

Thus, the only obvious thing for Harrah’s to do was to build a terminal of their own, on land leased from the airport, just north of the present air cargo facility on Terminal Way. And it was a beauty, with landscaping, and the impeccable Harrah touch in design and maintenance, and hospitality within for the arriving dignitaries. A place where they could be with their own kind, with ample help standing by to handle their luggage and a Rolls-Royce Phantom V at-the-ready just outside.

Weather? No problem, a hangar was built to the east, and later a larger one for the corporate Grumman.

The Harrah airport facility went night-and-day during the busy times of the year, handling Harrah’s aircraft operations and guests, and the planes operated by the entertainers. Which were not infrequent – some entertainers would put on a cocktail show in Reno, blast off for an appearance in LA, and return to town in time for the next night’s dinner show. Being famous isn’t easy.

Now, Sammy and the Coz and Debbie and the rest don’ come ‘roun’ no more, and I don’t know if Harrah’s even operates an airplane (at one time there were maybe five of varying sizes and capacities). And the high-rollers? Maybe. But they don’t come to the Harrah facility, which I understand went back to Airport Authority control.

I looked at it a couple days ago from Terminal Way and went back to shoot the picture above. And I thought, if that little now-dilapidated building could talk, the stories of the rich, famous and legendary it could speak of – few places in Reno have been a confluence of so much of Reno’s entertainment heritage

Our own favorite America’s Cup skipper


The challenge for the America’s Cup rules the high seas, or at least the high Bay of San Francisco. Traffic, lodging costs, restaurants and life in the City generally are screwed up to a fare-thee-well as this continues, and will continue through September.

We of the Black Bear Diner Gentlemen’s Coffee, World Dilemma Solutions, Laudable Opinions, If-a-rumor-is-not-heard-by-9:00 a.m.-sharp-we-start-one, and other general BS as may properly come to our attention, have our own favorite skipper, in a shot taken when she was at the helm of an America’s Cup yacht, the one that won in 1987, the Stars & Stripes; she’s seen here putting it into a tight upwind turn, the 110-foot mast heeled over, the “grinders” cranking on the windlasses, a lass thoroughly in charge.

As a matter of fact, she actually took the conn of the vessel a few years ago in San Diego Harbor, where it is made available for day tours by its owners, who I don’t think now include Dennis Connors, its master in 1987. But I could be wrong.

She’s a local lady of my acquaintance since our childhood, and did indeed several years ago crew the return of a Transpacific race yacht back to the Mainland, a journey that many forget must occur after the Transpac races, that eastbound journey into far less hospitable seas than the more publicized westbound race to Hawai’i.

She’s definitely no stranger to Blue Waters. We’ll just know her as the Lady of the Stars & Stripes (by the way, the accompanying photograph is of the Endeavour, a 1932 defender of the America’s Cup.)

And here, we’ll do a little lobbying: The boats currently pitch-poling all over the Bay, fighting with each other like wee kiddies on Jessie Beck Elementary’s playground and going through the owners’ money like shit through a tin horn, don’t have names. They’re known collectively as Emirates, the Kiwi team, and as Luna Rosa, the Italians, but with no names on the transoms. (Actually, no transoms either, but these are sailboats in name only.) What happened to yacht names like Stars & Stripes? Proud names that went into sailing history – Dauntless, Defender, Resolute, Mayflower…? Courageous and Intrepid? (Twice each, twuly…)

Goodyear Tire, shortly after WWI, decreed that its publicity balloons, slow and stately, emulated blue-water sailing ships, and so would be named for America’s Cup defenders, and called their first airship Puritan, after an early Cup defender. Ranger, Enterprise, Columbia, America and Stars & Stripes, and a few more, and the ones named in the last paragraph, followed the Puritan into the early 2000s – “Spirit” took over the series of names, “Spirit of….” the three airships based in the United States.

Now, what would Goodyear had done with the names in use today, or rather, not in use? Shameful, I say.

And the final Goodyear blimp note: Years ago, Goodyear was successful in wresting from the FAA a series of consecutive tail numbers for its blimps, through, I think N2A through N12A. Lowest numbers in America, save for one, that one emblazoned the tail of a DC-3 donated to the FAA by Standard Oil.

And recently, the FAA ceded that coveted number to Goodyear, for airship Spirit of America, November-One-Alpha.


Sail on, Lady of the Stars & Stripes – blue waters ahead, fair winds, and a following sea….

Rumors of my passing are exaggerated…


Things have been a bit busy in July, coupled with a relocation of the Old Reno Guy global corporate office. But I’ll be back.

In honor of Hot August Nights, please observe if you will the Old Reno Guy chauffeuring a friend from San Francisco, in the staff limousine, a totally-restored 1966 CJ-5A Jeep, easy to 66restore in that it has no doors, windows, cranks, roof, minimal upholstery and if it becomes soiled it may be thoroughly rinsed off with a garden hose. It has a stock GMC V-6 engine, three-on-the-floor (six counting the transfer case), turn signals and back-up lights which were optional equipment in 1966, I know, because I bought a ‘ 66 in 1966 from Cal-Vada Jeep on West Fourth Street at Chestnut,  oh, OK, Arlington.

I’ll be back in a few days. Karl