Baghdad1951The Arabian Nights – a 12th century fable and a 19th century state of mind.  Veiled maidens with rubies in their belly buttons darting furtively through arched portals, camels kushed outside darkened houses heavy with the odor of strong tobacco burning in a hookah and cuisine based on God-knows-what cooking in an earthen kettle; threatening-looking men with bold moustaches, loose garments and heavy scimitars at their sides, and nary a sound to be heard other than music with some unsettling tone and meter in the background.  A crescent moon – always a crescent, never full nor new – always overhead.  A disdain for westerners.  Safe haven for miscreants from all over the earth, akin to Butch and Sundance’s Hole in the Wall a thousand years later.  A foreboding night in a foreboding town.

            Baghdad.  Or, seen in many early western publications as Bagdad.

            It caught the world’s eye in the 1920s when it became capital of Iraq.  Boundaries of faraway nations meant little to us – it was all the land of Arabia to the music lyricists, fashion designers and Hollywood writers, all capitalizing on its mystique.  Few seasoned moviegoers can forget the sepia-toned scene, in Cinerama yet, when a tiny speck on the barren windswept desert appeared through a distant mirage, then inexorably, slowly, grew larger and closer to the viewer until the skirted horse and a turbaned Omar Sharif, his tattered burnoose streaming in the wind, dismounted to deliver news to (Capt. T. E.) Lawrence of Arabia.  Many regard it as director David Lean’s most memorable scene, ever.

            But why did San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner columnist Herb Caen nickname San Francisco, and later subtitle his column, Baghdad-by-the-Bay?  Baghdad and San Francisco are little alike; San Francisco built on seven hills, only forty square miles with water on three sides, but Baghdad basically level and spread out 20 times larger, its only waterfront the Tigris River; San Francisco, in a word, of breathtaking beauty while Baghdad, well, by Caen’s assessment, less so – the sparkling white minarets exist mostly in travel brochures.  Not an unattractive city, but no San Francisco.  Why was it called Baghdad-by-the-Bay by a scribe who set Bay Area trends for seven decades, until his death in February of 1997?

Right about now, in case you’re wondering what inspired this column: A reader asked me why, given my frequent references to Herb Caen, haven’t I jumped on Caen’s 50-year old reference to Baghdad.  And I point out that I welcome many former Bay Area residents to this column, who loved or hated Caen but definitely read him daily.  My simple excuse is that I figured that some other writer had already drawn attention to it, given the events of the world.  But learning of none, I’ll wrap up the explanation:

Caen drew his analogy based upon lifestyle, not the cities’ appearances or geography.  Caen’s San Francisco was a wild, wide-open city in 1951, a town with colonies of a dozen ethnic regions that lived by their own cultures unabated, a dozen tongues spoken each morning on the 30-Stockton bus line on the way downtown to work, not unlike a commute in Baghdad.  Fugitives from other climes who lived less than savory lives were left alone, so long as they didn’t cause any problems to either city’s other residents.   A large Bohemian presence thrived in both cities.  And both cities had an unsung tolerance, ranging to admiration, for their diversity and colorful characters, the colorful rising to high places in Baghdad, and respected, if not exalted, in San Francisco.  Remember, Caen coined the nickname in the 1950s; San Francisco perpetuated its no-holds-barred Barbary Coast district for a century after sailing ships gave up the ghost, and Count Marco endured as a local character well into the ‘70s.  (And note the fabled “Barbary Coast” itself is of Arabian flavor…)

            I hope I didn’t break any reader’s heart with this yarn – I was raised on Herb Caen’s stuff, and frankly do borrow, usually with attribution, some of his gimmicks like “Pocketful of notes,” “These things I like,” and “And then I wrote,” and until unraveling his rationale, thought Baghdad was a gleaming sister city to San Francisco, appearance-wise. Guess not.  But we still wish the Baghdaddies and Baghmommies all well, and if you read this last sentence Saturday morning, it’ll surprise me to no end.  [I was surprised – it ran!]

• • •

[Readers’ note: This was first published in 2003 during the early height of the Iraq war]
© Reno Gazette-Journal 2003



The 1957 downtown Reno fire

1947_ALF fire 21917_S_Side_Sta_web
A number of people noticed the odor of natural gas on South Sierra Street near the Truckee River during that bright Tuesday morning in 1957. Yet none called the fire department or the power company, initially. Then, the power company sent an inspector who toured the lower level of Gray Reid Wright’s store at West First and Sierra Streets, and charged the odor off as that of paint.

The first two calls to the fire department came almost simultaneously at 12:53 p.m., from Spina’s shoe store, and Paterson’s Men’s Store, next door to Spina’s – both businesses on the west side of South Sierra Street between the Truckee and West First. While those calls were arriving, Elks Club manager J. C. Kumle – aware that something was amiss – was quickly breaking up card games and post-lunch chatter, marshaling members out of the Elks building across Sierra Street from Spina’s, if necessary without their jackets – it was a relatively warm day for early February – February 5th, to be exact.

It was 12:59 p.m. as the first fire truck pulled up from the old firehouse on Commercial Row, a short four blocks away, and as it stopped in front of Spina’s Nevada Shoe Factory, a violent explosion blew windows out of buildings for blocks around and scattered dust and wood and metal and bricks into the air, reverting the area into darkness. At the Reno High campus on Booth Street, we felt it before we heard it. The concussion that followed was unbelievable, a full mile up the river from the blast.

A second explosion followed, rivaling the first; a third was smaller. The smoke visible almost immediately over town and the wail of sirens signaled that this was no dress rehearsal. We didn’t know what, but something big had blown higher than a kite.

• • •

Downtown workers and shoppers scattered, while emergency equipment from the Reno police and fire department and Sierra Pacific Power converged on the scene. Fire quickly broke out in the three-story Elks Home; by evening it would be reduced to a few partial brick walls and twisted steel beams and columns.

Across Sierra Street the three buildings lining the street from West First to the river – Paterson’s on the corner, then the building housing Spina’s Nevada Shoe Factory, Cambar Fabrics, Tait’s Shoes and Slingerland Insurance Agency facing West First Street. Finally the Biltz building, housing the Sanford law firm, Realtor Ben Edwards, and the Kaylene clothing shop on the street level – all caught fire, almost simultaneously, and were gutted by late afternoon.

That’s four buildings gone by a little past 5 p.m.– the fifth building involved was the Gray Reid’s department store on the southeast corner of West First and Sierra Street. That well-built old building put up a valiant battle, as did the firefighters struggling to save it. And so they did, although it was later necessary to remove the third (top) floor. The surviving structure later became part of the Granada Theater. And recalling the Granada, that building was spared, thanks to a deluge of water from Reno firemen, who were joined in mid-afternoon by the Sparks, Stead AFB, Carson City and Virginia City fire departments, Nevada National Guard personnel to augment the Reno police, and the Red Cross, who set up canteens to feed emergency workers. (I should note, to forestall any confusion, that the Granada itself had been gutted by fire and rebuilt four years earlier.)

A point of confusion for the past 40 years has been the retail building on the northeast corner of Sierra and West First, that I identified in an earlier column as housing Murdock’s, the Vanity, Morgan Smith Jewelers and the Town House, and a few more that I didn’t include. Here’s the straight scoop: That building had already been torn down and the new J.C. Penney’s was being built on the corner at the time the blast occurred. The older building did not burn with its neighbors in the fire – it had already been razed.

Two people died instantly that day. Adeline DuPratt was 57 years old and was struck by flying debris while crossing West First at Sierra. Frank Spina, 48, owned Nevada Shoe Factory at mid-block, and was found under a crushed automobile in front of his store several hours after the explosion. (A broken gas pipe attributed by some as the cause of the blast was discovered almost in front of that shoe store, three feet below the pavement.)

Over a hundred physicians grouped at Washoe Medical Center and St. Mary’s Hospital, and dealt late into the night with scores of firemen, store employees and shoppers injured by flying glass, smoke and splinters. Kumle, the executive secretary of the Elks Club, was lauded in the papers for his efforts — somewhat assertive, according to some accounts — in getting the lunch-crowd diners out of the club, for that was the largest concentration of people in the vicinity of the blast. The Elks later named the street that their replacement building was built on for him (Kumle Lane, across from the Convention Center.)

• • •

I acknowledge reader Darla Potter’s inspiration to get this story written, and archives of the Reno Fire Department and the Hartford Insurance Group and February 6 – 13, 1957 issues of the Reno Evening Gazette and the Nevada State Journal.

• • •

Hark, a letter followed:

Of Parakeets and Fires

The Homefinders’ recollections about the 1957 fire/explosion column are still coming in and will doubtless result in a follow-up one of these weekends, but this one is too good to wait: Helen Teglia fondly tells the story of her father Joe Girola, who owned the building on the west side of Sierra Street that housed his business – American Credit – and Cambar Fabrics, Tait’s Shoe Store and the Nevada Shoe Factory. Seems that Joe, during the fateful morning we wrote of, February 5th of 1957, thought he smelled gas in his building. He went down to the basement, and lacking a tweety-bird like the Comstock miners used to warn of explosive gases, performed the next natural test for natural gas: he struck a match.

“So Joe blew up downtown??” I asked Helen. No, Helen replied, for whatever reason nothing happened, so he miraculously returned to street level and went outside. His brother Henry was not as lucky. Seconds later when the explosion finally hit, Henry was incapacitated in the now-burning building’s office. Helen credits quickly-arriving Air National Guardsmen Pat Rippingham and guard chaplain father leo mcfadden – lower case intentional – for pulling Henry to safety. He was taken to a hospital and treated for burns and bruises.

Henry and Joe Girola have since passed away, as has Pat Rippingham, who drowned in a fishing accident at Pyramid Lake. [and monsignor mcfadden, lower case still intentional] leo mcfadden became a legendary columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal, without ever once using a capital letter.]

• • •

Now, as I update this for a WordPress yarn in January of 2014, several notes: One, that I once wrote of monsignor mcfadden and the RGJ editor kindly uppercased his name. He called me, raising hell with great authority as only a monsignor can, and chastised me for using capitals. I told him I didn’t; I knew better. Some youthful RGJ editor did me that favor. leo told me that the only guy that gets His name capitalized was his boss. 2019 update: Monsingor leo mcfadden passed away a couple years ago.

Two: You think I could find a picture of one of the biggest fires in downtown Reno in my boxes of stuff. Naaah. I did find a couple pictures of fire trucks to get the reader into the mood. The first has a special meaning for me because the City of Reno bought it when I was about seven years old and I rode my bike down to the old station on Commercial Row and got to sit in it.

The other picture, of “Reno South,” was taken in what’s now Jack Bacon’s and Starbucks’ parking lot at the dead end of California Avenue.

I’ll end this as I ended all my columns after 9/11: God bless America!

photo credits: Reno Firefighters Local 731 publication, photographer(s) unknown

column text © Reno Gazette-Journal 2001




Mumbles rides again



Following our score of column visits to a bygone downtown Reno, one denizen was destined to accept his place in posterity.  This column was inspired by a voicemail from Realtor John Utter: “John Gascue and I were talking over lunch about a weirdo newspaper delivery guy who used to work in downtown Reno – call me and I’ll tell you more.” My initial thought was that this topic defines the luncheon fare of two aging Sigma Alpha Epsilon alums that have sold one too many buildings or spent one too many years as principal of Reno High School.  I called Utter: “I know who you mean without hearing any more. His name was Peanut Butter Joe, the old guy on the Simplex.”  (We later agreed he was probably younger then than we are now.)  Peanut Butter Joe, he was, owing to PBJ’s daily nutrition regimen in the form of 13 beers (Acme) and a jar of Skippy’s peanut butter (crunchy) at Harolds Club’s second floor bar as the guest of no less than Pappy Smith himself.

            “Oh, no,” John spoke.  “His name was clearly ‘Mumbles.’” That appellation was born out of Mumbles’ tendency to ride his cycle about the village mumbling incoherent epithets – unprintable on this website – at passersby who would get in his bike’s path, and, uh, expectorate at all of the town’s six taxicabs.  “And he rode a Vespa, not a Simplex.” 

            I concede Utter’s Vespa as to being accurate over my Simplex, having grown up with John and knowing that were Morganna the Kissing Bandit riding a Vespa, Simplex, Ariel Square Four or anything else downtown clad in naught but Santa’s boots and two squirts of Gucci fragrance, John would notice her bike first.  John’s wife Anne Marie’s brother then entered the fray: Tony Lesperance, whose journalistic background came primarily as the head goat-roper for the University of Nevada – (OK, an aggie professor and great guy who ran the University Farm until he retired) – volunteered, “No way.  He was ‘the Bombardier’.  Everyone knew him as that because he always wore a World War II flight suit with a bicycle clip on his pantleg.”  Well, Gascue, Utter and Breckenridge sensed that Lesperance might be a bit shaky, so we brought in a higher authority, this time a big-gun real-deal newspaperman. 

We call in the heavy artillery:

A call was placed to Warren Lerude, who before becoming a Pulitzer Prizewinner, if that’s capitalized, was a circulation director for the Nevada State Journal, the freight that Mumbles or Peanut Butter Joe or the Bombardier delivered on his Vespa.  Or his Simplex.  And, to add further credence, almost overkill, to Warren’s immense credentials, he’s a fellow Sigma Nu alum. “You’re all wrong.  You are obviously speaking of ‘Bicycle Eddie,’ a central cog in the wheel of the 1950s journalistic community, who none of the papers’ staffers in the old building on North Center Street would tangle with for fear of being, uh, you know, on.”

So there you have it, BPS readers [Blue Plate Special, my website where I guess I published this melarkey]. Were you to be downtown Christmas shopping 60 years ago, holiday cheer abounding, Bing Crosby’s pipes crooning White Christmas from the speakers on the roof of the Byington Building, the little animated shoemaker in the window of the Nevada Shoe Factory on Sierra Street bedecked in his annual Santa Claus outfit, the kids skating on the Truckee being chased off by Reno’s Finest, an S.P. cab-forward mallet locomotive laying a haze of smoke along Commercial Row, Vic Charles swinging the Salvation Army bell at his yearly post in the warmth of the Arcade Building, a Marine deuce – OK, big green truck – parked at Second and Virginia to put presents for the needy in, you’d probably run afoul of this legend, in his flight suit and hollering at you, banging on the side of your Nash Metro, cutting off an old lady as he turned his Simplex/Vespa into Douglas Alley. It’s high time that Bicycle Eddie, the Bombardier, Peanut Butter Joe, Mumbles, or the dozen other names that we remember him as, now be enshrined in the great pantheon of the rich heritage of our town that I struggle so diligently in monastic solitude to painstakingly research, a gift for those who will follow us.  And yes, once a year at Christmastime [when I first wrote this column], I am permitted by the Gazoo editor to use run-on sentences that would make my favorite and dear RHS English teacher Roberta Kirchner cringe [Bert passed away – now she revolves in her grave].

• • •

Have a good week, and God bless America.


July 11, 2007


The scarab on the firehouse

Scarab copyWhile strolling East Fourth Street in a column a few weeks ago, I promised a story about the great big black widow spider atop the old Morrill Avenue fire station. Well, for openers, it’s not a black widow nor a beetle, but a scarab – we should have known, since it’s made from an old VW, and it only has six legs (a spider has three more.) How did it get there? Away we go, all together on a Saturday morning.

In 1977, an artist named David Fambrough operated a business with his family – his mother is Jill Fambrough, who like many others was a stripper before she was a Realtor (with Prudential Nevada Realty) – but not what you’re thinking. The Fambrough business was The Stripper; it stripped furniture for refinishing and was located in a Quonset hut ‘way out on South Virginia Street (it’s still there), where if it blew high as a kite, as furniture stripping businesses all eventually do, it wouldn’t vaporize anyone but the Fambrough family.

David, an accomplished artist in bronze, marble and steel as well as restoration and maintenance of fine art (he was curator of the extensive Wilbur May collection and has cared for Picassos and Modiglianis), was also somewhat of an Egyptologist. One day while sketching a scarab, the national bug of Egypt, he noticed it’s similarity of silhouette to a VW Beetle. He looked out of his window at the carcass of a Veedub sitting alongside a pile of irrigation pipe in a field on the Double Diamond ranch where his business was located. He looked at his drawing, and back at the VW. Voila! The cowboys at the ranch told Dave he’d be doing them a favor to get rid of the stuff, so the scarab was born and built, to sit alongside the Quonset barn for several years. (He later made several others, a duplicate of our Reno scarab that was placed in Mound House east of Carson City, and third we’ll learn of in a moment.)

Enter now George Benny, who gained color of title to the Double Diamond Ranch and the River Inn on the old Lawton’s site west of Reno. Before earning himself a stay in a federal gated community for several real estate transgressions gone wrong, George kicked The Stripper, David Fambrough, and all his bugs off the Double Diamond spread. The third beetle was loaded in a trailer when some miscreant stole the dismantled beetle, trailer and all. So – should you see a black ’28 Dodge coupe atop six irrigation-pipe legs somewhere in Homefinder country, David would like it back. Or at the very least, his trailer.

The beetle received national attention, as the focus of innumerable magazine and API wire service stories, even a mighty National Geographic network inclusion in The Volkswagen as Art. Bill Harrah, in what must have been the last few months of his life, was negotiating to acquire the scarab. David eventually gave the City of Reno the original bug, now resting on the fire station [more to follow]. For the edification of the goat-ropers out in the middle of the state who seem to enjoy this column, I’ll try to put an image of it up on my website. [I did]

Is David done building scarabs? Not on your life – he’d love to increase the collection. Leave us not forget that a certain percentage of the cost of a public building must now be spent on durable art – David would like to try a Fiat “Spyder” and a Hudson “Hornet” with a giant pin through their backs like a true insect collection. Maybe a DeHavilland “Gypsy Moth” airplane.

A word to the wise to David: a Caterpillar would also enhance the collection, but that big ol’ yellow D8 bulldozer may need more than irrigation pipe for legs.

And readers: A spider has eight legs – just testing you…

• • •

Subsequent e-mail from David Fambrough: Thanks for the great write-up, enjoyed it much! especially how mom [Jill] like many others, was a stripper before becoming a Realtor. P.S. almost forgot, Jill is talking to her legal staff, for defamation of character!

[More of David’s work can seen on the southeast corner of Moana and Baker Lane – the iron dragonflies. Jill’s kidding. I think.]



More about the Nugget’s monkeys…

Trader Dick's

Dear Karl,

In regards to your great story about the monkeys at the entrance of Trader Dicks.

My childhood friend Tom Conn whose father was Don Conn, had the house band at the Nugget. (Don Conn and his orchestra) When they decided to get rid of the monkeys, Don brought one to his home near Idlewild Park across from the pool.

The monkey was a Gibbon named Sunny. He was quite an escape artist and got out all the time. One story that made the papers in the 50s, was Sunny had jumped in the back of a cab in front of Don’s house and was found sitting on the lap of a passed-out street person in Douglas alley.

Sunny soon became aggressive and bit Don’s son Mike in the face and myself on the arm (my first stitches). Sunny eventually ended up at the Christmas Tree restaurant on the Mt. Rose highway and unfortunately perished in the fire that also claimed the restaurant’s lion.

P.S. Great story on the Flagpole sitter. As a kid I remember looking up at him waving down at me.

Thanks for your stories regarding the great history of Reno/Sparks.

Lifelong Reno resident, Tom Gardner

Memorial plaque to Galaxy Airline passengers, 1985


A tribute to the passengers of Galaxy 203, that ran in the Gazoo on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. Sadly, the plaque mentioned was stolen from the memorial garden at Rancho San Rafael (this writer did not mention its existence nor location)

“Hi Karl: I read yesterday’s column which was a follow up to your column on Oct. 14 about the crash of Galaxy Flt. 203 here in Reno in 1985. It brought back many memories and I thought I would share with you a personal story involving my family.

“After the tragic crash, my mother and grandmother, Doris Isaeff and Geri Kaufman, had the idea for a permanent memorial of some kind here in Reno for the victims and the lone survivor. They finally settled on the idea of a grove of trees with one tree for each of the 71 people on board the flight that night. They opened a special bank account and asked for donations to purchase the trees and a plaque. I don’t know how much they were able to raise, but with help from Washoe County Parks and Recreation, a grove of trees was established at Rancho San Rafael Park and a plaque was placed there with the names of all the passengers and the flight crew. I don’t think the goal of 71 trees was ever reached, but a very nice grove of trees, most of them evergreens, is still there along with the plaque.

“After reading your column yesterday, my wife and I went to the park today to check out the Galaxy Memorial Grove which is located east of the ranch house off the old entrance road to the park from Sierra St. Over the years some of the original trees didn’t survive, but the grove nonetheless is still a lovely spot in memory of those who perished and the one who survived. If memory serves me correctly, George Lamson, Jr., the sole survivor, was present at the dedication of the plaque, but I don’t remember now the exact date of the dedication. There is probably a newspaper story about it in the RGJ archival files.

“My grandmother passed away almost five years ago, and my mother no longer lives in Reno, but I know they both were very proud of the part they played in helping to create the Galaxy Memorial Grove so that future visitors to Rancho San Rafael Park might remember the events of that tragic night in Reno history.”

Bill Isaeff

We read of the Jan. 21, 1985 flight of Galaxy Airlines 203 that ended in tragedy on South Virginia Street, claiming the lives of all but one of the 71 people aboard.  The column drew more interesting contacts from readers than I anticipated and your questions and comments indicated a need for an unplanned bit of follow-up this morning.

As that column’s text indicated, the direct cause of the crash was held to be a reduction in power one minute after takeoff, documented by the cockpit voice recorder when the co-pilot advised the tower that he had reduced power due to a vibration and requested an emergency landing. 

The FAA investigators’ finding was that that power reduction resulted in decay of airspeed below that necessary to control the aircraft as it departed southbound.  They traced the vibration to an air start access door under the wing being left open by the ground crew.  In the final NTSB report the open door was listed as a contributing factor, but not the cause of the crash.  Restated, the open door did not bring the plane down.  Could the Lockheed Electra, even with the door open, have maintained sufficient power to fly above and south of Rattlesnake Mountain and land safely northbound, albeit in the most nerve-wracking and terrifying 90 seconds those 71 souls would ever experience?  Most pilots familiar with the Electra speculated, probably yes. (Some Navy jocks, who fly the P-3 Orion, agree with this; it’s not the first time that door was left open.)

We’ll never know.  The pilots were surely aware of problems shortly after Lockheed rolled out the Electra (1958) that necessitated speed and engine output limitations while some structural members, notably engine mounts, were re-engineered.  They might have perceived the vibration as a manifestation of those old ills and fatally chose throttling back as the cure.

Why was the access door left open?  The NTSB report found evidence that two or more flight service people on the ground as the engines were being started by compressed air from a cart, got into an “altercation” (that report’s verbiage; others called it a flat-ass fist fight) after they removed the air hose and were thus distracted from closing the door.  The pilots, with engines running, assumed all was hunky-dory and rolled out onto the runway.  We all know that once things start going downhill they tend to keep going that way; did the ground crew’s beef indirectly result in 70 fatalities? Yikes. From several readers: Wasn’t there an open-door warning light on the cockpit panel?  Surprisingly, the NTSB report was silent as to existence of such a device, so I shall be also. Another reader: Wasn’t it an Electra spy plane that made a forced landing resulting in an international political and intelligence brouhaha a few years ago?  Sort of; in 2001 an EP-3 Orion, the Navy’s version of the Electra, was involved in a mid-air get-together with a Chinese MIG and landed intact.  In China.  Whoops.  To the best of my knowledge the Orions are still operational, also flown by NOAA and the U.S. Customs bureau in drug-interdiction service.   And have enjoyed a zillion hours of safe military operation. [I understand at 2011 press time that the Navy’s venerable Orion P-3 “subchasers” have finally been retired. I think NOAA still operates them, and they’re in private service to forest/range fire borate-dropping contractors.]

Final Electra question, before I lose all my distaff readers by writing about stuff that just plane boring to them.  It’s this sort of phone message that brightens my Saturdays, to wit:  “You screwed up again.  You should do your homework better.  The plane flown by Galaxy Airlines wasn’t an Electra but a Galaxy.  That’s how Galaxy Airlines got its name.” 

Confusion reigns: For 60 years Lockheed named every plane model they ever built – except for the U-2 – after stars in the sky.  Ten years after introducing the Electra, they built the Galaxy, double the length and wingspan, triple the tail height and four times the weight of the Electra, placing it among the three biggest planes ever built (with the Boeing 747 and some Russian-built behemoth) but apparently confusing to this caller.  Had a C-5 Galaxy crashed at 1:03 that morning all of south Reno would have been wide awake.  And that caller’s number on my Caller ID is, oh, nuts; I can’t write that genius’ number in the newspaper. But I’m often tempted to. 

My homework resources, by-the-by, for all this Galaxy ink were The Encyclopedia of Civilian Aviation, the incident’s after-action report to the Washoe County Commission and NTSB accident report DCA85AA010.

The last flight of Galaxy 203

Lockheed L188


‘Tis said that when an aviator simultaneously runs out of airspeed, altitude and bright ideas that something will go bump in the night, and that’s exactly what happened at four minutes past the hour of one o’clock on the Monday morning of January 21, 1985.

[NOTE: Take the following two paragraphs with a grain of salt, as the lone survivor of the crash, George Lamson Jr., remembers it differently from these account I developed 28 years ago. I’ll yield to George’s recollection, which follows in italics. Karl, Jan. 5, 2014]

Galaxy Airlines, a charter carrier, transported an unspecified number of souls from Minneapolis westward early on a Super Bowl weekend.  Some flew to San Francisco and then motored by bus to nearby Stanford, the site of the 1985 Super Bowl.  The remainder stayed aboard to Reno for bus travel to a casino in Stateline.  The airplane, a Lockheed Electra propjet, reportedly made several other flights during that weekend carrying passengers unrelated to the Minneapolis junket.

Following the game the Stanford contingent traveled by bus to Reno, and a number of them elected to stay at the Hilton, (then MGM) [now Grand Sierra Resort], for a time.  They were the lucky ones. The others rejoined the Stateline group at the airport for passage home.

[OK; that’s how the newspaper text read many years ago. George Lamson recalls that all flew together to SLT, and departed together from RNO, save for two who stayed on at Caesar’s at Stateline. We respect George’s recollection.]

There were 65 passengers and a crew of six aboard the Electra when it was cleared for southbound takeoff on runway one-six at 1:02 a.m.  It is known that at 1:03 the co-pilot reported a severe vibration in the aircraft to RNO tower, requesting expedited clearance to land with emergency equipment standing by.  Per the flight recorder on the plane he pulled power to reduce the vibration, causing the plane to stall below the airspeed needed to maintain control.  And it is speculative that he then looked for a “black hole” – an absence of ground lights – to aim the doomed aircraft toward for an “unplanned landing” – the FAA euphemism for a crash – without effecting danger to those on the ground.  That hole, if in fact he was in control, was in the area of Del Monte Shopping Center on South Virginia Street.

The plane, now heading west, initially hit the ground near the old V&T railroad right-of-way, then caromed into a ditch and broke in half, coming to rest in a motor home sales lot adjoining the then-Normark Furniture Store with some debris spilling across South Virginia.  The plane and seven motor homes became instantly involved in a conflagration fed by 12,000 pounds of fuel in the wings.

Sixteen fire engines – firemen, cops and robbers

The emergency response was immediate and massive; records show 16 units from the Airport Authority (who were alerted by the tower with the initial MayDay), Reno Fire Department, and Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District arriving at the scene in short order.  Two sheriff’s deputies investigating a burglary at a store a long block from the crash were virtual eyewitnesses to it, and relayed that this was not a light-plane incident, as one radio transmission had indicated, but a large-scale disaster. They were soon joined by a hundred more deputies, Reno Police and highway patrol officers.  Crowd control became paramount.  South Virginia Street was closed and traffic rerouted to then-rural, two-lane Longley Lane, as it would be for another day to follow.

The three fire departments protected the furniture store, extinguished the aircraft fire and a number of spot fires in the fields surrounding the site.  Some Sparks Fire Department apparatus were relocated to Reno stations to back up the committed Reno engines; off-duty Reno firefighters manned older reserve equipment and Nevada Air National Guard units covered the Airport Authority’s duties at the airport.  Most the agencies were released by 4:28 a.m.  Truckee Meadows FPD (which would years later to merge with Reno Fire) would remain on the scene for days to follow and later took primary responsibility for the victim recovery. Trustees from the county jail were employed to place opaque masking along South Virginia Street to prevent the slow-down-and-gawk syndrome that impeded traffic when the street was reopened on Tuesday.

Three passengers initially survived the crash – one was transported by helicopter to St. Mary’s Hospital, which had established the medical administrative command post.  Of those three only one, a then-17-year-old boy [George Lamson] with relatively minor lacerations, would survive.  The victims were removed to a temporary facility at the Washoe County Fairgrounds for identification by a team headed by an FBI unit assisted by local medical and dental professionals.  Washoe Med, St. Mary’s and numerous local social services performed family notifications and inventorying of the victims’ personal property in the days to come.

In all, 40 governmental agencies participated in the tragedy, some in the minutes, others in the weeks, following the crash.  A grim reminder remained for many years out on Highway 40 West just past the Mayberry intersection: a half-dozen carcasses of burned-out motor homes, relocated there from the site for salvage.   

And the vibration that started the whole sequence down this fatal path?  Speculative on all investigators’ parts, but generally attributed to the airstart-port door – where compressed air is forced into one of the four Allison turboprop engines to get it spinning to then pressurized to start the other – being left open prior to takeoff. [And we’ll explore all this in greater detail in the next chapter.] 

• • •

This yarn was inspired by several references to Galaxy 203 in my book of old columns You’re doing WHAT to the Mapes?, causing two friends to remark that I’d never written a column about the tragedy itself.  So here you have it.  I give attribution to archival Reno Fire Department and RGJ accounts, resources in the Nevada Historical Society and the excellent 46-page post-incident report signed off by Sheriff Vince Swinney, a copy of the NTSB report, Coroner Vern McCarty and Truckee Meadows FPD Chief Gene Leblanc, that night’s incident commander. 



A Reno family’s tribute to the passengers of Galaxy 203

Lockheed L188

A tribute to the passengers of Galaxy 203, that ran in the Gazoo on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. Sadly, the plaque mentioned was recently stolen from the memorial garden at Rancho San Rafael.

“Hi Karl: I read yesterday’s column which was a follow up to your column on Oct. 14 about the crash of Galaxy Flt. 203 here in Reno in 1985. It brought back many memories and I thought I would share with you a personal story involving my family.

“After the tragic crash, my mother and grandmother, Doris Isaeff and Geri Kaufman, had the idea for a permanent memorial of some kind here in Reno for the victims and the lone survivor. They finally settled on the idea of a grove of trees with one tree for each of the 71 people on board the flight that night. They opened a special bank account and asked for donations to purchase the trees and a plaque. I don’t know how much they were able to raise, but with help from Washoe County Parks and Recreation, a grove of trees was established at Rancho San Rafael Park and a plaque was placed there with the names of all the passengers and the flight crew. I don’t think the goal of 71 trees was ever reached, but a very nice grove of trees, most of them evergreens, is still there along with the plaque.

“After reading your column yesterday, my wife and I went to the park today to check out the Galaxy Memorial Grove which is located east of the ranch house off the old entrance road to the park from Sierra St. Over the years some of the original trees didn’t survive, but the grove nonetheless is still a lovely spot in memory of those who perished and the one who survived. If memory serves me correctly, George Lamson, Jr., the sole survivor, was present at the dedication of the plaque, but I don’t remember now the exact date of the dedication. There is probably a newspaper story about it in the RGJ archival files.

“My grandmother passed away almost five years ago, and my mother no longer lives in Reno, but I know they both were very proud of the part they played in helping to create the Galaxy Memorial Grove so that future visitors to Rancho San Rafael Park might remember the events of that tragic night in Reno history.”

Bill Isaeff

The El Reno Apartments

El Reno

So — you want to escape the hustle and bustle of downtown but stay close to shopping, to live where the air is fresh, the neighbors some distance away, shady trees, a garage, yard maintenance and walking distance to a new lake and park?  Lakeridge Shores?  Or Alum Creek?  The Villas?  The Cottages?  Tavo Valera, in Sparks maybe?  Expand your horizons: How about near the 1200 block of South Virginia Street by the Antique Mall and Statewide Lighting, your groceries from the AM/PM at Arroyo Street, and a fine meal at Landrum’s. Or whatever they call it now.


Did I mention that this is the mid-1930s?  The block where the El Reno Apartments were located at Arroyo and two-lane South Virginia Street is near the south edge of town, ‘most anything south of there pretty rural.  The Old Orchard Trailer Park and grocery was down there, Plumb Lane ended five blocks to the west and didn’t cross Virginia Street, most homes to the south of that were summer homes, out by the Moana plunge.  On the plus side, there was a country club by the new golf course now that they got rid of those damn noisy mail planes that flew out of Blanch Field on Urban Road.  And there was a brand new lake being built, Virginia Lake they’d call it when it filled in 1940.  You could walk from the El Reno Apartments on Arroyo and South Virginia to Virginia Lake.  Pretty neat.

          They were the hot place to live from the mid-1930s until well after World War II.  A former El Reno resident I spoke with recalled that they had pleasant, private little yards and were very quiet, and a building with a few of those new-fangled automatic washing machines — no Bendixes with rollers here.  The developer/landlord, whose name was Roland Giroux, also known as Joe, was handy, cordial and friendly (his wife Nora and son Louis would die years later in a small plane in a collision with a military plane somewhere by Independence Lake.)  My own mother recalled returning to Reno after World War II and learning of the El Renos — the cachet attributed to residing there as comparable to living in the highest-end townhouse of today.

          The El Reno’s, we’ll call them for short, were unique: They were prefabricated of metal.  Cute little units, very stylish with board-and-batten metal sides and well-proportioned at 900 square feetReno steelman Fred Schwamb’s father Martin owned Martin Iron Works, and Fred thinks they came by rail from Los Angeles, told me to check the ‘web for U.S. Steel’s site, because they might have built them.  [researched to no avail]  The other guru of steel in Reno, Andrea Pelter, recalled that her father John Ginocchio (Reno Iron Works) supplied some of the pinnings to hold them down, and Andy recalled his comment that they had some good alloy in them, more than just sheet metal, maybe some titanium.

          Facts come hard about the El Renos; three that stump me are when they were built, which seems to be about 1935.  And, how many there were, which seems to be somewhere between 11 and 14.  Romolo Bevilacqua, whose house-moving business relocated them, recalled two semi-circular crescents of six homes each facing each other (the garages, later moved out on Del Monte Lane and now long gone, were on the west side of the property along Tonopah Street, accessed from the apartments.)  The tenant list in 1939 shows 13 residents, but two with the same surname, a 1946 list lists ten.  Go figure. 

          Finally, when did they close?  They fell off any radar I can find between 1949 to 1951, which is not conclusive — soon I’ll research when Sewell’s opened on the El Reno site, which should be a little easier (Buster Sewell, you out there???!)  [Sewell’s opened in 1955 per a Sanborn map.]

Now — take a ride in southwest Reno.   By Virginia Lake, at 236 Bonnie Briar, a classic little El Reno.  Across from the 7-1leven on Mt. Rose, appropriately 711 Mt. Rose Street.  Clean, needs weeding.  1425 Plumas.  Two at 1461 Lander, on one lot.  Note, some porches are to the left, others to the right [the porches were always on the Virginia Street/east sides whether the units faced north or south.]  1409 Tonopah, just across from the original site, connected to another unit at 100 West Pueblo. A professional office at 115 Ridge Street.  Up now to the University, on the southeast corner of College Drive and North Sierra Streets; an El Reno was set on top of another structure to form what was once an elegant private two-story home with a great view.  Sierra has been widened and the trees now obscure the view, but the little home is still visible among the add-ons and vegetation.


• • •

From a later column:

A fortnight ago we credited reader Debbie Hinman with finding another relocated metal El Reno Apartment – at 326 West 11th Street.  This prompted some calls; veteran readers wondering how our quest for the homes, believed to number 16 originally, was going.  Newer readers simply wondered what the hell we were talking about, steel houses indeed?  The columns received national interest on my website; owners of these little steel homes, made in the 1930s by an outfit that made porcelain-clad service stations and diners, are faithful to them.  Example: the owner of the home at 326 West 11th spent considerable time and money to restore the bearings on his home’s trademark turbine attic ventilator.   We’ll update the original El Reno story someday, or you can read more about them in the column collection I’m trying to get under your Christmas trees. [OK, so it took three more years.]  In the meantime, here are the El Renos we’ve found so far:

          Out by Virginia Lake, find 400 Country Club Drive and 310 Bonnie Briar with an El Reno steel garage behind it (each unit had its own steel garage, with a turbine on their roofs also.)  Then go to 711 Mt. Rose Street, two around the corner at 1401 and 1403 Lander Street, and another close by at 1425 Plumas Street.  Then two across Tonopah Street from the original El Reno Apartment location on South Virginia Street, both converted into offices at 1409 Tonopah Street and 100 Pueblo (I think that the building at 121 Pueblo – a different configuration – was the laundry area/office for the apartments.  Check out the roof vents.)  [Never confirmed that.]  Closer to downtown, a law office at 115 Ridge Street.  Proving that they could be moved across the bridges, we know of the one at College Drive and North Sierra Street, hard to see but it’s there, and the one on West 11th.  By Washoe Golf Course, 545 Skyline Drive, found by sharp-eyed Annette Mortimer.  I’ve always thought there was another El Reno about six lots west of that and have asked a few neighbors, to no avail.  Some think it was demolished…

          In closing the El Reno thought, I’ll include that a faithful but anonymous reader recently sent me a newspaper account of a dozen little all-steel homes currently being removed from the Marine base at Quantico, Virginia, and being sold to collectors.


The saga continues…


A piece ran a couple weeks ago, detailing the little prefabricated 900 square-foot all-metal homes – a dozen of them, we speculated; maybe 15 – that were put up before World War II on the 1200 block on South Virginia where Statewide Lighting now sits.  They were moved off the site after the war, to all over town, and we gave the present locations of nine of them.  In a first, I put some pictures on my website, with some additional narrative (its still there, with some more info.    

Information came via phone, mail and e-mail, from all over the country; Reno, of course, the southern states, a bunch from the midwest.  Our sleepy little story probably got more feedback than I’ve ever received from any one topic, disregarding my account of the tunnel that led from the Hancock Mansion on Lakeside Drive to the island on Virginia Lake, dug before the lake filled in 1940 (a colossal fib but an urban legend that I’m afraid stuck.) 

          Curiously, our Reno version of the all-steel homes may not the same as the ones I received the mail on, which were known as “Lustron” homes, popularized by a company that made all-steel service stations and diners in the years following WWII.  They were close in size, similar in appearance, but did not get into the marketplace until 1946 — our Reno units were in place during the 1930s, and the many websites about the Lustrons make no mention of post-war production.  But there must be a link: The Lustrons were metal sheathed in porcelain, and two readers (not having permission I won’t use their names) reminded me that the El Renos were also called the “El Porcelains,” a detail I had forgotten.  The Lustron website is fascinating, accounts of many, many homeowners writing in about their homes in present-day settings, their dilemma in keeping the home’s combination dish-clothes washer-sink working (yes, after the war, that was tried, and some still work.)  They have an owner’s club, like ’57 Chevys with two bedrooms and a bath-and-a-half, and they e-mail each other telling where to find the serial numbers of a Model 3 home.  They’re all over the nation, many concentrated around Ohio and the midwest, where they were built in an old Navy plant.  One of the names frequently mentioned as a principal in the company was Carl Strandlund, the father of the modern Stran-Steel industrial buildings that we see all over the valley.  Another principal was named Tucker, ostensibly from the Tucker auto family.  (The Lustron website is still on the Web at production time.)

          There has been quite a bit of interest nationally in our Reno units, even although they are not Lustrons.  The fact that we had twelve (fourteen, sixteen, fifteen and a laundry building, fill in the blank) interests other Lustron owners, many of whom feel strongly enough about the homes as a lifestyle that some have been included in various states’ registers of historical structures, with some national mention.  My pictures of nine on one website blew a few web watchers’ minds.     

I’ll let a reader write the rest of this Saturday morning’s column; her name is Jill and she lives in the Bay Area.  (The [bracketed] additions are mine.)

          “…I grew up in Reno.  From 1946 to 1948 I lived with my parents in the El Reno Apartments.  We moved in in the spring of 1946.  I think there were 14 or 15 units; I know for sure there were four units on each of the side streets [Pueblo and Arroyo] and a crescent of maybe six units facing South Virginia.

          “The units were way ahead of their time.  They had a bath-and-a-half and all-metal kitchen cabinets and a great floor plan.  Our family loved living there.

          “Shortly after the Second World War ended, Louis Giroux [the apartment’s owner] wanted to raise the rents.  As I remember it, all of the residents agreed, but the rent control board refused.  This made him so angry that he chose to sell the units off and be finished with it.

          “My parents [Homer Forrester, an IRS agent, and Virginia Forrester, manager of the Riverside Hotel and later the Mapes Hotel] planned to purchase one of the units and move it to other land.  For some reason they chose the first unit facing South Virginia, so we moved into that unit with the plan of purchasing it.  The person that moved out was Bill Harrah’s first wife [Thelma], and I think that he had also lived there at one time.

          “Before the planned purchase was completed [the Forresters’ plans changed] and we moved to northwest Reno on Melba Drive in 1948, and the El Reno units started to be moved out shortly after that.

          “I think that the Sewell’s [grocery] store was already in place when lived at the El Reno.  I remember shopping there the whole time we lived there.  The land that El Reno stood on was vacant for a long time… [Washoe Market existed; Sewell’s came later.]

          “Hope this information helps.”

          It does, Jill…immensely.  It’s people like you who take the time to type a letter and draw a map that enable us to keep track of how our valley came to be.  [The map Jill sent of the apartment site was very close to the Reno Sanborn fire map diagram, sheet 41.]

• • •

[A few El Reno notes from within other columns:]

Speaking of El Reno units, my childhood buddy and Sigma Nu frat brother [the late] Dr. Lynn Gerow the Younger told me while we were blocking an aisle at Albertson’s that his father, Dr. Gerow the Elder paid $800 for the El Reno unit that Bevilaqua Movers then moved to 115 Ridge Street to use as his medical office. (Lynn Jr. later used it also for his practice.)  Bill Harrah and his first wife, Thelma, had occupied the unit. 

• • •

Hide the children: A naked El Reno metal apartment unit on the loose, last seen on Plumas just north of Mt. Rose Street.  The thing was skinned so that stucco could be and at this writing one can see the metal studs, surprisingly none of which are close to any uniform interval – and the diagonal metal sheer bracing.  What’s interesting is the number of readers who drive by it and the resulting contacts I received regarding this public skinning, all about a bit of Reno nostalgia that I first wrote of four years ago almost as an aside. 

I have never confirmed that Williams designed them; I speculated in the original El Reno column that ran a few years ago that they were a Williams design only because while browsing through a coffee-table edition of Hollywood mansions a swimming pool lanai, pictured behind a Beverly Hills, Williams-designed mansion, jumped off the page at me, as being identical to an El Reno unit.  Williams’ hallmark bay window and the lacy ironwork on the little pool house mimicked those of the mansion (the mansion owners’ name was Paley, if you locate the book.) 

In other Saturday morning news, Debbie Hinman – or “eagle eye,” as her Nevada Bell co-workers call her – has found another relocated El Reno Apartment for us, this her second discovery, the earlier in the 300 block of West Eleventh Street.  It’s embarrassing for me to divulge the location of this newest one because I have driven past it 8,000 times: It’s at 1698 Plumas Street, east side, just north of Glenmanor between Mt. Rose Street and West Plumb Lane.  It’s been set onto a high concrete foundation to create a half-basement, there’s an addition on the rear (east) side, and it’s pretty well covered by foliage, but it’s an El Reno, for sure.  And an original El Reno steel garage sits to the north of it.  This puts us at 14 located out of a probably 15 original units.  Thanks, eagle eye.

          And no El Renos went to Sparks – that the wisdom of [now deceased] Romolo Bevelacqua, Reno’s premier house mover, who in his seven-decade career has moved hundreds of homes in the local area.  I congratulate Rom on being recognized by the City of Reno’s Historical Resources Commission as the 2002 Recipient of the Distinguished Service Award for his insight into a bygone Reno.  He has always been a prime contributor and resource to this column, with his recollection of relocations, like the El Reno units and our Levy Mansion story of last summer – (his firm turned the mansion to face California Avenue.) [Romolo passed away late in 2002.]

          There’s more El Reno buildings out there somewhere, folks – let’s go find them.

• • •

The following are the addresses or locations of the 14 units we’ve located:

545 Skyline Drive (1)

400 Country Club Drive

711 Mt. Rose Street (2)

1425 Plumas Street (3)

1698 Plumas Street

236 Bonnie Briar (4)

Two at 1461 Lander, on one lot

1409 Tonopah Street

100 West Pueblo Street

115 Ridge Street (5)

College Drive and North Sierra Streets

326 West 11th Street

Byars Const. (6)

(1)    demolished, site rebuilt

(2)    Paul Revere William would be proud; compare the colors to Raphael Herman home in Rancho San Rafael

(3)    stuccoed, per text

(4)   owned by many years by Bevilacqua family who moved the units from South Virginia Street, repairs being effected at production time

(5)   Medical office for many years; was originally the apartment of Bill and Thelma Harrah

(6)   This unit was called to my attention by Terry Markwell, an original principal in Byars Construction, as was Roland Giroux, who developed the El Reno Apartments on their original South Virginia Street location.  We believe now that this unit was originally built on Giroux’ property on Del Monte Lane, not the El Reno site, and when Byars Construction was formed in the early 1960s the unit was moved to this location.  It has been demolished, but its slab and corresponding anchors remain visible in the concrete slab.

• • •