A word about the Sparks Nugget’s Nancy Trabert

In the cacophony called Life in this Big City during the past month, a dear friend of ours passed away, but shall not here evade the publicity of this scribe. Her name was Nancy Trabert.

Nancy, a year older than I, came to town and the University of Nevada seeking employment, with an eye toward teaching school. But her attention was drawn to a little casino on the north side of B Street in Sparks called the “Nugget,” owned back then sorta by Dick Graves, yet sorta by a man named John Ascuaga. Nancy rolled the dice and went to work as a secretary to John, thus starting a relationship that would last for six decades. She in my mind went a long way in tacitly running the Nugget, and almost everything I ever wrote I probably checked with her for accuracy. As did RGJ senior editor Tom McGuire when he was penning the Nugget’s 50-year anniversary hardcover book for the RGJ’s Custom Publishing Group.

I have come to know John, and sense that Nancy’s passing from cancer a month ago grieves him as greatly as would the passing of a blood relative – if we saw John or Nancy in recent years, they were probably at the Coney Island, one of their favorite lunch haunts!

I’m sure that I am joined by every other ink-stained wretch who ever called upon Nancy to confirm a date, or a performance, or a menu item or something to do with an elephant or the spelling of a gnarly Basque name, in expressing condolences to John and Rose, to the members of the Nugget family, and to members of theRapp and Trabert families, and offer posthumous thanks for the many courtesies and information she gave us.

Nancy Rapp Trabert – (1940 – 2020) – was truly the chronicler of the Sparks Nugget, from the time of its maturation as a wide spot on B Street to becoming a principle voice in the patois of our valley.

So long, Nancy…..

The Donner Ridge Fire – August 20, 1960


[The photo above was found on the web and is not to our knowledge an actual photo of the captioned area]

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.  The local newspaper, actually two papers then, the evening Gazette and the morning 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…




The Sunday in 1948 that downtown Reno burned

JohnnyFeverOn August 15th of 1948 – Dad was mowing the front lawn with the push mower on this Sunday morning. Just before noon we could hear a lot of sirens downtown and a big plume of black smoke came from downtown, just east of Ralston Street. I knew it was a big fire, so I hopped on my bike and started toward downtown. Don Hartman and Hank Philcox and Willy Molini were on their bikes too. We pedaled toward the smoke while every fire truck at the firehouse on Commercial Row came out toward the smoke. Boy, would I get in trouble for riding off when I got home. Maybe I won’t even go home…

It was Sunday morning, and people were getting out of church, all the churches were downtown then – St. Thomas Aquinas, and along Church Street west of Chestnut [Arlington]. Years later I’d count seven churches within two blocks of St. Thomas. And all had people in them, and all were getting out about the time the smoke started. By the time we got to the fire there were probably already 400 people there, according to the fire chief. And all were in the firemen’s way.

Santa_Fe_HotelThe fire was in a building on Lake Street across from the Toscano Hotel behind the Greyhound terminal, where my grandmother would arrive a couple times a year from her home in Petaluma to visit my mother. She actually liked my father better than she liked my mother and they used to sit on the porch of Ralston Street and drink wine and laugh ‘til it was pretty late (she was from Ireland, which explained that). But they’re another story for another day.

The fire was growing incredibly fast and soon enveloped the buildings across the alley south of the Santa Fe Hotel [artwork credit Roy Powers]. The buildings had been bought by the guy who was going to move the bus station across the alley from Center Street to Lake Street. The buildings were going to be torn down but the fire was doing a pretty good job of wrecking them right now. Then somebody hollered, “There’s dynamite in one of the buildings!” and the firemen and all the churchgoing folks started to run away. There was no dynamite, they’d learn later, but something did blow that building higher than a kite and scattered burning building and roofing material and metal and glass a block in every direction from the fire. It blew the windows out of the Mizpah Hotel across Lake Street, and some more buildings nearby. There were a lot of civilians injured by that, and I heard that St. Mary’s and Washoe General Hospitals called all their employees and doctors to work on Sunday, helping over two hundred people until well after midnight, with burns, broken bones from the walls falling, and cuts from the flying glass. The paper the next day gave their names and many were Chinese – probably from the Mandarin – or Basque, from the Santa Fe. Most of the herders were away on this summer day.

We were all skeered, ‘cause we knew we were in trouble for coming down here. There were a lot of rumors – one was that the fire chief had died. He was a nice guy, Mr. Evans, who let us kids climb all over the apparatus and slide down the pole on 1947 Fire ladderCommercial Row (I’m adding a picture of a brand-new fire truck Reno bought, an American LaFrance 1948 hook-and-ladder). But Mr. Evans was OK; the chief who died was Sparks Fire Department’s chief, Frank Hobson. And two other Reno firemen died when the explosion hit – Glen Davis and Earl Platt, who both still would have family around Reno 70 years later. Sparks had sent its two engines and a pumper to the fire to help, Sierra Pacific Power, the Red Cross, the Army Reserve, Nevada Bell and the airbase north of town all sent help also. And Isbell Construction and Southern Pacific Railroad sent some big cranes and Caterpillars to knock the brick walls of the buildings down.

The power company turned up all the pumps nearby to raise the water pressure which by then was falling all over town north of the Truckee. But the buildings kept burning, and the firemen worked mostly to save the Santa Fe Hotel across the alley and the Mandarin Café to the south. And succeeded. It took over five hours before the flames quit and it was overnight before anyone could even get close to the buildings.

When all the dust settled the next day, Monday, five people had died in the fire and some 270 had been treated, with 39 people admitted to the hospitals. Most of the downtown and the schools were closed. It would become known as the Lake Street Fire, or by some the Greyhound Fire, and would stand as the biggest fire in modern times that’s ever occurred in Reno in terms of injuries and fatalities, (there would be one nine years later* on Sierra Street that would do more property damage.) But now it’s only 1948 and I don’t know about that one yet.

The fire was put out; the burned-out buildings would become the site of the new FireMagnoliaGreyhound station, that building still there and now owned by Harrah’s Club. Frank Hobson’s flag-draped casket would pass in front of my dad’s office on A Street in Sparks in the hose bay of a Sparks pumper, and Willy, Don, Hank and I would ride our Schwinns back up the Ralston hill, where our parents, not knowing whether or not we’d perished in the fire, soundly spanked us for taking off to the fire. (I might add, as we did when the old downtown YMCA burned down, but that’s another story for another day!)

[To add a clarification: The 1948 hook-and-ladder pictured above was enabled by this fire – the fire proved that Reno neeeded a new aerial truck. And the white fiberglass roof in the photo was added many years later; it was originally an open-cab apparatus.]

But it was pretty exciting. Come back once in a while, we’ll tell another story!

*Here’s the story of that fire that was nine years later

And, for Sharon Quinn, here’s the 1962 Golden Hotel fire link…


Happy Birthday Sweet 16!

79072_Rear_3-4_WebHow far has Hot August Nights come since the first cruise in 1986? I’ll start a roundabout answer by stating that in 17 years, HAN has had 19 posters. [This column appeared August 2002.]

Why, you ask, were there two extra posters? Harry Parsons, HAN Director Emeritus and local CPA – Cruisin’ Public Accountant – explains: In the second year of the show, 1987, the show’s organizers fashioned a poster with a Mel’s Drive-In waitress on skates waiting on a James Dean-lookalike dude slouching in a hot-pink ’57 Chevy convertible. They took the poster back to Detroit, arrived on the steps of GM’s Chevrolet division and told the Chevy execs how lucky Chevrolet was to be chosen the prime sponsor of such a primo car show.

The Chevy guys told them, through their security staff, for the local entrepreneurs never made it past the lobby, how lucky they were to be able to just leave, take their poster with them, and get back to the divorce capital of the world – that, the view of our town held by most people east of Denver back then.

So how far have we come? This year, 2002, General Motors came to Hot August Nights, to ask if GM could unveil the all-new 50-Year Anniversary Corvette during the celebration. HAN [then-] Director David Saville, always the showman, met with the HAN committee, and after seven nanoseconds of consideration, said yes. And so it shall be done next week at the Hilton, Wednesday morning at 10 AM – under the watchful eye of the nation’s automotive press – what a feather in our area’s cap!

Several thoughts linger – why was there a second poster that year? Because our early organizers took the 1987 poster, reshot it with the same waitress serving James Dean, this version in a hot pink ’56 Thunderbird, and marched to Dearborn, where T-Birds are built, told the Ford folks how lucky they were that…well, you know the rest. Ford also had bouncers in their lobby, so the organizers again returned to Reno. (That’s one extra poster. The second extra poster, to round out the thought, was the ’92 edition, a ’58 Buick – they shot one clean poster and another with tire tracks and an oil drip across it – purposely.) The clean version was adopted, but a few of the dirty ones survived and are collected. I like the oil-stained edition – it’s cool.)

And I’ll pose a final question and some speculation: Chevrolet historically named their post-war cars after beach towns – Del Ray, Bel Air, Biscayne – where did they come up with “Corvette”, a smallish warship? No answer here; as I recall the working name of the America dream roadster in the early 1950s was the “Laguna” or the “Cerro”. Nor do I know how Pontiac took “Catalina” away from Chevy, should you ask…

I dropped in on David in the Hot August Nights office on East Greg Street a few days ago – on the eve of the incredible HAN volunteer team welcoming a couple of hundred thousand guests to our valley and the show. I took more notes than I’ll ever get into one column, so I’m opting for the good ol’ Herb Caen three-dot journalism to conserve the verbiage:

The HAN committee goes out of their way to avoid displacing the locals by tying inasmuch as it was a continuation of the wonderful old Harrah’s Auto Collection annual swap meets…HAN was originally an Easter Seal benefit; the event now benefits the Hot August Nights Children’s Charities Funds…

RedHANSome car owners are purists, and for example won’t put a modern radio into their dashboard, but opt to stay with the factory tube-set with the ConElRad triangles (I’ll explain all that to the younger set on a slower week)…to accommodate them, Dave ensures that AM as well as FM radio stations are kept in the loop broadcasting during the event…HAN 2002 President Dave Roundtree explains that this is the HAN “Sweet Sixteen” because it’s the seventeenth event, 1986’s being Year Zero…

I mentioned the Big Bopper last week; two callers confused him with Wolfman Jack, the 1950s Southern California disk jockey who defined the Hot August Nights ethos…those of us who lived in Reno and Sparks could only get the Wolfman’s Los Angeles AM station – XEAK the Mighty Six Ninety – in the evening hours…Wolfman was prominent at some of the early Hot August Nights – what a voice! The Big Bopper died with Richie Valens and Buddy Holly when their chartered lane– a Beechcraft Bonanza – crashed in heavy weather late on February 3rd of 1959…Wolfman’s news intro of that event, spoken in an uncharacteristically sober voice was “tonight the music died; back in 60 seconds,” and inspired the title of Don McLean’s enduring and cryptic Bye, Bye Miss American Pie…you’ll hear it a lot next week.

Where did you go during the original hot August nights in the fifties? How about the Friday night dances at the American Legion Hall at South Tahoe? (Harrah’s hadn’t opened the South Shore Room then; it was still Sahati’s Stateline Club.) The fireworks on the Tahoe Commons? Or the Limelighters or Peter, Paul & Mary at Blyth Arena in Squaw Valley after the Olympics – a great night out, two bucks admission, one end of the arena open to the stars.

Later next weekend the cats and chicks will get their kicks on I-80 or 395 with Reno
and Sparks in their rearview mirrors; Jan and Dean, Bobby Darin, and The Beach Boys will go back into their (stereo!) LP album sleeves for a year, and we’ll all be back to thebusiness at hand. Thanks for reading and visiting, have a nice trip home, and, Be Safe, Huh?.

And yeah, in these pages, it will always be “Squaw” Valley. And Newlands Manor, for that matter…55chev