Washoe Valley’s San Antonio Ranch

WVI once asked a friend who knows northern Nevada like the back of his hand: How I possibly could drive a school bus through Franktown Road for three years, five days a week morning and evening during my college days, in the early 1960s, yet not know where the San Antonio Ranch is?

For Pete’s sake, its entrance is flanked by massive rock portals with a prominent “San Antonio Ranch” sign.

He allayed my fear of the onset of senility by telling me that neither the sign nor the portals were there back in those dark ages — the place was pretty well hidden for reasons that will become obvious in the next few paragraphs.

This duet of columns was triggered by Lavender Ridge, west of Reno on old Highway 40, leading to a search for a lavender field south of town which, in turn, produced a fleeting reference in an old Nevada Highways magazine to a San Antonio Ranch.

The Nevada Historical Society was bereft of any scent of lavender or the ranch. Reader Larry Garside helped me with its location. Thanks to readers Joyce McCarty and Muffy Greil Vhay, both with roots in Washoe Valley, you’ve alread read here of the Famel lavender fields, which did indeed exist in the 1940s.

The December 1947 Nevada Magazine pays minor homage to the San Antonio Rancho, a fortresslike home built by a wealthy but unnamed Easterner who came to our Silver State fearing abduction and thus built an abduction-proof hacienda for himself.

Reading between the lines San Antonio might just have been Tony from Brooklyn with Guido hot on his trail. He wouldn’t have been the first to come to our state for refuge. But that’s not the way it happened.

The spread was initially 2,500 acres, give or take, located near the south end of Washoe Valley. It enclosed the former lavender field and is easily visible looking eastward from the 6400 block of Franktown Road.

While “San Antonio Ranch Road” appears on a standard-appearing green county sign, the road is in fact private, and its inclusion in this column shouldn’t encourage an uninvited tour.

This prime acreage in Washoe Valley was acquired in 1932 from I-don’t-know-who, maybe the State of Nevada, byLavender pickup Ralph Elsman, a wealthy New Jersey businessman who later became the president and principal owner of the San Jose Water Company. Joyce Crowson Cox in her wonderful book Washoe County, which I loaned out and haven’t seen since, might know the grantor on that deed.

Elsman came to Nevada to seek a divorce and just stayed on, Pardner, motivated by Nevada’s tax structure. Local and Bay Area newspaper clips are unanimous that the huge home he built on the ranch resembled a fortress, owing to a fear of abduction of his children. That fear was spawned by the Lindbergh kidnapping a year earlier and heightened because his estranged wife, Beatrice, had shown a predilection to spirit off the couple’s two children.

At this point in our yarn, the casual reader might wonder how an entry-level columnist, who once was unable to determine even as much as where the ranch was in Washoe Valley, now can write on good authority that one of the children whose custody was challenged in that 1931 divorce, Ralph Jr., died in Korea in 1952 when his B-29 was shot down by a MIG.

Or can now write that Elsman’s second wife, Florence, died in Palo Alto in 1964, and reading between the lines in her obituary we surmise that Ralph and Florence Elsman had moved to Los Gatos, Calif., after they sold the ranch to Dr. and Mme. Sylvan Famel in 1939 (Elsman Sr. passed away in July of 1970.) It was the Famels who named the ranch the “San Antonio” and cultivated the lavender fields.

And, if I couldn’t determine even who owned the acreage at the south end of the Franktown Road before Elsman (and still can’t), how could I come along today and write that the Famels, upon their 1950 relocation to West Palm Beach, then to New York City, and finally to their native France, sold the ranch in 1951 to the storied Reno gambler James McKay?

The answer to the casual reader’s question is simply that I had a heck of a lot of invaluable reader help and some county records in putting this series of columns together.


If you haven’t heard by now of James McKay and Bill Graham vis-a-vis Reno’s early 20th century history, get yourself Dwayne Kling’s Rise of the Biggest Little City. It’s mandatory reading.

McKay had been released from a 10-year prison sentence for some dark deed. He was married to a Hollywood starlet; they had one child and were expecting another. They wanted privacy, and the San Antonio offered it. It didn’t have a sign on the gate then and had never had a sign before. Three owners — first Ralph Elsman, then the Famels with their shadowy emigration from WWII-bound France, then finally McKay — no owner really wanting the profane world to know who was behind the gate, ever put up a sign on Franktown Road.

McKay eventually went out of title, selling to a group which developed the huge ranch into some of the nicest, and remaining the most private, residential developments in northern Nevada.

And its privacy endures. Access for touring and photography seems nearly impossible, to this day. Maybe I’ll buy a drone with a Brownie Hawkeye camera.

It’s no wonder I never saw the ranch driving by in my bus twice daily in 1960…

V&T photo credit Washoe Valley.org

 © Karl Breckenridge 2007

Back to downtown Reno we go

Lerude's Wigwam


One of the bright spots in taking walks downtown is that you readers always prompt the next few columns, and this week we’re finally getting to a stockpile of “you forgots” and “where weres?,” thanks in advance to phone books, Sanborn maps, Polk City Directories and newspaper ads and a few friends. And in the 1947 photo above, you’ve probably already noted that Sierra Street carried two-way traffic, by the black coupe pointed north.

            You forgot Bello’s Tamales, capitals optional because I don’t think it never really had a name, just word-of-mouth advertising.  The best tamales in town, out on West Second near Washington in an old brick house, corn growing in the back yard, chickens to the west, with a gleaming pressure cooker in the immaculate basement.  Father would travel from Ralston Street and place an order in the morning, picking a plump Rhode Island Red sunning itself in the side yard, then return, probably have an Acme beer or two at Brickie’s across the street, then take the tamales up the hill to home.

            A tamale always tastes better when you look the major ingredient in the eye on the morning before you eat it.  And the steel Acme beer can is worth more now in an antique shop that both the tamale and the beer were in 1950.

            Where could you buy a Willys Jeep, now in civilian production following WWII?  Why, at Steinheimer Bros. Studebaker at Fourth and Sierra.  And don’t confuse that with Wiley Brothers Cars, on Plaza Street.  Where was Dermody Appliance?  On Arlington, then “Belmont”, between West First Street and the tracks.  John A. Dermody went from Whirlpools to warehouses, and I’ll stick my neck out by saying that Dermody Partners is now probably the biggest real estate taxpayer in Nevada. You forgot Duffy’s Tavern.  Not really; we didn’t walk Commercial Row, between Belmont and West Street, where William Bendix tended the bar. Not really. The main fire station was across West Street, on the northwest corner.  Chief Van Meter saved the bell when the belfry was removed, and it’s now displayed on the corner by the new station on East Second and Evans. [This is obviously an old column. We might be one of the few town in the world to tear down a modern fire station and build a ballpark with the revenue and taxes leaving Reno.]

            You forgot Chism’s Ice Cream.  I could never do that, a popular, longtime Reno family’s business on West Street, next to 7-Up Bottling in the attractive modern glass-fronted building. What does 7-Up stand for? I don’t know, but I’m sure a reader will tell us. [None did.]

            Faithful reader [the late] Kellene Gallagher asked once about the USO clubs; one venue they used was the Tropics on Center Street, which I think I tangled up in one column with the Palm Saloon on Lake Street (in Bill Fong’s casino), and got away with.

            You forgot Reno Mercantile, better know as Reno Merc.  No, we wrote earlier that it was on the southeast corner of Sierra Street and Commercial Row, in the oldest commercial building in Reno. And I didn’t even get challenged for that statement; the Masons built it in the 1870s. Landa Electric? On West Street south of the tracks – once upon a time if your clock or mixer would quit you’d take it to Landa Electric to be repaired. Once upon a time a clock or a mixer could be taken apart and fixed – now they’re molded in one piece and we buy a new one. If it was a big motor, we’d take it to Brown-Milbery, then on Sierra, now on Gentry Way, (known then as Airport Road – couldn’t resist throwing that bon mot in…)

            The one person in town who remembers T.D. Tuthill Inc. asked me where it was.  Never heard of it, but finally found it in mid-block on West Fourth Street next to Ruth Ryan’s Dance Academy. Fine little lady, Ruth was; many remember her brother-in-law, Gordon Sampson, a much-decorated stuffy Canadian of great swagger who was the president of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad at the time it suspended operation, which was either an honor or a career-ender, depending on your point of view. Wrote his own flowery obit. His life would make a good column for my RG-J compadres who write about people. I’m a street guy.

            An argument, and glad it came up because others might have noted it also: “The California Market was on California Avenue, not North Virginia Street as you wrote.” You’re right; there were two California Markets, one downtown, the other at California and Lander (now My Favorite Muffin) but in its day it was actually named the California Avenue Market. My father worked at the market – rode a bike delivering groceries to the residents of that neighborhood. George Minor opened it, Charlie Bradley and Fred Antoniazzi owned it later.

            You forgot the Bundox.  OK, OK – that great restaurant and bar, where not a few business deals were cut, was opened by the late attorney E. F. “Bud” Loomis and his wife Cebe, and stocked with Chinese artifacts that Bud brought out of China when it was closed to Westerners before WWII (he had been overseas as an Envoy to China.)  Another great story for a people-writer.  He also owned the Oriental-influenced River House Motor Lodge. [And you can use the “search” window below to find a story about the Bundox.]   

            Roy Stagg’s Roaring Camp?  Across East First Street from the Bundox, much earlier.  Next to the Reno Bus Lines terminal and shop. 

• • •

I’ve quite a few inquiries left over – If yours didn’t get addressed, be patient.

            Next Saturday we might return to Sparks – one of the most respected and meticulous railroad historians in our valley, Dale Darney, contributed information about the elevating of the Sparks Southern Pacific yard which supplements the information I used for last week’s column.  And I’ll throw in a little teaser: We’ll also elaborate on the call girls that Southern Pacific employed in the post-war years.**  Fear not; this is still a family column, you’ll get a chuckle…  Fly your flag on June 14th, and God Bless America. [Guess I should note that in 2014 as I re-post this, let’s fly the flags for Memorial Day!]

**and since you won’t see the sequel to this column, I’ll explain in 2014 that the railroad’s call-girls in Sparks were the ladies who would get on the phones and stick their heads into the bars and restaurants in Sparks, to get the trainmen back to the yard to crew a train they were assigned to. And here you thought I was writing about hookers…

© RGJ June 1, 2002


Nevada Day, 1947



‘Way out in the land of the setting sun, where the wind blows wild and free,


There’s a lovely spot; just the only one that means Home Sweet Home to me…

It’s Nevada Day, 1947; the torchlight parade wove through Carson City last night and 40,000 folks, most from Reno, convened in our capital city to watch a half-dozen high school bands and a parade that stretched for over a mile.  Many of them rode the Virginia & Truckee Railroad that according to the Oct. 31, 1947 Reno Evening Gazette put a second train on the line just for the occasion.  A highlight of the parade was the six-horse Prairie Schooner from Dangberg Ranch.  Prominent Reno attorney Lester Summerfield delivered the Admission Day address after the parade, and following that some went to the Capitol Plaza to watch the Quadrille dancers.  Other revelers went to the traditional Carson City Senator/Reno High Huskie football game.

In a convergence of three great Nevadans, storied Judge Edgar Eather administered an oath of the court to Julien Sourwine [Senior], who was then introduced to the crowd by Senator Patrick McCarran. The Governor’s Mansion will be open from noon to four o’clock today, and then close so that Governor Vail Pittman and the first lady Ida can dress for the annual 1864 Ball tonight (one of the V&T trains will stay late to return dignitaries to Reno after the festivities.)

• • •

If you follow the old Kit Carson Trail until desert meets the hills,

Then you certain-ly, will agree with me, it’s the place of a thousand thrills…

In other news today, the County Fair & Recreation Board approved $15,000 for the Silver Dollar Derby and University’s Winter Carnival, two longtime staples in the Sierra skiing scene (and just in time, Sears Roebuck on Sierra Street is advertising J.C. Higgins skis, $12.50, with bindings.)   The upsweep is in, the sidesweep is out, per a Hollywood hairstyle maven, but we all knew that.  The state approved bread prices to rise by a penny, to 15 cents a loaf.  Donner Pass closed for snow yesterday, the first closing this year, but the weather was OK for the parade today.  A motorist remaining unnamed herein was fined a dollar for contempt of court while grousing about a parking ticket. The demand to see Forever Amberforced the Nevada Theater to schedule an extra 8:30 a.m. screening.  

R. Herz Jewelers – civic-minded in 1947 and remaining so in 2014, sponsored the aforementioned Quadrille dance in Carson City (the Quadrille’s an incredibly graceful dance to watch or perform, often to a Scott Joplin slow drag.  Pity it died out.)  Order your Christmas cards, a term politically acceptable in 1947, from Armanko’s Stationers on North Virginia Street soon.  The two motorists who canned up their cars on Geiger Grade last night, according to the Ormsby County deputy sheriff, can try a new-fangled concept and rent a car from Hertz Drive-Urself while they fix the wreckage.  (For the newer folks, Ormsby County later was re-chartered as Carson City, and yeah, I know Geiger Grade’s in Storey County – I’m just parroting what I read in the Gazette.)

• • •

Whenever the sun at the close of day, colors all the western sky,

Oh my heart returns to the desert gray and the mountains tow’ring high…

Let’s see here: The University of Nevada’s Tommy Kalmanir was fourth in the nation in kickoff returns.  The Wolf Pack is off tomorrow to St. Louis, by airplane yet, but Coach Joe Shekeetski says that halfback Dick Trachok is questionable for the game with an injury.  (By the way, to several who wrote: The appearance of UNR herein last week was an editing change that didn’t tickle me one bit.  I write that only with respect to university events following 1967, when we first had a UNR and a UNLV.)  Penn State has the top defense in the nation this week; I don’t think Joe Paterno was coaching there in 1947 but wouldn’t bet against it.  Some things never change: Michigan was picked for the National Championship in 1947, and now in 2006 the game of the year might be the Wolverines vs. Ohio State.  Nevada has a two-day chukar season in 1947, three birds total.

            Want to get away?   Ride the mighty S.P.’s City of San Francisco, 33 hours to Chicago for 44 bucks.  Or fly Bonanza Airlines’ daily DC-3, $22.50 to Las Vegas, only $11.60 to Tonopah. This is cool: Joe Patrucco and Gilbert Vasserot are re-opening Eugene’s on South Virginia Street. Fifty-four years later in 2001 I would write back-to-back columns about Eugene’s, describing it as the benchmark that other Reno restaurants would strive to reach, and taking its place alongside the finest restaurants in San Francisco.

And no one disputed my words…        

• • •

Where the moonbeams play in shadowed glen, with the spotted fawn and doe,

            All the live-long night until morning light, is the loveliest place I know…

There were six, count ‘em, six, fire calls in the last 24 hours. Lucky Cowboy screens tomorrow morning at the Tower Theater; bring 14 cents and an Old Home Milk lid.  We spy a furnished two-bedroom home in Sparks FSBO, telephone 6541.  Lou LeVitt, a great guy I knew as a kid, is playing at the El Cortez’ Trocadero Room.  A Stetson felt hat at Grey Reid Wright was advertised for $12.50; get the same skypiece for only eight bucks at Parker’s (and no sales tax!).   Spike Jones and the City Slickers are live on the ABC radio network, affiliating with KWRN in November (that’s K-Washoe-Reno-Nevada).         

            We sang Home Means Nevada as kids on Friday mornings throughout Reno and probably the whole state. Thanks, Bertha Raffetto, for penning it in 1931.  God bless America, and Happy 142nd, Nevada; you’re lookin’ good!

Admission Day, 2006

© Reno Gazette-Journal 2006

A Majestic Theater

We’ll mention peripherally that page 8 columns are historically written on either a Sunday or a Monday night for the following Saturday, a tradition that may change if the American League can’t figure out how to finish a baseball game in under five hours. [I think this was a long ball game, don’t know now in 2014 why I wrote that…]

            That said, our attention shifts to a well-worn pamphlet offered by a friend, detailing the grand re-opening of the Majestic Theater, or Theatre for those of the cultured sort, a gala that took place on November 4th of 1925. It should be mentioned for the newer Homefinders to Reno that this fine edifice, on the southwest corner of East First and Center Streets was since its opening in 1910 so seismically unsound that it took three days, two D-8 Caterpillar dozers and thirty pounds of dynamite to get the proscenium arch to fall when the building was razed 60 years later.

            The original theater was a dandy built by Nevada’s Senator George Nixon, housing primarily stage plays. Its first significant production was “The Merry Widow,” a show remembered principally for launching a style of ladies’ undergarments. It rocked along with similar stage and musical fare for another 15 years, operated by Nixon’s widow until it was sold to the nationwide T&D Enterprises, who also operated the nearby Grand and Rialto – later Granada – theaters downtown.

            T & D’s boss M. Naify closed the house and loosed architect Frederick DeLongchamps on its carcass to transform it into a first-rate, 1925-modern edifice in the Moorish style that typified most theaters of the day. Note that most of the nation’s classic theaters embraced that theme, with many theater names evocative of the Naify family’s eastern Mediterranean heritage or the world’s then-current passion for the Moorish culture.

            DeLongchamps embodied a grand staircase to a landing where twin staircases departed to either side. I’d like to think that someone rescued the ornate staircase handrails (and the massive chandelier) when the building was demolished in 1981. At the top of the stairs, a promenade divided the upper deck (whoops, too much baseball – make that mezzanine) and the loge. According to the souvenir program, DeLongchamps offered “…a most inviting rest-room for the ladies, beautifully appointed with comfortable chairs, lounges, dressing tables and mirrors.” As I recall there was a men’s room also, possibly not so commodious. There was a “modern, forced-air furnace,” (no mention of air-conditioning), and electric lights, inside and out, supplied by the Truckee River Power Company.

            As in any of these old programs and brochures, the lifestyle and trends of 1925 advertisements were revealing: The Revada Sales Company, which we visited on a West Fourth Street walk column, offered the new Star Coupster. We’ll, if one can have a roadster, why not a coupster or a SUVster also? Phone 777 to reserve yours. The Overland Hotel was proud to be the home-away-from-home for the Naify family during construction, and the Piggly Wiggly Market, only a block away, was lining up for Majestic patrons’ holiday parties. At 42 West Second Street, H. E. Saviers & Son, even before my friend Sandy was born, promised that “One hearing of the marvelous Victrola will change your conception of Music in the Home. Phone 555.”

            A block to the north on Center Street, visit the Nevada Velie Co. and test ride the modern Velie with the “aeroplane type motor,” that vehicle I believe to be a powered bicycle but I’m sure I’ll hear if it’s otherwise. [I didn’t] Shearer & Wagner on North Virginia next to Hilp’s Drug Store was renting Stewart Warner radios for three bucks a month, reserve yours by phoning 988-L. And if it’s wood or coal you need, Raphel & Henrichs, Felix and Rufe respectively, can bring you a load from their yard by the railroad tracks on Bell Street; call them at 1248 (a four-digit phone number? When will this town quit growing?)

            Marta Howland Milliners, opposite the aforementioned Rialto Theater on West First Street, has new Satin Hats arriving daily, if yours is departing daily, a steal at seven to ten dollars, presumably depending on your lady’s head size. Purity French Bakery even in 1925 was at 357 North Virginia Street, next to the original Little Waldorf; the Reno Business College offered stenographic careers for young ladies, try advertising that today, and Nevada Transfer & Warehouse would “Never Scratch Your Furniture” and if you believe that you’d also believe that the Easter Bunny would sell you a Marmon with a 145-inch wheelbase, a veritable 1925 Hummer, at Nevada Marmon Company on Court Street at Granite. Now, Court Street at Sierra, soon the site of the Mills B. Lane Justice Center [now], and how ya’ doin’, Bubba?

            In conclusion, we couldn’t mention the Majestic Theater without including the time-honored epilogue for any movie at the Majestic – apple pie and a milkshake next door at the Mapes. Don’t continue to mail me these old programs and catalogues; it only encourages me to write some more.


            Have a good week; and God bless America!


© Reno Gazette Journal May 2004   


Read new articles on Sundays in the “Nevada” section of the RGJ




The Golden Hotel Fire


I sat in my school bus at a red light on the corner of East Second and Center Streets, a hair past seven o’clock on a Tuesday morning. It was 40 years ago this week. [The column appeared March 30, 2002]

Smoke – or maybe steam? – was coming out of a sidewalk freight elevator door in front of the Golden Hotel, on the west side of Center between Second and Commercial Row. It was smoke. I turned onto Center Street, parked and pulled the handle on the fire alarm pedestal in front of Parker’s Mens Store. I had no option than to leave for Stead airbase and collect my high school kids, and fearing the bus getting caught behind the fire lines they’d surely lay I drove north on Center Street. I saw one fire truck come around the corner off West Second Street from the old main station on Commercial Row at West Street, then another. A plume of smoke steadily grew in my mirrors by the time I reached the hill above the U of N, where I would normally be in class by 9 a.m.

But not on April 3rd, 1962…

• • •

Frank Golden – a Tonopah miner and banker – built the opulent four-story Golden Hotel in 1906. Golden died shortly after it was completed, and the hotel was operated by the Wingfield clan for two decades, then finally the Tomerlin brothers, who bought it in 1956. They remodeled it, including long rows of aluminum louvers on each row of windows facing the street; louvers that City Building Inspector Ronald Coleman would later say were in compliance with city code. The “New Golden” was a Reno icon of excellence.

• • •

On that fateful morning, a welder’s acetylene tank had exploded in the basement, while most of the 142 hotel guests were still asleep. The fire spread quickly, and ignited a Nash Metro – a little tiny car, for the younger readers – that was displayed as a prize and positioned on the ground floor above the acetylene tank in the basement. The heat from the tank and the car was intense, and traveled straight up in a matter of a very few minutes, filling all the hallways with dense smoke and exploding through the roof hard enough to blow roofing material all over the block.

Guests and hotel employees did a commendable job of running throughout the building spreading the word to evacuate, which many were able to do through stairwells. Others, however, were trapped in their rooms and the fire department was having one hell of a time trying to evacuate them through the aluminum trim that had been placed over the windows in the 1956 effort to modernize the hotel.

Fire Chief Wagner Sorensen recognized early on that this was a fire of major proportion and pulled out all the stops, mustering help from Sparks, who sent a pumper and fifteen men, Stead Air Force Base, another pumper; Washoe County Fire – later Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District, now incorporated into Reno – an engine, and Warren Engine Company from Carson City, who sent their brand new “Snorkel” unit. Reno even put their little 1926 American LaFrance, which had long been in reserve, into service and it performed Yeoman duty as a pumper. Bell Telephone and Sierra Pacific Power sent high-lift equipment, as did several contracting firms, and Reno Iron Works sent a crane that lifted a bucket carrying several firemen with hoses. Newspaper photos clearly show hoses playing water off the fire escapes of Harolds Club’s seven-story tower to cool them down.

Some horror stories of trapped hotel guests were beginning to hit the street – one of a dancer named Carol Maye, line captain of the Barry Ashton “Playmates of Paris Review” that was playing at the Golden. Carol was last seen overcome in a smoky corridor. Jimmy Nuzzo, one of Sam Butera’s Witnesses playing at the Mapes with Louis Prima and Keely Smith, was nowhere to be found. Reno police Lieutenant Ray Cavallo was credited with one of the brightest deeds of the day – entering the hotel at the outset of the fire and grabbing the hotel’s guest register, enabling rescue crews to account for guests, one-by-one, room-by-room. The register was already singed when Ray brought it out of the building.

But the smoke continued to billow relentlessly hours later, even with the incredible amount of water being dumped into the fire. (Sierra Pacific Power boosted their Idlewild Park and High Street pumps up to summer output.) In Carson City, State Forester George Zappettini offered the services of the state on behalf of Governor Grant Sawyer, who was enroute to Japan. State pilot Chuck Destree, a native Hawthorne boy, hopped the State’s Beechcraft C-45 – a D18 with two big radial engines to you civilians – from Carson City to the Reno airport and took on plain ol’ Truckee River H20, not Borate, as many people thought. Chuck made two passes over the carcass of the Golden, still churning out black smoke, and on each pass dumped half his cargo on the fire.

Playing hooky from class* – as was the rest of the campus and everyone else in Reno – I watched from the roof of Harolds Club’s tower as Chuck came in from the south and made the first dump, smack-into the cavity of the fire, and voila, the smoke abated considerably. He climbed and circled to the west and flew over again, dumping the second chamber, and the smoke turned white and let up even more. The will of the fire was broken and the firemen were then able to see where to best play their streams of water. Soon it was under control, if far from out. [*I got the word in my school bus that Reno schools were called off so I skipped that run all the way north to Bordertown.]

And I got pictures for the University’s Sagebrush newspaper of the top of a Twin Beech airplane – about 75 feet above the parapets of the Golden. I asked Chuck last week what he remembered the most about the mission, and he said it was looking back at the fire after the second drop, then turning forward again and seeing Morrill Hall at the University of Nevada looming up in front of him.

One victim was taken from the Golden that day, the only known fatality that day. It would be a full month before the sixth victim was found.

Next Saturday, the saga continues…

• • •

Mopping Up the Golden Hotel Fire

In the last column we gawked as the four-story downtown Golden Hotel burned to the ground in a spectacular inferno on April 3, 1962, a Tuesday. This Saturday morning, we have a few facts, reader questions, and anecdotes about the 40-year old fire, which defy being put into any particular order:

How many people died? Good question. While most assumed the count to be seven, I’m able to verify only six, that last one a hotel employee found in the basement debris a full month after the fire. Hospitalized? Forty people, give or take a few, mostly from smoke, a few with burns. Five firefighters hospitalized briefly were Leonard Howard, 27 at the time and William (OB) O’Brien, both still with us, and three late firemen, Bob Kerns, then 31, John Henderson, 39, and Garvel (Ace) Acres. Heroes? Hotel employee Paul Gallo and fireman Smokey (Lloyd) Davison, who carried, down two flights of stairs and out the front door, a woman – Margaret McCollum – self-described in an April 4th Nevada State Journal interview as weighing 200 pounds, by a Gazette reporter as “stout” and by fireman Davison as 300 pounds. No ballerina, by anybody’s account, but she sent them thank-you cards for many years to follow.

How much water did the airplane drop? Twelve hundred gallons, according to the Reno Evening Gazette, 200 gallons according to State Forestry pilot Chuck Destree (1,200 gallons – five tons – might slightly overgross a Twin Beech!) Did it help? The firefighters said not much, the Pacific Fire Rating Bureau (whose records I had access to in researching this piece) in their final report said yes. Either way it was cool to watch. From several readers: Didn’t the hotel burn once before? No, the Grand Hotel, to the south of the Golden (on the corner), burned on March 4th of 1959 and two floors had to be removed. And the Golden Eagle hotel, a block away, burned on May 6, 1929 (NSJ). How many people worked at the Golden? 513 on April 3, 1962. (And 143 guests on that day.)

Were there other alarms? According to the Reno Fire guys and the later PFRB after-action account the initial notice was a frantic phone call FIRE! From a person too excited to leave a location; right on top of that the Gamewell code from the box I pulled and almost immediately after another code from the pull box on Commercial Row and Center. The phone call got everybody awake; the box codes told them to head east and the smoke was apparent. There is no truth to the rumor that when the dispatcher said to the phone caller, “Wait, how do we get there?” that he answered, “Don’t you still have the big red trucks?”

OK, back to work: What did surrounding businesses do? Officials of First National Bank – now the Planet Hollywood [and now struggling] – doused their roof with a garden hose. Harrah’s and Harolds did finally close, briefly. Harold Smith Sr. walked around Harolds casino floor playing his violin, and no, I don’t know if he was fiddling Nearer My God to Thee.

From a reader: “What was the name of the malt shop in the basement?” The Malt Shop. And a dandy it was, right off of a Hot August Nights poster – white wrought-iron furniture, a checkerboard floor, candy-striped awnings and real malts. No one asked, but many will remember Art Conde and Joe De Rosa, who owned the hotel barbershop. They relocated to the Ryland Barber Shop on South Virginia and were clippin’ again by the next Saturday. Didn’t (Justice of the Peace) Bill Beemer pull one body out of the debris? That story’s another only-Bill Beemer local legend, but one best left unchronicled. I’ll leave it at “yes.”

What happened to the money and chips on the gaming tables when the fire broke out? My personal guess would be that at that midweek early hour (7 a.m.) in the off-season there probably weren’t too many tables open. The April 4th REG details Golden exec Phil Downey running around trying to salvage what he could until the heat of the fire drove him out onto the street. Grifall Construction ultimately took the Golden Hotel’s carcass to the Isbell pit – near the bluff by the Hilton Hotel’s [Grand Sierra Hotel] south main floor entrance – where the debris was rechecked for bodies. And, according to Don Stockwell, he of the photographic memory, guards finally had to be posted to keep treasure hunters from scavenging for souvenir chips and the silver melted into the slot machines.

Former Golden employee Susan Marler tells a couple of stories. First, a Thornton Wilder-like tale of a sixty-ish Golden Hotel resident, whose name was Lucia Pedlar according to both papers if it’s the same person Susan spoke of. Lucia was confined to a wheelchair following a surgery, and able, more each passing day, to leave her room for meals and remain on the ground floor for an ever-lengthening period of time. The whole Golden staff was pulling for her and sustaining her courage to pump up her rehabilitation. Lucia was doing well.

She died in the fire.

The second Susan Marler story is happier, of Marilyn Monroe, who resided in the Mapes, natch, during the filming of The Misfits a couple years before the fire. Following the completion of the movie, Marilyn moved into the Golden for a time, by one account. Susan recalls seeing her shopping for a magazine at the gift store one day, and watched to see what the starlet liked to read.

Marilyn left for the elevator and her room with the latest copy of Sunshine and Health – an aù naturel sunbathing magazine. OK, OK – a nudie mag. [The report that Marilyn ever stayed at the Golden was questioned by several readers.]

And off track from our fire topic, I’m compelled to report that the April 5th Gazette included a sports piece about pro rassler Don Manoukian’s State Building bout with twin midgets, named Lord Littlebrook and Little Beaver. Ask ‘Nouk about that night. I’d rather not.

I’m grateful to Janyce Bentley and Mary Florentz for offering me some old Reno Evening Gazettes and Nevada State Journals – coincidentally just as I was planning this piece for the fire’s 40th anniversary. I’m also indebted to the Nevada Historical Society, retired Reno Fire Captains Joe Granata and the late Jim Arlin, Reno Fire Department archives, and the Pacific Fire Rating Bureau (now Insurance Service Office/ISO) – and to you readers for your input.

photo credit Reno Evening Gazette
© Karl Breckenridge 2002


Father Bob’s Car, and a 1959 newspaper

ChevGoldenGateJust as 500 Reno and Sparks kids vowed 50 years ago to return to the Tower Theater on the next Saturday morning, with 14 cents and the top of an Old Home Dairy milk bottle as admission, to find out if the swamp creature would really munch on the fair maiden as it was starting to do when the episode came to an end, Homefinders flock to page 8 for little other motivation other than to find out what personalized license plate FRBSKR on the late Monsignor Robert Bowling’s plain-vanilla Chevy Caprice stood for, as promised in a recent column. You read it above: Father Bob’s Kar. Such was the wit of Father Bowling.

You have also read here that columnists who write about architects, churches, banks and railroads should have their heads examined, and I will now add “irrigation ditches” to that list. A literary house of cards built upon ditches just floated downstream due to conflicting information and will be rebuilt.

Therefore, the column for this Saturday morning will be taken from the text in a newspaper I was researching for ditch info, this a Nevada State Journal [precursor of that paper merging with the Reno Evening Gazette] of a day or two before the Fourth of July of 1959. (The hardest part of newspaper-microfilm research is sticking to the topic while ignoring the news of the day!)

On that day Topic A, aside from the Reno Rodeo in progress and Fred MacMurray winning the Silver Spurs award, was the upcoming bond issue for a convention center somewhere in Reno and a site search team headed up by warehouseman Frank Bender, and a beef already going on over room taxes (repetition herein of “imagine that” and “dayja-voo” could become frequent, as some things never seem to change.) [We did eventually build the Centennial Coliseum, now convention center.] Some old friends and column readers were the flag girls for the rodeo, chicks like LeeAnn Zimmerman, Anne-Louise Cantlon, Georgia Teskey, Karry Devincenzi, Susie Wedge and the Wilson twins, Marilyn and Kay. Cindi Codding, later the bride of Sterling the Butler and Joe Murin, same guy, and later not, won a city parks art contest.

A “freeway” down Third Street, along the railroad tracks? Who the Hell thought of that? Let’s put it somewhere else, maybe north of the University campus, screamed the editorial. Walter Baring introduced a bill to compensate homeowners along a downtown “freeway” route. The Reno city dump closed on June 30 – up on the end of what would later be Sutro Street – and Reno, Sparks and Washoe County officials had their heads together on where to put a replacement facility, great timing to address that issue. Roger Brander was named by the city council as coordinator for the upcoming 1960 Olympics – he died in the East Bay as a passenger on the first aircraft hijacking, three years later on a hijacked airplane, a full column about that somewhere in this tome. The Lancer restaurant opened on the bluff across from present Galena High School (it would burn to the ground on July 30, 1971.)</p><p> In our 1959 newspaper we read that Ted Patrick, a fixture at Nevada Bell and father of our classmates Mimi and Nancy, husband of Billie, passes away, too young. Businessman’s lunch at Newt Crumley’s Holiday Hotel this day was seafood and rice – crab legs, shrimp, lobster and scallops in the Shore Room, a buck ninety-five with a beverage. The Governor’s Mansion got a dishwasher and garbage disposal. The 1959 Hot August Nights are only a month away? Get thee by Lee Bros. for a used ‘56 Ford, $845, or a ‘57 Chevy $1,395 (with a heater). Realtor Mat Gibbons has a starter home for sale in Sparks, $12,000 for three bedrooms, a one car garage and asbestos siding (ouch).

A two-bit union agent named Jimmy Hoffa told a congressional committee that he was “no damned angel,” and look where it got him. Romance of Scarlet Gulch, a corny Comstock melodrama – he ties her to the railroad tracks, as the audience gasps – with an all-Reno amateur cast moves to Piper’s Opera House for the summer; for many summers to follow it played at the Liberty Belle in July, at Piper’s in August – great times, music and laughs. The Bud Connell Trio played Vista Gardens, two miles east of Sparks on Hwy. 40, Bud and the Gardens now long gone. Carl Ravazza played at Harolds seventh-floor Fun Room, Jimmy Durante at the Tahoe Cal-Neva, and Ish Kabibble at the new Harrah’s South Shore (before the showroom was built.) First National Bank, with 19 offices statewide, elevates E.H. (Bud) Fitz to VP-Operations and Harold Gorman to First VP, announced by FNB president Eddie Questa. [Ravazza and his bride Marcie would eventually buy a ranch south of town – now Ravazza Road – and became popular folks in the community. Carl gave up singing Vieni Su to become a Realtor, worked with my dad for 22 years, and never sold a house – which was exactly the way he and Sr. wanted it.]

There were 174 motorcycle license plates issued throughout the state, an out-of-town trucker was taken to the Reno city limits and thrown out of town for fighting at Mac’s Club on South Virginia Street, and Nevada’s entry to the Miss Universe Pageant in Long Beach was 5’-7” tall and 36-23-36 back when ladies had measurements in newspapers. Like to meet her today…

The sports page? A great one in the old Journal – the night before this paper ran, the Cleveland Indian’s legendary pitcher Herb Score fanned 14 Kansas City Athletics (that’s right, Kansas City.) There was an article about the start of a third major league, with interest from Montreal, Toronto, Miami and Buffalo. No league divisions then, just Boston alone at 9½ games out in the American League’s cellar, no All-Star Break in 1959, and the Dodgers and Giants tied up for the National League lead, (and yes, both teams by then were on the west coast.) Locally, a bunch of hotshot young golfers were tuning up for the National Chamber of Commerce Junior Tournament, my contemporaries Skosh Bell, Skip Meeks, Harry Massoth and Rudy Semenza, all mentored by popular pro Pete Marich. Cam Solari was the lead caddy. (Just kidding – Cam, my childhood neighbor, was first alternate to the delegation.) Good guys, all.

And that’s the way it was on the eve of the 1959 Fourth of July – a rather impromptu collection of notes for a Saturday morning. Have a good weekend and a safe short week ahead – let’s see some flags flying this Friday, and God bless America.

• • •


Christmas countdown: Two men you should know…


This august site will endeavor, during the next 20 days, to bring back some memories of Christmas around Reno and Sparks that readers of a certain age, if any there be left, might enjoy (this website is on a collision course with reality, because the demographic who reads my stuff is either A/ deceased, or B/ not prone to using the internet. Ergo, I occasionally wonder why I write anything at all.)

            But, pressing on, I’d like you to know, or recall, a couple of guys who brightened our Christmases, and with both of them I’m going back into the 1960s.

            The first was named, and I write “was” because he was in his early forties during the time we’re reading about, and if he lives, he’d be one old rabbi. His name was Philip Weinberg, and I suppose that in this mid-1960s recollection he had some association with Temple Emanuel, which at the time was on West Street between West Fourth and Fifth Streets. It would soon be relocating to Lakeside Drive just north of Manzanita.

            Rabbi Weinberg, as memory serves, took a page from the military, wherein many of the Hebrew faith would take over the posts of their Christian counterparts on Christmas Day, that the latter may enjoy the holiday with their families. Weinberg chose to stand in for Reno’s police chief Elmer Briscoe, a man not averse to lighten his workload on any day, particularly Christmas. Weinberg’s offer was readily accepted by Chief Briscoe.

            The interim chief dutifully showed up on Christmas morning, in the stead of Chief Briscoe, and spent his day making the rounds of the police station, visiting with the on-duty officers and taking a ride in a patrol car, cheering the hearts of many, and mostly Chief Briscoe, home by the hearth with his family.

            This went on for several years; I’d say six or eight. And as I recall, there was only one problem, the minor matter of a Reno resident being run over, possibly by a sleigh and eight reindeer, and further having the timerity and bad fortune to expire on Christmas Eve yet, leaving Weinberg to do whatever police chiefs do under such circumstances. Otherwise, the watches were quiet.

            So, Rabbi Weinberg, wherever you may be, the Ol’ Reno Guy  and all four readers send Holiday greetings to you, and the readers and residents remember you fondly.


The second man we celebrate today I do know passed away many years ago. In about the same time frame that the Rabbi was bailing out the Chief (and my favorite English teacher the late Roberta Kirchner would question my capitalization of both those appellations), there lived among us a sign painter verging on genius, whose name was Red Nibert.

            Red operated out of a smallish hut on Mill Street just east of Kietzke, when there wasn’t a whole lot happening on little two-lane Mill Street. For most of the months of the year, Red painted signs. And painted them well; his work had a signature that was fairly evident, and was in demand.

            Then one day, in early December of what might have been 1964, like right about now, a Christmas sign materialized on the windows of the newish Sambo’s restaurant on the northeast corner of newish Keystone Avenue and oldish West Fourth Street-slash-Highway 40. The sign was bright and alive and eye-catching, sleighs, reindeer, Santa himself, mistletoe, holly, candles and “Merry Christmas!” emblazoned on maybe four, eight-foot wide windows on the Keystone Avenue side.

            Yikes! What was this? A Christmas sign on a commercial building? What genius! The genius behind this was our friend Red Nibert, who painted the window with its extensive detail and eight colors in about 17 minutes flat. Soon Red was loose all over our little hamlet, brightening the hearts of patrons of restaurants, commercial buildings, even the Mapes Hotel and some delivery truck windows. Red was indeed a genius, becoming even more of a genius as each day wore on and holiday cheer infused his creative veins and mind. Credit for all the windows you’re seeing now, goes to the friend I re-introduced you to today, a man of Christmas and Christmas cheer, Red Nibert.


A few final notes beckon for this visit: first, yes, I use Christmas, for it is now the Christmas season, and while I wrote with the highest respect for our Rabbi friend, the fact remains, Christmas is upon us. The second final note for today, is, yes, I wrote the word “Sambo.” I wrote of Sambo’s restaurants a score of years ago and was assailed as being racist. No, I’m not racist; no, the restaurant chain didn’t close because its name was racist (as most think), and yes, the restaurant chain was formed by two dudes, one named Samuel and the other Beauregard, who called their restaurant Sambo’s. Sam and Bo, get it…?

            And in closing, one may wonder, “Why the hell is the picture of the Ozi Willium Whitaker Episcopal School for Girls in Whitaker Park on the hed of this column?” And the reason is because in a recent offering about snow and schools and stuff, I mentioned Whitaker Park across the street from where that damn six-year-old kid lives. And it ain’t over yet; next chance I get I’m going to insert a picture of the Babcock Kindergarten, mentioned in the same column. 

And won’t you all be happy when the sun comes out and I can get outside and ride my bike!?

photo of Whitaker School source UNR Library Special Collections

Ozi Willium Whitaker spelling is stet

A November in Reno, 1950


We’re heading toward a column about the Thanksgiving 1950 flood in downtown Reno, but I’m trying to remember the asdfjkl;  keys on my computer – not having used them to write a column since mid-summer. So, off we go to the Nevada Historical Society on the University of Nevada campus where senior librarian Mike Maher offers up the November 1950 microfilm roll of the Nevada State Journal. Thanksgiving is just around the corner. This morning we’ll steal, with reverence to the late S.F. Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, his popular three-dot style of journalism and see what was going on 58 years ago this weekend. We start with an ominous cutline in the paper: The West Coast is being hit by bad weather, from LA to Washington, and it could go on for a week…


(Adjoining this text is a photo of the Gray Reid Wright building on the southeast corner of First and Sierra, now the site of the Paladio condo tower)


Onward: Savier’s, the popular appliance store at Second and West Streets on the  present Riverwalk corner is offering 12” LP records, the new ones that only turn 33-1/3 times in a minute, for 99¢ (“Oh, your record player turns 78 r.p.m.? Step this way, we’ll show you a new Admiral set…”)…two B-29 bombers collide over Arizona in a weather-related accident…The Jackie Robinson Story will be playing on Saturday morning at the Tower Theater downtown, admission 14¢ and an Old Home Milk bottle-top…next door to the Tower peek in Winkel Motors where they’re advertising a 1929 Ford for sale, 45 bucks and it’s yours…better yet, across Virginia Street Brown Brothers Motors, a heavy-duty auto dealership after WWII, has for you at ’48 Ford, a station wagon with wood siding, for $1,385. That, Beach Boys and Girls, is a Woody and would probably draw 25 times that 58 years later during Hot August Nights….five hundred earthquakes in 14 hours were registered at Mt. Lassen by the UC Berkeley seismic lab…the Owl Drug in the Mapes Hotel was offering a box of 50 Christmas cards for 58¢…


In the Nov. 17th edition: Continuing heavy showers reported over the West Coast.


A 14-year-old boy tossed a bomb into Northside Junior High School, was arrested, class was back to normal in an hour (nowadays the school would be on Code-Plaid Lockdown until Christmas, with grief counselors standing by)…Kellogg’s introduces the new Sugar Corn Pops at the Washoe Marke…the owner of the Pepsi-Cola bottling plant in Reno was arrested last night for bouncing a check…Reno Press Brick was 36 years old this year, and is now selling a new line of furnace oil (we came to remember them as Keystone Fuel, later Washoe-Keystone, now Allied-Washoe…)

● ● ●

Harry’s Business Machines at 232 West Street was offering Westinghouse LP record players…Barnes Radio was advertising a big fat post to convert a normal record player (78 and 33 r.p.m.) to play those new-fangled little 45 r.p.m. records. Of course you all knew that a silver dollar would fit exactly into the hole in a “45” record. Try it out, if you still have a cartwheel and a 45 record (record players were a hot item for this coming Christmas)…a Barn Dance, capitalized in a Nevada Star Grange ad in this morning’s Journal, will be tonight the Stone Barn, formerly the Sunflower Bar on the Carson Highway; maybe Radar O’Reilly will be there… some things never change: the University of Nevada, the state’s only college in 1950, is considering a tuition for Nevada residents, proposed at $100 a year, the university being tight for money…

The 1951 Lincoln is out! See it alongside the new Mercury at (Ham) McCaughey Motors at 515 South Virginia (that showroom in later years the casino of the Ponderosa Hotel and now the Wild Orchid)…Ty Cobb’s sports column speaks of local legends Wally Rusk Jr. and Howdy Davis, expected to star in the Las Vegas vs. Reno High football classic at Mackay Stadium this afternoon (weather permitting; it’s raining like hell right now…) That’s Ty Cobb the Eldest, by the way who passed away in 1996, not to be confused with the Ty-Cobb-my-contemporary, an RGJ columnist and one-time assistant to Ronald Reagan, or further confused with his son the Ty-Cobb-the-state-legislator…or for that matter, the baseball player of some note, no known relation…

In the classifieds, check out a 2-bedroom Westfield Village home – now only about three years old – $12,500 will get you in, call real estate man Ray Smith…and here, a duplex, ten grand with no color restrictions (this was our 1950 town, folks; you may recall that I wrote one time that the youthful Sammy Davis Jr. was playing with the Will Masten Trio at the Skyroom of the Mapes, but, he stayed out south of town at Kaye Martin’s dude ranch)…Blondie even then was built like a brick outhouse, and saves Dagwood from his recurring nocturnal dream of a baloney sandwich, while Dick Tracy is saying goodbye to his dying buddy name of B. O. Plenty.  They just don’t dream up cartoon character names like “B.O.” anymore…Jack Poncia, 53, of Reno, and William Stead, 33, of Sutcliff, crashed their cars at Second and Lake, minor damage – William (Bill) Stead would 13 years after this fender-bender be one of the major engines in founding the Reno Air Races…Stead AFB was named for his brother Croston Stead, who died in a Nevada Air Guard P-51 that crashed shortly after takeoff at Hubbard (Reno) Field…


The clouds are continuing, and the rain is still falling…


The Reno High School Huskiettes will march with the Las Vegas High band from downtown up Virginia Street to Mackay Stadium for the game this afternoon. Tom McCreary of 239 Flint Street shot at his wife, missed her but hit his neighbor’s banister and is now residing in the city jail for attempted murder. According to the Journal, Tom’s neighbor’s madder than hell about the banister and his wife probably isn’t too tickled either (they get gnarly like that when you shoot at them…)…Sing Mo Hihn, in these bygone days before spell-checkers, the acting Prime Minister of South Korea, told Douglas MacArthur that the Korean War would be over by Christmas. Which Christmas that would be was presumably not specified…  


The Truckee River nears the flood stage.


Sprouse Reitz,  now the Ace Hardware at 1215 S. Virginia Street was offering Christmas portraits of your child, up to eight years old, with their patented “Natural Color Electric Camera,” using genuine Kodak film. Two bucks a sitting, no word if the Big Elf would be there to assist and petrify the kid… Look Magazine’s current edition is running a major photo coverage of the Shrine Circus Train that brought 2,500 children from Elko and all points in-between to Mackay Stadium last summer – almost every little sprout on the Southern Pacific line. (I wrote a column about that years ago and enjoyed researching it – the S.P. and the Western Pacific had to make nice and get the railcars off S.P trackage to run northward up to the campus on the W.P.’s tracks. Lots of happy kids, who slept like babies on the way home)…Hattons Men’s Store has a “new suit for Christmas” for $50, probably a great suit, knowing Hattons great old reputation…this I remember well: a plywood wall obscuring the construction of the new Ramos Drug – now the Cheese Board on California Avenue – was decorated by the University’s art professor Craig Sheppard into a mural depicting the Knothole Gang peering through holes in the plywood…Sheppard’s wife Yolanda sculpted the statue of Sen. Patrick McCarran in the Capitol Rotunda. A copy is now in the capitol in Carson City; her half-size working model is at the Nevada Historical Society – visit the Society and see it…


The Truckee rose to within a few inches of the Belmont [now Arlington] Bridge last night, but no general flood conditions are expected, read the November 19th bulletin (remember those words for a paragraph or two)…however, the residents of Scott Island (the land occupied now by the Reno Gazette Journal’s building) were evacuated…flooding was noted in Home Gardens (and y’all said that Rosewood Lakes couldn’t flood?) …Manogue High School – then on the south bank of the Truckee just west of McCarran’s present crossing into Sparks – had a dance last night, and the partiers were warned that the Glendale Bridge, now replaced by the McCarran Blvd. bridge, was unsafe…an irrigation ditch in Washoe Valley broke in the vicinity of Washoe City and closed the Carson City highway with eight inches of water over the roadbed…the Boca Reservoir, an object of concern, was holding…Reno High won the Reno/Vegas game, 12-to-6; Reno coach Dick Trachok, unbeaten in this second year of coaching, took time off for some minor surgery after the game…the divorce didn’t work out, so they had to get remarried: Jack Fabrican, divorced in Judge A. J. Maestretti’s court, was told that due to a technicality he may still be married (Merry Christmas!)…


Monday, Nov. 21 a.m.: At midnight last night, Reno was experiencing their worst flood in history, quoting Edward L. Pine, Army Corps of Engineers…the Carson River also flooded, inundating the Eagle and Carson Valley… I noted that this morning’s edition of the Nevada State Journal was abbreviated somewhat, indicating some difficulty in getting it on the street…there were a significant number of localized power outages, but the phone system, for the most part, came out unscathed…United Air Lines, three words in 1950, put on extra service with larger aircraft to accommodate Thanksgiving traffic that was being inconvenienced by the closure of Highway 40 and 50 to Sacramento and the suspension of the S.P.’s City of San Francisco railroad service

Tuesday, Nov. 22 a.m., two days before Thanksgiving: the waters were abating – one death had been attributed to a drowning, he an employee of Reno Disposal Co…the Rock Street Bridge, built in 1877 over Virginia Street, was lost in the flood (history generally records that the V&T railroad bridge being swept away. It was, sort of; it was in the advanced stage of demolition anyway, following the cessation of railroad use and the flood just finished it off)…the last significant flood in Reno had been in December of 1937 when the bridge linking Belmont Street to Belle Isle was swept away – it would be rebuilt the next year.


By Thanksgiving Day, the waters had returned to the Truckee channel, but the town was deeply scarred…









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

We’re forgetting a few guys…


Work progresses in site work on Foster Drive across from Reno High School on what was once the home of the Reno YMCA. The new building will be the William N. Pennington facility for the Boys & Girls Club of Truckee Meadows.  This is a wonderful thing and has been appropriately ballyhooed wherever applicable, as it should be. Pennington did a fine thing endowing this building, and was generally a good guy (we were neighbors in the 1960s before our lives took separate courses.)

But it’s mildly annoying to some, in this case, to me, that with all the fol-de-rol over the new facility, little, as in zilch, has been said about how that little piece of dirt was transformed from a dairy farm adjoining Westfield Village, to a grand new building. A few steps have been left out of that site’s journey.

The journey started back in 1952 when the original Reno YMCA, pictured, blew up, actually a boiler in the basement blew up and took the building down to ground level in one quick hurry. I watched it. That YMCA, by the by, was the next building east of the Mapes Hotel and if you don’t know where that was you probably want to leave this site and go read the Mommy Files or the Sudoku page. Reno was without its Y.

So, a group of businessmen got together once, becoming weekly, if memory serves (I was 10 years old and don’t accurately recall; I have a faint recollection of them meeting at the Trocadero Room of the El Cortez but wouldn’t swear to it.) Some names I remember were Al Solari, Del Machabee, Buddy Traynor, Conrad Preiss, Jim Morrison, Gene Gastanaga, Ed Pine, Sr., and hell of a lot of others. Oh, and a young Realtor named Karl Breckenridge. (My dad, not me.) If anybody can think of some more, lemme know; there’s a plaque around somewhere with some names but I can’t find the plaque.

Those local men got on the bandwagon to beg, borrow, and steal, well almost, the funding to acquire a piece of property for a brand-new Y building. And my dad, being a real estate man, found the property, as I recall, with Del Machabee. And they all had fundraisers, barbecues at the California Building, virtual house-to-house solicitations, tail-twisting of the school districts (there were eight in Washoe County back then.) The city government, Stead Air Force Base, the power company, Nevada Bell employees, just an incredible, damn aggressive but all-in-fun fundraiser.

And they raised the funds, and bought the land, I think from the Vhay Ranch but don’t know at this writing. I traveled with my dad for 10 days in his 1952 Buick to a dozen YMCA buildings in northern and southern California, spent nights in them, swam in their pools, while he gathered ideas for the Reno building. And, the building was indeed built, Orville Wahrenbrock was hired to run it with Dick Taylor second in command, and Tom Hardester and Steve Rucker in the P.E. department. Reno had a Y.

What the hell happened to it I can’t say; some of the Ys in California that we toured preparatory to building it still stand (it was a well-built building.) My personal opinion, which I’ve learned is shared by many guys in Reno, is that something or somebody screwed up. It doesn’t matter – it’s been torn down. And we have no Y. And a new building is going up on its former site, a new building with a flagship name.

But, ya know what? There’s a long list of once-prominent people who did a great deal of work, and personal commitment, and personal expense, to get that site. But I don’t look to see their names being bandied about when the new youth club opens a year from now.

If they are, they’ll probably be right alongside Anna Frandsen Loomis’ name on the Lear Theater – my friend Anna who endowed the Christian Science Church in 1938, later the Lear, getting the same credit that Machabee, Solari, Pine, Breckenridge the Elder, and all the others will be getting on Foster Drive – none.

(Photo credit to “CardCow.com” on the web, it’s an old postcard that half of Reno has in their collections but I couldn’t find mine.)