Another old University of Nevada friend bites the dust…

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Well, they’re doing it again – tearing down a building that many of us watched being built during our University of Nevada matriculation and one that we visited thereafter, quite often. A couple of them were saved – and I’ll modestly take a bit of credit for calling the regents a bunch of damn ungrateful fools in a column, for coming thhhhiiis close to tearing down the Fleischmann Atmospherium-Planetarium, and taking the name “Jot Travis” off the student union center – a building built in 1958 in honor of Ezra “Jot” Travis, endowed by his son Wesley upon Wesley’s death in 1952. The Planetarium, named for the parents of university benefactor Max C. Fleischmann, was on the endangered list in favor of some dingbat building. It still stands. Moral being, don’t give your fortune to the University – they’ll spend it and in a period of time, demolish it for some younger guy’s endowment. And you and your wife’s name (and your contribution!) will soon go by the wayside.

Now, another building is going, going, soon to be gone – the Noble H. Getchell Library opened in 1962, two years after Noble Getchell’s death, to replace the Clark Library, a building still in use today as the Clark Administration Building. In days past, honored names, like William Clark’s, also a miner, were more revered than they are today. We, as undergraduates and “we” being every able-bodied soul attending the U, hauled the Clark’s inventory of library books, box-by-box, from the Clark up the (then) main drive for re-shelving in the new Getchell Library. The Getchell was a beautiful, modern building, bright, airy and welcoming (still is). Noble Getchell was a miner, and beat the drum for all the Nevada miners to support the University which then had a Mackay School of Mines, not “earth-sciences,” whatever those are – euphemisms abound on the Hill – the “Hill” itself a bygone term of endearment for the U. Getchell, like John Mackay before him, contributed mightily to our school. (In fairness, the mining industry went flat about the time the Nevada miners would have started to fund the library and Getchell and the others couldn’t endow it as he’d hoped to. But, he tried, and name “Getchell” will soon depart from the memory of the University of Nevada.)

You may bid the Getchell Library goodbye – apparently it couldn’t be converted to another use in this cash-rich Nevada university system (the tale is that it’s built with student funds. Students, as we know, have a lot of spare cash lying around to build buildings with.) I wonder if this occurs at other universities – the destruction, whether they pull it off or not, as in the case of the Jot and the Planetarium – look-out the Campanile at UC Berkeley, surely taking up a lot of room that could better be used for parking, or the Hoover Library at Stanford, or that damn ol’ Pauley Pavilion at UCLA, right in the middle of what could be a solar array for campus power, or Crisler Arena at Michigan – definitely showing its age. The Tables Down at Morey’s, and the Place where Louie Dwells back east in the Ivy League.

The Getchell served us well for half a century. Thanks, Noble…

The Little Engine That Could (in Idlewild Park!)

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In 1942 the movie Iron Horse opened in the little Colorado mining town of Trinidad, and movie ticket holders were offered a free ride on a miniature train that was operating behind the theater. That short ride was just the beginning of the train’s journey that would eventually take it for thousands of miles, hauling probably a couple of hundred thousand passengers on a ride that’s lasted seventy years and still running this morning, right here in Idlewild Park.

          The engine – a coal-burning, steam replica of a Pacific-class steam locomotive – was fashioned by a Trinidad ironworker to pull the four open passenger cars, each holding four adults or three dozen kids. The lash-up soon caught the eye of John and Joe Cihura, sons of Polish immigrants who followed the rails and coalmines from Pennsylvania to Colorado. They acquired the train equipment and relocated it to Walsenburg, Colorado, and set it up after the war as an attraction behind a little restaurant, selling rides at a dime a pop to the kids in the diner.

          In 1949, they again moved it, this time to Vallejo, and in 1952 negotiated a contract with the City of Vallejo to operate the train – and a few kiddie cars, a merry-go-round and “airplane” rides – in Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo.  Joe and John traveled to Virginia City in their pickup and bought some old ore cart rails that were being salvaged from the mines. The present railbed in Idlewild Park came down from the Comstock, via Vallejo. (For the train nuts, er, aficionados, the rail is set at live-steam gauge of 11-1/2 inches. And the loco is a 4-6-2 class; if you never saw it, it was about six feet long with a great bell, a real two-chime steam whistle, and towed a tender with coal, water and a seat for Joe. End of tech-talk.)

          In 1961, the brothers moved to Reno and began negotiating for a site for their train and some rides, and zeroed in on a kiddie park in Idlewild Park. The Reno Arch Lions and the 20-30 Club shouldered the task of putting the park together, working with everyone’s old buddy the late Duke Lindeman from the City of Reno. (Many old-timers remember the huge lion-head drinking fountain, which was eventually replaced because the smaller tykes were afraid to put their heads inside the lion’s mouth for a gulp!)

• • •

Our town embraced the little park and the train, the pleasant scent of coal and steam wafting around the park near the California building and the real S.P. locomotives across the river blowing their whistles as they passed the park, and Joe, the only engineer the train ever had, returning a toot for the passengers in tow. Rusty Crook frequently brought the kids from his This Is It Ranch for a ride. Disabled citizens, young and old, were always welcomed as guests. Older children who rocked in their cars found themselves booted off the train in mid-ride. (Every now and then, Joe’s daughter Carol recalls, a waif would show up without the price of a ride in his jeans.  Joe would send him out into the park to find 10 scraps of paper or other junk and bring it back in return for a ticket to ride. John and Joe were the long-time ex officio custodians, guardians and champions of Idlewild Park.)

          Change was coming.  The US of A was coming up upon a Bicentennial celebration in 1976. In anticipation of all this gala, Joe and John began rebuilding the coal-black locomotive to replicate the Daylight streamliner locomotive that Southern Pacific was repainting red, white and blue to tour the nation for the Bicentennial as the “Freedom Train.” The miniature Pacific’s boiler was shrouded and the cowcatcher was removed. The loco and cars were repainted. On June 7th of 1976 Joe appeared in a Gazette photo in the paper with the rebuilt engine, and on July 4th, 1976, the new line was inaugurated.

• • •

In 1980, Joe and John sold the operation, lock, stock and barrel, to Aldo Andrietta, and took their fifth-wheeler to Alaska for three months for a well-deserved vacation. Aldo ran the park very capably until about three years ago, when he sold it to a Sacramento-based amusement company that owns several other kiddie rides. The Cihura brothers kept the steam locomotive. Aldo opted for another engine the brothers had built, this one a gasoline/propane powered replica of a 1957 General Motors passenger diesel (a steam powered loco was nifty, but firing it up and bringing it up to steam was a chore that only Joe enjoyed.)

          Joe passed away in 1986, and on Arbor Day of 1987 a sequoia was planted in his honor. The families’ contribution to the children of all ages of our town was feted in a ceremony near the park’s railroad station, led by then-Governor Dick Bryan and Mayor Pete Sferrazza. Joe’s wife Harriet was later memorialized with a Colorado Blue Spruce across the street by the California Building. Bronze plaques mark each tree.

          The Lions Kiddie Park and the Cihura brothers’ train is a long-standing asset of our town, and this would not be a bad morning to take a couple of kids, of any age, out to enjoy it.  As I wrote above, I’d welcome more info about the service clubs that contributed to the Kiddie Park, for a future follow-up column.

 What happened to the old steam engine? I could never find out. I’d like to think it’s still running, maybe up in Tilden Park above Oakland with some other old live steam engines of the same guage.      I am grateful to my old friend and retired State Farm Insurance executive Carol Brown – (Joe Cihura’s daughter) – for her extensive input into the column, and, as always, the resources of the Nevada Historical Society and the RG-J archives.

          (Photo credit, steam engine Carol Brown; GM replica City of Reno)

More about Mt. Rose, from an earlier post

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In an April 10 post I included a photo of the last vestiges of snow on Mt. Rose take during my stroll around Virginia Lake, and alert reader Gordon Zimmerman chided me that the scene wasn't really Mt. Rose, which was correct – it was in truth north of Mt. Rose. And a couple e-mails rolled in, about the peak's name origin, which has always been kicked around by local historians. So, we turned Carmine Ghia and our research staff loose on the situation and learned of, or at least reinforced some of that which we probably knew and forgot a long time ago about the 10,772-foot landmark. We also sent staff photographer Lo Phat out this Saturday morning to get another shot of Mt. Rose from Virginia Lake. The snow fields of Mt. Rose are barely seen in this view, with Slide Mountain to the left/south.

Regarding the “Rose” name, take your pick: One version, the one I always heard and grew up with, was that Hank Monk – the incomparable! The most daring – the most reckless of drivers; and the luckiest. The oddest, the drollest of all the whimsical characters who made Western staging famous the world over* – in other words, a  stage coach driver of some note who drove between the Carson Valley and Placerville, saw the image of his daughter Rose in the mountain to the north.

If you don’t like that story, here’s’ another: The name might have come from early 1800s settler Jacob  H. Rose, who built a lumber mill near Franktown. Or, another possibility is that it might have been for Rose Hickman, a friend of  Washoe City newspaper editor H.S. Ham. For these past two names I offer attribution to the U.S. Forest Service information on the web. And what moved newspaper editor H. S. Ham to name a mountain for this Hickman lass is a tempting inspiration for a song or a column, akin to the folk song Darcy Farrow – having a mountain named for oneself is no mean feat, and thank God it’s not Mt. Hickman…

Carmine further learned the more northern peak of Mt. Rose was named for Dr. James E. Church (Church Peak), a University of Nevada professor and hydrologist born in 1895, who perfected the snow-water content sampling device still in use today. Dr. Church passed away just months after we graduated from Reno High in 1959, and many of us were so fortunate as to have met him in our Physics class taught by John Marean at Reno High School. He held the distinction of being the first white man to have summited the peak which would later be named for him, while conducting his snow experiments in the 1920s. And many of us have visited the shelter that he constructed over a period of years at the very summit of Mt. Rose, following a robust but enjoyable hike up to the peak from Sheep Meadows on the Mt. Rose highway. And I mention parenthetically that political correctness guidelines in use today, largely ignored by the Ol’ Reno Reader, would indicate that it was “…the first European to have summited…”. But we have a tale to tell, our way.

So there you have it – a bit more about Mt. Rose and its name. And to the south of Mt. Rose, to the left in the photograph, is Slide Mountain, a thousand feet lower in altitude. Many remember the Memorial Day slide of 1983 when the southeast face of Slide Mountain – in actuality a man-made lake, known as Price Lake, man-made as a hydroelectric plant reservoir – let loose a 15-foot wall of water that inundated Washoe Valley below and to the east, blocking Highway 395. And let’s all bear in mind that the two neighboring mountains are in the Cascade range, not the Sierra, which we’ll never convince the travel and ski writing press so we won’t even keep trying.

Stay tuned for a future update of the wiles and charm of Miss Rose Hickman, for whom Mt. Rose may or may not have been named.

*Idah Strobridge, The Land of the Purple Shadow


A walk around Virginia Lake


Some columns have a theme that holds them together; this one doesn’t. Today’s pièce de résistance – one of the few phrases I know that contains both an accent acute and an accent breve (é and è) respectively, but I don’t know a lot of phrases – is of Virginia Lake, and was composed in my head while I was walking around it a couple of times earlier this afternoon. Lord knows, I think, that I’ve written ad nauseum about Virginia Lake since growing up in its proximity in the mid-1950s, (2230 Watt Street) but today my brain just kicked out of gear as I walked, with stuff that really should be conveyed…

The picture I took to prove I was really there shows the last (hopefully) vestiges of snow on Mt. Rose, and at that juncture I point out that anywhere you see Mount Rose, Mount written out, is written by a person not from around here, for it’s Mt. Rose, everywhere but the elementary school, which for reasons unknown is Mount Rose School. Here we see the mountain with gentle fields of snow, scarred by the Hawken Fire of 2007. We’ll burn it down yet, I fear.

If one looks closely at the photograph, it is evident that my buddy Gordon Zimmerman, that’s Dr. Gordon Zimmerman of the University of Nevada, retired, maybe even emeritus, is in the picture dead on a line with the camera and beyond the island in the lake. Now that island’s an interesting little piece of local real estate. In my early years I was told by no less than Ed Pine, Sr., that the island on Virginia Lake, together with the migratory bird sanctuary on the south east corner of the lake, and the then-fish hatchery, now-off leash dog park on the south side of Mountain View Drive, were all federal properties, in ransom for the Department of Interior’s contribution to the CCC and WPA in construction of the lake. And I can also tell you that somebody should be ashamed of the condition of that island; at one time it was a focal point of the lake, and indeed the city.

I’ve written about the house with the turret on the southwest corner of the lake – on Lakeside and Country Club Drive. That 6,000 square foot beauty was built by Luke Hancock, founder of Hancock Oil Company, one of the major oil companies in the nation in the pre-WWII years. He built it in the late 1930s, and it was completed in January of 1941, which coïncided with the “official,” by many accounts, completion of Virginia Lake.

And while I’m boring you and myself with an English lesson, not that I slipped a diaerisis into coïncided above, which tells you that in those two consecutive vowels, the second one starts a new syllable. You won’t see it anywhere in modern usage except The New Yorker Magazine and Ol’ Reno Guy.

• • •

Did anybody ever drown in Virginia Lake? Yes, they did, two Reno residents – one a teenager who drowned near the east shore of the lake just south of the Cochran Ditch outlet structure, ‘nuff said, and a lady, the wife of Ralph Festina, also known as Mrs. Festina, who was walking along the northeast corner of the lake and fell in – accounts vary as to whether she had a heart attack and fell in and drowned, or fell in and it triggered a heart attack, but in the final evaluation she gained the distinction of being the first person and only woman to drown in the lake, to go with an earlier distinction of being ½ the team in Reno who brought us “Pizza,” for the Festinas were chefs in the Colombo restaurant downtown and legend says they created pizza out of the leftovers of the food from the night before.

You read it first in the Ol’ Reno Guy

Now – up Lakeside Drive we go, up being north to the house at 1900 Lakeside Drive. It was one of the earlier structures around the new lake, and was built with the express purpose of being a rural casino and tavern. The problem was, the citizenry didn’t want a casino and tavern in the proximity of their new civic jewel of a lake, so it never came to be. Nice try.

While walking the lake which I do with some regularity, I’m always taken with the house on the northwest corner of Wildrose Drive and Lakeside Drive – it’s a Tudor of grand proportions. Now, after you’ve checked it out, look at the house at 2230 Watt Street.

They were originally identical houses in 1951, the Watt Street house remaining as-built. Sid King built them, as he did many of the homes around the lake and the Watt Street, Sunset and Sunrise Drives, Country Club and Morningside – quite a builder. I lived in the Watt Street house, and watched the owner of the Lakeside Tudor re-engineer it for that steep pitched roof and virtual rebuilding. Just goes to show that money, in sufficient quantities, can do just about anything, not always with the intended consequences.

• • •

This yarn is starting to grow to a ridiculous length so we’re now going to wrap it up and look at a few of the events and uses the lake and its park were put to. Not the least of which was an automobile race, sports cars, in 1952; out Lakeside Drive to Moana, west on Moana Lane to Plumas Street, (the “pits” were on Plumas, about by the present tennis courts) north on Plumas to Morningside, around the lake and back out Lakeside Drive was a lap. Cool.

We had sailboat racing at Virginia Lake for a time, attorney Thomas Cooke, now deceased (and this is not my buddy Tom Cook, the attorney, Sigma Nu, raconteur, first-nighter, boulevardier, who is, or at least was alive ’til yesterday). Cooke organized the sailboat races.

The Reno Municipal Band, “Tink” at the baton, performed every summer on Wednesday night at the Virginia Lake Park, ending each night’s show by leading the kiddies around the park to Stars & Stripes Forever. My compadre the late Glenn Little continued the tradition for many years thereafter. The muni band back then played Virginia Lake in July, and the University Quad in August. Or vice versa, depending on the whim, but in any case the parking was a lot better than when some genius decided to put the muni band downtown with no parking, signalling its near-demise.

This piece is long enough. We’ll do it again. And we’ll run a full column about the sports car races, as soon as I find my pictures of the Jag XK-120s, Healeys, and MGs. And others, like the Army test-floating, or test-sinking, some amphibious Weasels in the lake. And the year the lake was drained. And the bounty-hunt for cormorants, a buck-a-beak – not a bad idea today. We’re not done yet.

A 1960 Chrysler 300 and a website you’ll enjoy


I’ll never understand the World Wide Web – several years ago I posted a long tale of old Reno car dealerships and how they morphed around the valley. Later, I took the site down and it went to neverland somewhere never to be seen again.

This morning I get an e-mail from a friend in Texas, with THAT website, now under a different URL (web address). It still exists! The car above (a 1960) is one once owned by Andy Drumm, who many readers will remember as the predominant state highway contractor from Fallon (Silver State Construction) who could get anywhere in the State of Nevada in about three hours in his series of Chrysler 300s, all black with a white trunk lid. Those was cars, boys and girls, a fur cry from Chrysler’s wussy 300s of today – these were the muscle cars of yesteryear, when men were men and ships were wood, and sheep were scared. I thank my friend for the website; here’s the address, click on and enjoy a trip back in time in Reno

And if you see a black 300 in your mirror, get the hell out of his way! (Bill Harrah had a fleet of them also, for his execs – a half dozen, I’d guess, in the early 1960s) The car you see in the photo is one of Drumm’s cars that now belongs to my friend, now hauling-tail in the Lone Star State.

The Dania Hall/Reno Little Theater


On August 24th of 1894 the Afdeling Waldemar Lodge #12 of the Dania Society held their summer ball at Laughton’s Resort west of Reno, all 120 or so of the members and their attendant brides, and the gala was considered by most accounts as a success, save for Hans Block and Peter Rasmussen winding up with a broken wrist and an amputated thumb, respectively, during a vigorous old-country Danish dance. But notwithstanding those inconveniences, according to the Reno Evening Gazette a day later, all were looking forward to next year’s party.

This has little to do with today’s column. Continue reading

Bill Harrah would turn over in his grave…


This photo, taken on a glorious March day, would make William Fisk Harrah revolve in his grave, if such he has not already done. It’s by request; an old reader asked me about the house, which was built in the late 1960s by a local dentist, a nice guy, for his large family at the south end of Nixon Avenue on the west side of the street (1555 Nixon).

The large house was acquired by Harrah’s Club as a rest and recreating place for the stars and their families, who were indeed stars in this period of Reno-at-its-prime. The club hired Oakland architect Henry Conversano & Associates, who designed the Harrah’s South Shore Hotel, to gut the place and turn it into a home every bit as nice as any Harrah property. I know; I was in it once with Neil Sedaka, after we got into a conversation out in front and he invited me in for a beer. Nice guy. Good singer…

And, its exterior was impeccably groomed, a point of pride with the Harrah organization, with the name “Interlaken” in brass on a rock out in front, evocative of “Rancharrah” on Talbot Lane in Reno, and “Villa Harrah” at Lake Tahoe’s southeast shore. Mr. Harrah liked brass plaques.

And the stars lived there, and enjoyed it to the max. One of the most noted guests was Willie Nelson, who when playing the club, might have gone in and out of the place once in a while, but what neighbors remember, and not unpleasantly at that, were the four huge motorhomes – think stretched MCIs and  Prevosts, belonging to Waylon, Willie and the Boys (the Highwaymen!)  parked on Nixon, with the Boys jammin’ and havin a toke or two after their midnight show downtown. These guys knew how to party, and didn’t give a rat’s ass that the Chief Justice of the Nevada Supreme Court lived next door – he was welcome to come over and light up a joint also, but it didn’t spoil their party one bit.

The asset was disposed of in the 1980s, when entertainers ceased to be a concern for what remained of Harrah’s. I think it’s had a couple of owners since, and sadly, looks like hell.

And there you have it, Misha…