More S. F. 1906 Earthquake stuff

LottaJPEGWhen last we met, I described meeting a friend who gave us a predawn ride from the SF Marina to Market Street, for the 100-year anniversary of the Great San Francisco Earthquake – the morning was April 18, 2006. What I didn’t really develop was the participation and organization of the San Francisco Fire Department. The event was basically rooted in the fire services of San Francisco and more outlying communities.

Don Young, who I’ve profiled in a 2016 RGJ column, is a retired chief of the Sparksxsfd Fire Department – a man with his wife Maddy that you should know. Soon I’ll dig out the column I wrote about him, and figure out how to convert it from Gazoo-print to WordPress. Watch for that. But right now, Don writes, in response to the piece her of a couple of days ago: “The Sparks Fire Department changed the rules in 1964 to honor the State of Nevada Centennial and the firemen were authorized to sport facial hair and wear uniforms like you have on. [in the photo with Linda at Lotta’s Fountain on Market Street]. My wife and YoungLittleWalothers made the shirts out of heavy red flannel and we also wore jeans as a work uniform. Thanks, Don”

And we thank you Don, known by his license plate as “XSFD” – ex-Sparks Fire Department. You’ll read more of him soon, right here. His official department portrait seen above right was taken by SFD’s Jeff Spicer. Pretty cool.


Also in the column of a couple days ago, I mentioned the 1908 photograph of Reno and Sparks, taken from an airship, better described as a kite, by the Lawrence Airship Company out of Chicago. I won’t waste space here; you can read more of it in the preceding post. But – I did allude to 17 prints of it being discovered downtown, and my ownership of one of the originals.


The backstory there is, that in 1957 there was a major explosion and fire in downtown Reno (I’ll put a link to it at the end of this post). In its aftermath, some workers in the A. Carlisle Company, on the west side of Sierra Street just north of Home Furniture on the First Street corner, were mopping up after the fire. They pulled a large ozalid-process machine for making blueprints and about as big as a big deep freeze, away from a wall and voila! They found behind the printer, 17 original prints of the photo, in pristine condition. My dad scored one of them; it’s hanging to this day in a relative’s law office. There were only 17 known until recent technology and the expiration of a copyright allowed them to be copied – and copied in better detail than the originals. So – there’s more than 17 around town now. Lawrence’s brochures and records indicate a price of $18 per copy, a pretty penny in 1908.


OK, still writing of fire department stuff vis-à-vis San Francisco and the earthquake, let’s pay proper attention to the American LaFrance Company, who in 2006 had been supplying America, through its several incarnations, with fire trucks. CaptureSan Francisco was a prime customer and LaFrance took it upon themselves to make a statement of gratitude. They sold the City 16 new “triple” engines, but put a little extra into them before they were delivered starting in February of 2006. The engines were painted a “retro” color, darker red and almost a purplish-brown, to emulate the color engines the City used before WWII. But the piece-de-resistance was the gold-leaf treatment – I don’t know whether the engines are more striking by day with the sun dancing off the heavy gold-leaf that covered the engines and station numbers and SFFD ownership, or maybe they were more so at night, with other light sources lighting up the gold. Top that with heavy silver plating on the bumpers, trim and the big bells on the front bumpers with the LaFrance eagle atop them, and those are 16 pretty trucks. They remain in service, immaculately-maintained these 12 years later, and are still head-turners when cruising around the Streets of San Francisco.

Now, we’ll put the SFFD out of service for a while, but return to a tale of a local guy, a Sparks Railroader who ran the Sparks Fire Department. If you’d like to read the post that preceded and inspired this go here and it will open in another window, or if you’d like to know more about one of Reno’s major downtown fires in 1957, click here.

See ya in a week or two; I’m going to get the six-year-old kid off his butt and writing about old Reno!




Reed and Sparks High Class of 1976 + ’77,’78 and ’79 Reunion – save the date: Friday, July 29

raidersI’ve been called a cheerleader for Reno High School, been reminded that there’s other schools in the valley, and been criticized for not including them in columns. To allay that accusation, I’m glad to post this letter that I received today from Debbie Rossi. I’m glad to post it on this website for all to enjoy! Lightly edited, Debbie writes (beautifully, I might add!):
Edward C Reed High School opened in 1974 – at Sparks High School. In the summer of 1975, before school began, the parents and students of Sparks High and the yet-to-be opened Reed High were sent letters explaining that Edward C. Reed High School – the building – was not complete and would not be able to house students until later in the fall. So the solution was to house both schools at Sparks High School.  Sparks High’s schedule for all the students, administration and teachers was seven-ish in the morning until noon and for Reed High students, administration and teachers, 1:00 p.m. ending at 5 p.m. 
Since a majority of the new Reed students were rezoned from Sparks High (we also metreedalum new friends from Wooster – the Hidden Valley area, and from Hug High – the North Sparks area) we were very familiar with the school. Both Sparks and Reed doubled up in lockers. We decorated in separate halls for big events and did our best to respect our unique situation. 
We chose our team name, school colors and elected our first-ever school officers – all within the walls of Sparks High School. In addition to students moving schools, many of the teachers, administrators and staff moving to Reed were from Sparks, Hug and Wooster High Schools.
On the first day of the second semester – the opening day at Reed – we drove or walked, for what seemed like miles, down Baring Boulevard.  The school was built down a long, wide street. There were no homes, no stores, nothing between McCarran Boulevard and the school. Reed was designed quite differently from the other high schools, with really wide hallways and bright colors.  We were overwhelmed those first few days and weeks. Fortunately, we began our first day at the new school with the friends we had already made while we were at our temporary home.
That year was 1974. We were Juniors. We were the top class as Juniors and Seniors. When we were freshmen, we were the first Freshman class to be moved up from Jr High  to High School- rather than the traditional three-year. Jr High School. That is the year Jr. Highs in Reno/Sparks became “Middle Schools.” So we were also the novelty to the upper class men. We were the first to dip our toes into that new direction in high school. So we were the novelty in high school. Actually, that first year, seniors had the option to not go to Reed and many took that option and stayed at their respective schools- Sparks, Hug and Wooster to graduate.
This year, in honor of our 40th Class Reunion – We are getting together on July 29th with the three classes behind us – the Classes of ’77, ’78 and ’79 – to celebrate with us. And on Saturday July 30th, we will join Sparks High Class of 1976, as we have always celebrated all of our reunions together and to celebrate our unique high school history, our friendships, and our 40th year of life after graduation.
Happy 41 Years to Edward C. Reed High School….from very unique beginnings to where you stand today! To all the faculty and the students of today and yesterday! A toast – and a little history to remember ….. To all of us in the first graduating class and to our friends for life – Sparks High School – Class of 1976. In our hearts the memories are a little dimmer, but it still just seems like well, last week now. 
Good words, Debbie – many thanks!

Happy Bill Howard, The Nugget’s Flagpole Sitter


‘Twas in the year of 1955 that the battleship gray and black-and-green high-reach crane trucks – Sierra Pacific Power and Nevada Bell’s respectively – set a spindly 60-foot pole on the north side of B Street in Sparks just across the street from the Sparks Nugget’s brand-new building, set guy wires to keep it vertical, and then lifted a replica of a shiny gold nugget as big as a Chevy Suburban to the top of the pole.  On that nugget they set a platform, and finally a canvas tent on the platform, then aimed floodlights up to illuminate it.

            The Nugget casino south of B Street was tiny compared to the Nugget of today; no I-80 freeway over the building, just B Street out in front doubling as transcontinental Highway 40.  No elephants; this was pre-Bertha.  Last Chance Joe had just arrived to keep an eye on the happenings out in front.  And pilgrim, did he get an eyeful as Happy Joe Howard, the last of the great pre-war flagpole sitters arrived to begin his ascent to the platform atop the tower on August 4, 1955, where he would stay longer than any flagpole sitter would ever sit.  Flagpole-sitting was a rage that died out somewhere in the 1930s, probably for good reason, but the Nugget’s then-owner Dick Graves, already well-along in the process of selling the Nugget to John Ascuaga, was a showman, attuned to every PR stunt in the book. 

            Howard soon became accustomed to life on top of the highest building in Sparks.  He became the darling of the local media and the West Coast scribes when his time on top of the gold nugget started to look like a serious attempt.  A month, two months, dragged by, the number on the base of the “flagpole” being changed daily to indicate the number of days he had stayed there.  The summer of 1955 arrived and the world was in turmoil, but local notice was paid first to Happy Bill Howard, so high above B Street, drawing crowds of people who would stop on the highway to look in wonder at how he could possibly keep doing it. 

            Casual visitors could speak to Happy Bill on a phone provided by Nevada Bell, from the base of the tower to his lofty perch.  Several times daily a truck from the Nugget arrived to lift a basket of grub – the best fare of the Roundhouse Room or an Awful-Awful burger from the Coffee Shop, maybe an iced pitcher of piçons from the Nugget’s long-gone Basque Bar, the day’s edition of the Reno Evening Gazette, and letters from his fans.  He had a radio, no TV.  For reasons unknown to anyone, a band of local idiots tried to incinerate Happy Bill by burning down his tower, forgetting that the Sparks Fire Department and Police Department were housed nearby on C Street then.  The fire laddies doused the fire and Sparks’ Finest threw the perpetrators into the hoosegow for a few nights.  

            Time marched on into the dog days of August.  The West Coast press still loved it, and afforded the Nugget the ongoing publicity in the Bay Area that Dick Graves had hoped for.  Happy Bill’s birthday arrived, with accompanying hoopla and a cake from the Nugget’s bakery, songs from the local media and fans. 

          And the unexpected occurred – Happy Bill woke up with a hell of a toothache one morning, and the Nugget summoned respected Reno dentist Arnold Johannes to his aid.  In a display of humanitarian emergency not one bit concealed from the adoring press, Dr. Johannes was lifted in a Jacob’s Chair-harness with his black bag of drills, pliers, wrenches, laughing gas and an Blue Cross form to Happy Bill’s side, to administer on-the-pole medical aid.  I suspect that the rest of the late Dr. Johannes’ career, excitement-wise, was downhill after that procedure…

            As the leaves turned to gold on the trees lining the Reserve in Sparks, the evening winds turned wintry.  Happy Bill’s reign over the little town was coming to a close, although not for lack of interest – the town and the media continued to embrace his effort, but the simple fact was that his flagpole had no heat, and the night was rapidly approaching during which he’d freeze his celebrated buns off.  Leaving on a high note started to become realistic.

            In a round of PR embraced by Reno and Sparks and the San Francisco press, by then including Herb Caen and Terrence O’Flaherty, Happy Bill Howard was returned on February 12, 1956 to Mother Earth by the same Nevada Bell snorkel truck that had set him atop the flagpole, 204 days – almost seven months – before.     

            Bill’s work on earth, or in this case above it, was done – his effort was vastly successful in putting the little burg of Sparks, known before by very few in the Bay Area as being a little east of Reno, wherever that was, permanently onto the map.  For his efforts he was awarded $6,800 and a sterling silver belt buckle as big as a penny postcard engraved with Thanks from the Sparks Nugget in a very public ceremony.  To our knowledge, he never sat flagpoles again.  And Sparks, whatever it been before that, was defined as a destination town; Dick Graves departing, a legend named John Ascuaga soon to arrive.  .

            I thank several readers for inquiring about Happy Bill Howard and inspiring this story, [the late] Fred Davis – the Nugget’s longtime (1958-1972) publicity director, Sparks native Don Stockwell – he of the ironclad memory, the Nevada Historical Society, John Ascuaga, Nugget executive secretary Nancy Trabert and publicist Beth Cooney for their help with this yarn.

© RGJ, a long time ago


Sparks’ fireman: The Guy on the Bench


He looked dog-tired.  He sat alone, wearing heavy turnouts, all bunched up at the boots.  His head fell to his chest, left hand resting on his knee holding a helmet with SFD on the crown and his axe on the bench behind him.  A couple of teenagers took turns sitting by him and taking pictures of each other, and then they walked away, leaving him alone again.  I sat down next to him on the bench in a shady setting on Pyramid Way, right behind the Sparks Heritage Museum on Victorian Avenue.

I’d seen him before, while he was directing traffic at a wreck on Rock Boulevard and Prater.  Or maybe dragging a cotton hose into the burning garage at an old house on D Street where the barbecue coals got away from the homeowner, or earlier that same day inspecting an office in the Ribeiro complex on Stanford Way.  Once I saw one of Sparks’ Snorkel trucks in the Disc Drive Scolari’s parking lot, the truck’s operator keeping watch like a quail on a rooftop while his buddies joked around inside the store about whether to get chicken or burgers for their Sunday dinner.  The quail in the Snorkel called them all back to work, pronto, on the walkie-talkie; 15 minutes later they were pulling an unconscious teenager out of an abandoned mine shaft.  Dinner would have to wait this Sunday.  Maybe the guy on the bench was one of the crew on the Snorkel.

But I was sure that he the was a hint of a smile on his countenance, so I might have seem him at a happier time – like when he was cooking at the Fire Prevention Week pancake feed at the main station last October, best in the west, or slinging weenies at the SFD booth on a Thursday night Farmers’ Market on Victorian Square.  Or showing an elementary school kid how to “Stop, Drop and Roll” at the department’s training trailer, or taking a rebuilt bicycle to a needy tyke in west Sparks on Christmas day.

Whoever he was, he was a Sparks firefighter.  Or maybe he was a she – in the turnouts I couldn’t tell.  She might have been the EMT on the Water Rescue Team that fished the kayaker out of the river by old Manogue High School, or the tillerman on the aerial truck when Sparks still had one (and political correctness be damned; in this column the operator steering the back wheels of a hook-and-ladder will always be a tillerman!)  Sure, that’s where I saw her.  Or him.

Or it might have been a while back that I saw this firefighter.  Maybe as far back as 1905 when Sparks’ first firehouse opened at 12th and C Streets, or 1917 when the town got their first motorized apparatus, or in 1960 hosing down Kleppe’s Pond by wintry day so the Railroaders could go ice-skating by night, (the Reno Fire Department did this favor for us Huskies, flooding Idlewild Park and Lake Park in the northwest.)  Sparks’ firefighters have covered Reno’s many times when the RFD got bogged down, like the 1957 Sierra Street fire we read about here a while ago or the 1962 Golden Hotel fire we’ve chronicled in the past few weekends that partially inspired this yarn.  Or when the Galaxy Airlines propjet crashed on South Virginia Street, killing 62 passengers.  Sparks’ apparatus sat in a few Reno firehouses in case anything else got loose on that chilly night in January of 1985.

The Sparks Fire Department aided Reno in the August 1948 Lake Street fire, a nasty one.  Sparks’ chief Frank Hobson was overcome and died a hero’s death rescuing someone in a building.   I vividly remember standing in front of my dad’s office on A Street, watching a flag-draped coffin being escorted down B Street in the hose bay of a Sparks pumper.  Maybe the firefighter sitting next to me was one of the honor guardsmen that slowly marched alongside the pumper.  Or maybe it’s Hobson himself?  Or Fred Steiner Sr., the other Sparks firefighter who died in the line of duty responding to a fire in 1953.  Mutual aid between Reno and Sparks has always been the standard, and firehouse camaraderie transcends the shields of SFD or RFD, or FDNY or PAFD.  This firefighter next to me could have had any one of those stenciled on the helmet in his/her hand.

A few other visitors visited the little park while I sat there.  They saw seven bronze footprints in the walkway leading to the bench.  They studied the life-size bronze figure in a moment of reverence, then took a few pictures and left.

• • •

The Sparks Fire Department Monument project was quarterbacked by SFD‘s [now Battalion Chief] Barry Hagen, who, with help from Councilman Phil Salerno and SFD chief Lee Leighton [retired 2004], made a successful request to the Sparks Redevelopment Agency for approval and funding of the project.   Many Sparks businesses donated material, and 95 per cent of the labor was done by off-duty Sparks firefighters.  Hagen contacted Colorado sculptor Gary Coulter, who had created a Fallen Firefighter memorial for Colorado Springs.  That town released the right to replicate their statue, altering only the helmet to read SFD, and the monument was cast.  Coulter passed away from cancer during the casting, so his wife Debbie completed it, and fashioned the axe in the Sparks firefighter’s hand and the brass footprints leading to the bench.  Three flagpoles fly the United States, Nevada, and City of Sparks flags 24 hours a day – and at half-staff on each September 11th.  Bronze plaques descriptive of the department’s history, the dedication of the monument, and the Firefighters’ Prayer are emplaced on the three flagpoles’ bases.

The monument will be dedicated on April 20th – next Saturday [2002] – at 11 a.m.; once again, it’s right behind the Sparks Heritage Museum at Victorian and Pyramid.  Easy parking.

And after the crowd leaves, hang around.  Take a seat next to the firefighter, who might be on the quiet side, but the countenance at rest in this pastoral setting speaks volumes…

• • •

[I was proud of this column, and somewhat humbled to learn that it found its way into many firehouses across the country.]

© Reno Gazette-Journal April 2002

A companion to the food truck craze, and a revision


Tom Young at Great Basin Brewing recently won Sparks City Council approval for a new service on Victorian Way – look forward to it in the warmer days, be prepared to do your share of pedaling…!

Hey, it’s April Fool’s Day. Yet, it’s still not a bad idea

Added April 2nd: OK, now: April Fool’s over. And a dear ol’ reader, which is all I have are ol’, not all dear, reminded me that the old column, read by old people, uses the old name, “B Street.” That’s all well-and-good, but I’m learning that too many people don’t know where B Street is (Victorian, to them), and the sadder fact is, that some who once knew “B” have forgotten that also. So for all of them, come to our meeting tonight at Boulevard Pizza Parlor, on 17th Street. (Rock Boulevard’s old name, and no, we’re not meeting, but the Masons had a pizza night last Tuesday at the Boulevard and it’s a great joint!)

Possibly not as great as Tom Young’s rolling brew pub. But good pizza nevertheless.

The ol’ Pony Express Lodge


With great fanfare this motel opened in the years after WWII, at the confluence of Prater Way, El Rancho Drive and B Street in Sparks – the first animated neon sign across the street above Cal’s Drive-In (the animation being an arrow flying off the Indian’s bow in the direction of the motel.)

And what a place it was! Ballyhoo-ed all over the West Coast, with the cachet of a Harolds Club organization. (As I type this I get an error message for not using a possessive apostrophe in “Harolds” – Reno advertising wizard Tom Wilson steered the club’s owners away from an apostrophe, and writers have been screwing it up ever since. The club’s advertising never used one, so we won’t either.)

Sparks’ Mary Lee Nichols school – a landmark for sale?


The Mary Lee Nichols school on Pyramid Way in Sparks, with a for-sale sign on its west lawn? Yikes! This little building was an active school in the Sparks School District (pre-dating the Washoe Co. District), built in the mid-1910s and designed by Frederic Delongchamps with all sorts of historical designations, was in service ’til the early 1970s as a school in the Washoe District, then sold. Is there no “tail” on the deed requiring that it stay as a historically significant building? It’s too nice – and too historical – a structure to be used as just any occupancy. Check it out on the east side of Pyramid Way in the 400 block – it’s part of our local heritage.