Nevada History by John C. Evanoff

Visitreno.com is excited to present this series of articles by noted author and poet, John C. Evanoff. John will tell us about Nevada history and cover some of the more remote and unusual things to see and do in Northern Nevada.

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Along a River's Edge

April, 2005
by John C. Evanoff


Very few cities can boast of a river running through the middle of it let alone a river as beautiful and inviting as the Truckee River. Reno began its path to the present because of the Truckee River. The river got its name as a result of Chief Truckee, a local Paiute Indian who had helped guide John C. Fremont through western Nevada and keep the peace among the tribes and settlers in Northern Nevada. The Conestoga stopover of Reno by those moving through to California was actually first called Lake's Crossing. Just about the only way to get across the river back in 1861 was to use a bridge constructed by Myron Lake. Two bridges built by other entrepreneurs before Lake's were washed away by spring floods but Myron knew how to build a sturdy structure and he also knew how to make money. He built a stable, a mill, a tack barn, a blacksmith kiln and a small store. All of this was almost exactly where the Riverside Hotel once stood and now the Riverside lofts sit. His toll and livery prices were steep but it wasn't like there was another town real close and during the spring and summer high flows, there was no other way to get across the river. Lake got into the cattle business as well and by the time the railroad finally came through, he was a rich man. One of the Central Pacific Railroad's founders, Charles Crocker, a friend of Lake, came up with the name for the town after a Union Civil War hero named General Jesse L. Reno. Lake got busy and decided to build a hotel in 1872 and all along Commercial Row next to the railroad tracks more than three hundred businesses sprouted up. The rest is history of course. The railroad brought immediate commerce and the telegraph allowed for instant communication. Then, the Lincoln Highway now known as US Highway 80 was built. It negotiated the Truckee River canyon from Fernley to Truckee along the river and people from around the country began to notice Reno and the river in their travels.

One of the interesting things about the Truckee is its importance as the major source of water for the region. Without it, Reno and a few other communities in western Nevada would not exist. The river flows from Lake Tahoe all the way to Pyramid Lake, a distance of more than one hundred miles. Along the way, it picks up stream flows from many canyons and creeks running down the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. Until recently, this water has constantly been divided up among farmers and miners to the south of Reno as well as farmers, residents and industry in Reno, Sparks, Fernley, Wadsworth and even Fallon. Now, a regional water authority and the Indian tribe at Pyramid Lake control the flows and water rights. With constant fear of drought because of the nature of our high desert geography, the Truckee River remains the most influential concern for growth in the region.

The Indian tribes negotiated a settlement with the State of Nevada concerning flows to the reservation at Pyramid because of the cutthroat trout and cui ui fish there, both protected by the government. The Pyramid Lake Lahontan Cutthroat used to run all the way from Pyramid to spawn in the river between Wingfield Park and Verdi. In high water years, the salmon family trout made trips as far up as Tahoe and in fact, was the principal fish in Lake Tahoe for years before commercial fishermen over-fished the area and brought in the Mackinaw and other species to take its place. But fishing remains an attraction along the river because it's so easy to get to and the state recognizes the Truckee as the most fished water in Nevada as a result. An area between the California border and Crystal Peak Park in Verdi is catch and release only and some fly fishermen have hooked up with rainbow, German brown and cutthroat trout as large as five pounds along that stretch. When I was growing up in the 1950's, I spent many days tying flies to match the hatch patterns west of Reno near Mogul. The largest fish I ever caught weighed more than eight pounds, a German Brown, and believe me, with only half pound tippet material tied to extremely light floating line, I definitely had my hands full. Many anglers believe the Truckee will eventually become one of the west's premier fly fishing rivers.

Within a few more years, a bike and walking trail along the Truckee will be completed from Verdi to Vista. It is possible to ride or walk along the present trail from Mayberry Park west of town to Vista Boulevard in Sparks. The many parks and trees along the route make it one of the most attractive and easy walks or bike rides in the region. A greenbelt and trails plan is currently being drawn up to create walking and riding paths from all over the Truckee Meadows to intersect with the current river trail.

Most of the trees in the Truckee Meadows were planted here by settlers including the many maples and elms. The box elder, white willow, ponderosa, western juniper, sugar pine, western white pine and cottonwood are native. Mayberry Park was once a huge lumber mill along with six other major sites along the river from Verdi to Tahoe. The timber and paper industry was so large in the Truckee River Canyon between Tahoe and Reno that for a period of more than two decades, the citizenry of Reno fought to close all the mills because the river was being completely devastated. It was said you could easily walk across the river because of the huge amount of wood waste and acidic pulp spilling out of the mills. The Floriston Pulp and Paper Company was the worst offender but other mills were equally at fault. The industry finally relented with the help of State and Federal authorities, but it took more than twelve years before the smell of wood pulp finally left the area and the water was again potable.

Anyone who has been in Reno for ten years can tell you about the Truckee River when it floods. You can't help being mesmerized by the massive waves of water and debris rushing in torrents down the river. Water levels normally around six feet deep suddenly become twenty six feet deep. In 1950 and then again in 1955, Truckee River floods created so much damage that the area's governments got together with California and began to build dams. Even with a number of reservoirs west of Reno built to handle upriver flooding including Stampede, Boca and Prosser, nothing can stop the deluge making its way down hill. Every building in downtown Reno within three hundred yards north of the river and one hundred yards south of the river has been flooded at least once in the last fifty years and the New Year's Flood of 1997 created such devastation in the eastern part of the valley, entire businesses were lost. One of the major reasons for downtown flooding is the bridge spans across the river from Booth to East Second Street. Because they were built with aesthetics in mind, any large trees coming down the river in a flood get caught below the structures and act as man-made dams. I remember when I was a child, watching rescuers use rowboats to save employees working in business along Center Street between First and Second Street. In the coming years, new bridge designs will be built to account for these mistakes.

But high water is also a boon to Reno. Recently, the city finished a white water park at Wingfield Park right in the middle of town. Now, throughout the spring and early summer, whitewater aficionados walk from their casino hotel rooms with paddles in hand. Word has gotten around and kayaking has become a major adventure attraction on the river. Many residents spend the month of July at Wingfield Park and surrounding art galleries during the Artown Festival. An amphitheatre is set up on the east side of Arlington Avenue on an island in the river and it is used throughout the summer and during Artown by orchestras, bands, dancers and artists to entertain visitors and residents alike.

The Truckee River has also had rafting almost every year since 1965 from Tahoe to Sparks. Several companies work just below Tahoe City at the north end of the lake and a couple more work below the town of Truckee. The river is navigable by kayak, rubber raft and float tube but becomes treacherous at times because of water flow. If it looks dangerous, don't be persuaded to risk your life.

Wildlife is plentiful along the river including ground squirrel, cottontail, jackrabbit, marmot, chipmunk, hoary bats, little brown bats, muskrat, porcupine, badger, skunk, weasel, otter, raccoon, bobcat, mountain lion, black bear, mule deer and beaver. In fact, in the late nineteen eighties, beaver populations were growing so fast here that the City of Reno parks department couldn't keep up with downed limbs and trees. Floods naturally helped to move the populations down the river though. The river also contains several species of fish including German Brown, rainbow, cutthroat, rocky mountain white fish, carp, channel catfish and brook trout. The Truckee also has thousands of crawdads for every mile it meanders through the meadows and it's not unusual to see young boys knee deep in its waters during the summer, feeling around under rocks with sticks to gather them up. The birds and waterfowl are abundant too. Robins, meadowlark, dove, jays, nutcrackers, woodpecker, raven, quail, chucker, black birds, mountain bluebirds, sparrows, wrens, coots, mallards, teal, geese, killdeer, mergansers, egret, grebe, heron, loons, hawks, prairie falcons, vultures, magpie and golden eagles also make the river their home throughout the year.

Through it all, the fortunes of the area have gone up and down like the seasons on the river, from almost bust to prosperous and the talk of the country. Many times I have seen the Truckee River so dry in drought you could walk across it without getting wet and then just a few months later flooded, filling the valley with muddy water. Reno has invested heavily to bring life to the Truckee River and beautify the downtown and it only takes a casual walk along Riverside Drive to the Virginia Street Bridge to see the successful results. Summertime and the Truckee River are magical. The city of trembling leaves would not be what it is today without it.


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