Mapped out

Reno Historical co-creator Alicia Barber holds up the app page about the First United Methodist Church in front of the building.

Reno Historical co-creator Alicia Barber holds up the app page about the First United Methodist Church in front of the building.

For more information, or to download the app, visit

A walk around downtown Reno reveals a contrast—and sometimes a clash—between progress and history. Old churches stand stoic next to bustling, trendy bars. The Truckee River rushes alongside bike trails and streets on which electric cars and classic cars can be seen parked next to each other. Pulling up an app on a smartphone to access the region’s history is a similar experience. Reno Historical, a project that documents the historical locations and events in Reno, seeks to celebrate the marriage between past, present and future Nevada.

Reno Historical is a smartphone app and website created as a collaborative effort between area historical groups, including Historic Reno Preservation Society, Nevada Historical Society, City of Reno Historical Resources Commission, the Regional Transportation Commission, Institute for Museum and Library Services, and the library department of the University of Nevada, Reno.

The app comes at a good time, too. In October, Nevada will celebrate its 150th anniversary. For Reno, this also signifies several milestones. Most recently, the famous Reno arch reached its 88th birthday—the first arch was installed on June 25, 1926. The original arch has moved at least four times since then, and in 2009, the sign was retrofitted with energy efficient LED light bulbs.

And with 2009 already five years past, this adds more history to an already iconic monument in Reno. This is one of the many benefits of having a platform that can be updated continuously, according to historian Alicia Barber, who came up with the idea for the app more than a year ago. The app essentially serves as a living archive that documents not just history long past, but history in the making.

“We love using technology to connect to the present, not just the past,” Barber says. Barber holds a University of Texas at Austin doctorate in history and is a former history professor and librarian at the University of Nevada, Reno. She collaborated with her colleague Donnelyn Curtis, head of UNR’s Special Collections, to help facilitate the data and contributors to the app.

“We wanted to create a source of authenticated information, instead of the rumors that exist about Reno’s history,” says Curtis.

Together, Curtis and Barber take the lead on planning what will be featured in the app, but the contributions come from staff and volunteers.

“There are a lot of people working on it and providing content,” Barber says. Photographs and documents are sourced from library archives. Although Special Collections contains more than 25,000 documents, some photographs were difficult to find, says Curtis.

“We had to do outreach we don’t usually do, but we found things hidden away,” she says. Some organizations donated documents to the project, which Special Collections has since added to its archive.

The app is one of several city historical apps developed by DXY Solutions, a global web design and development company. Barber knew of the DXY platform, which has been used for other city historical apps. Development of the app was funded by grants. While DXY designs the user interface of the app, the data and documents are curated by Nevada historians and librarians. All data syncs with the site,, so that it can be accessible on many types of devices.

Curtis says that the biggest challenge of curating information was writing for a different platform.

“I think when you’re writing for the web, you want to be concise,” Barber says. “Writing for an app, you want to write even less.”

According to Barber, there are more than 90 stories in the app, each profiling a different place and its history. The process of compiling these stories, which feature photographs, multimedia—audio and video clips—and an essay, started about a year and a half ago.

“The app makes it easy to add audio and video features,” Barber says. She has already conducted several interviews with notable Renoites for the app, including Mama Inez of Casale’s Halfway Club.

So far, the app has been a success. It received more than 900 downloads in the first week of its launch in May.

Biggest little history

Despite efforts to rebrand Reno, this city has a rich, sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic, history. And although history is visible through architecture, it’s not always visible through plaques or markers sharing dates or stories.

“One of the reasons we wanted to do this was to help bring some of that out,” Barber says. “If you look around Reno, the history is not very well marked. That’s really a limitation. But now we don’t have to physically mark things.” Barber cites buildings like the Washoe County Court House—a user can pull out their phone and tap on the map to learn more about it.

This will benefit both residents and tourists alike because it makes the city more personal to all app users, according to Barber.

“You get to know it better even if you live here, and if you don’t, it shows you a different side of it,” she says.

The app and website currently feature seven tours. More are coming. The tours are “geographic more than regional” says Curtis. She mentions one of her favorite tours, “Tying and Untying the Knot,” which covers Reno’s legacy as a city of marriage and divorce. This tour includes information about the Virginia Street Bridge, known as the “Bridge of Sighs,” where divorcees would supposedly toss their wedding rings into the river after their paperwork was filed. And the California Apartments on California Avenue were dubbed the “Divorce Colony” in the 1920s, according to contributor Mella Harmon. The colony served as temporary housing for divorcees to reside in while waiting on pending decrees.

The tour features audio clips and photographs of present-day buildings. The app is a multimedia experience.

“The tours are intended to be cinematic,” Barber says.

She says contributors try to ensure that the buildings featured are still standing, as it gives users a place to visit with the app in tow. But there are stories included about sites that formally housed projects like the Coney Island Resort, which is commemorated with a state historical marker on East Fourth Street and Galletti Way. What was once a family resort, originally known as Wieland’s Park before the moniker Coney Island, is now a vacant lot with a view of the freeway. So while the current buildings are fascinating to see with their intact history, the app also reveals what is now absent.

Although Barber says each tour is “very engaging,” she thinks the Historic East Fourth Street tour is especially interesting due to the area’s reclamation efforts, such as the recent Positively Fourth Street festival. This tour includes the 500 block where companies like the Reno Bike Project, Cuddleworks and Under the Rose Brewing now reside.

“The Fourth Street tour gives incredible insight into that area—there are rail sites, tourism sites, industrial sites,” she says. “Businesses, like Under the Rose, are excited to learn more about their buildings. It’s great for them to incorporate that into their image.”

And celebrating that heritage is all the rage now in Reno, Barber notes. “You can see that with new projects. There’s a restaurant that’s called Heritage. There’s been this shift toward embracing this history. It’s what makes Reno unique. And what’s more unique than our own heritage?”