Reno turns 100

In honor of Reno’s centennial celebration, here are some of the colorful stories that are woven into the tapestry of our history

OK, let’s face it. By most definitions, Reno has been around far longer than 100 years. After all, Myron Lake first built his toll bridge across the Truckee River in 1861, and he’s generally credited with being the founder of Reno (he bought the business from Charles Fuller, but he built the first tavern, so he gets the credit). Central Pacific Railroad bought the land from Lake and designed the streets in 1868; that’s another 100-year benchmark long past. In fact, the town officially received its name, in honor of fallen Union Gen. Jesse Reno, in 1868, as well. There were several incorporation proposals (one successful) for the city written after 1876, a disincorporation, and a plethora of bitchin', moanin’ and weepin’ until on March 16, 1903, our city was officially and finally incorporated for good.

To aid in our city’s celebration, we decided to tell some stories about Reno’s history that newcomers and non-historians might not know. The assignment was to write the story as though the reporter were witness to the event, but with benefit of historic hindsight. We landed on five pieces that we thought captured the changes Reno has gone through in the last 100-plus years—a notorious train robbery (imagine our consternation when this turned out to be the United States’ second train robbery, not its first, as is the local popular historical fiction; the first was in Indiana several months prior), the controversy over downtown prostitution, the torching or Reno’s Chinatown, downtown redevelopment and an attempted assassination of a casino owner.
Happy birthday, Reno. <div align="center"> <div> <div align="center">

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Train Robbers Captured

Desperados Leave Gold Hidden in the Mountains. Reportedly Glad They “Didn’t Have to Kill Anybody.”

By DariusTileh-Kooh </div> Nov. 5, 1870
Courtesy Of Nevada Historical Society
This composite photo shows some of the participants of the 1870 train robbery.

After a four-day manhunt, Sheriff’s Deputy James H. Kinkead of Washoe City rounded up the eight-man gang that committed the first train robbery in the Western United States.

“I wouldn’t have been able to find the men, if it wasn’t for the snow that the weather left behind the night the crime was committed,” Kinkead said.

The train heist was thought to be perfectly fabricated. A.J. “Big Jack” Davis and his seven-man crew had gathered at a ranch in Reno just weeks before to plan the robbery. Their preparation seemed flawless, Washoe City Sheriff Charlie Pegg said.

The eight men decided on the desperate scheme to rob a train because of the initiatives that Wells Fargo & Co. has taken to supply armed escorts to protect vulnerable stagecoaches. John Squires, a well-known stagecoach highwayman, and John E. Chapman, criminal mastermind and Sunday school superintendent, came up with the blueprint to larceny.

The eight-man gang also included E.B. Parsons, a gambler; Chat Roberts, Antelope Stage station manager; James Gilchrist, a miner; Tilt Cockerill and Sol Jones of Reno.

Chapman, who had been in San Francisco monitoring Wells Fargo’s shipments and the movements of the Central Pacific’s pay cars, sent the coded telegram that set the plan into motion. It read, “Send me $60 tonight and charge to my account,” and was signed, “J. Enrique.”

The telegram, which Jones received in Reno a few hours before midnight on Nov. 4, meant that $60,000 was coming down the Pacific Slope and the conspirators should rob this train.

Earlier that morning, Central Pacific’s No. 1, the Overland Express, left Oakland in a billow of smoke headed to Ogden, Utah, with a stop in Reno. With it was an express car filled with $41,800 in gold coins, $8,800 in silver bars and greenbacks. The bullion was intended for the Comstock mines and deposits for Nevada banks.

Due to a freight wreck, Central Pacific’s No.1 was delayed in Truckee, which left the bandits, hiding in an abandoned mineshaft, agitated. Just when the men began to doubt their plan, the cycloptic lantern of Central Pacific’s No. 1 began to shine through the bitter cold of the swirling snow.

At 1:30 a.m., the train made a stop in Verdi to load the tender with timber and top off the water tanks. As the train crawled out of the station, five masked men with linen dusters, masks and six-shooters seized the train. Davis and another man crawled over the woodpile, dropped down into the engine compartment and covered Small and the fireman with their revolvers while the three others secured the express car.

The train continued down the tracks about a half-mile east, when Davis ordered the engineer to whistle the down brakes. This signaled the three men on the express car to cut the bell rope and pull the coupling-pin, setting the rest of the train adrift.

Once they reached the barricade, Davis took Small down to the express car to knock on the door. “Who’s there?” answered guard Frank Minchell. “Small,” the engineer replied.

When Minchell opened the door, he was confronted with two double-barrel, sawed-off shotguns. Catching the guards by surprise, the highwaymen looted the vault. Throwing the sacks of gold coins out the side door into the sagebrush, Davis then arrogantly thanked Small, Minchell and the fireman for their cooperation and articulated that he was “glad we didn’t have to kill anybody.”

Davis locked Small, Minchell, and the fireman into the express car. The men mounted their horses and went off into the night.

News of the robbery was telegraphed to Wells Fargo agent C. C. Pendergast in Virginia City that morning. “We were notified around 8 a.m. the morning of the robbery by a Wells Fargo agent,” Pegg said.

Pegg and his deputy, Kinkead, who were in Washoe City, received information from the agent that the men had headed southwest. The two lawmen saddled up and galloped for the mountains through the Truckee route to head off the gang of bandits, while in Reno a posse of 14 began to search the Reno area.

Infuriated, Wells Fargo, Central Pacific Railroad and the state of Nevada put up a bounty of $40,000 for the bandits.

Finding no tracks to indicate the gang had ridden through the area, the two sheriffs rode down into Reno. After giving his horse some rest, Kinkead went to investigate the scene of the crime. Trudging through the blanket of snow along the tracks, the deputy found the imprint of a gambler’s boot heading toward Truckee.

Kinkead took the trail into California, where he found and arrested Gilchrist alone in the Parsons Hotel in Sardine Valley. Turning state’s evidence, Gilchrist gave up the other men, their whereabouts and most of the money’s location.

The trial is expected to be highly publicized, according to the office of Attorney General Robert M. Clarke. Clarke said he would be present during the trial to assist District Attorney W. M. Boardman.

Wells Fargo & Co. agreed to give Kinkead the bulk of the bounty money. He is planning to open a banking business in Reno with it.

About $38,000 of the treasure was recovered. Washoe City sheriffs believe 150 gold coins are still buried deep in the Peavine Mountains or somewhere along the Truckee River. <div align="center">

Reno Torn Over Tenderloin

A Dilemma over Prostitutes Has City Leaders Wringing Their Hands

By Geoffrey Altrocchi</div> Jan. 24, 1902
Courtesy Of Nevada Historical Society
Controversy surrounds these Cribs at 100 E. Commercial Row.
The citizens of Reno are divided on what to do with the darker side of the city, the city’s tenderloin district.

Some wish to purge the city of its vagrants by arresting and prosecuting to the fullest every last warm body within the boundaries of Lake and First streets and Second and Evans streets. Others wish to contain the madness within those very areas and tax the houses of ill-repute so as to make a profit.

Everyone agrees that prostitution is the base of it all. The houses of ill-repute draw men of equally low design. This is where disreputable persons shelter and fester and occasionally erupt in murderous violence.

Those in favor of purging the city scoff at what they call the “short memory” of those in favor of keeping the district.

Earlier this month the “red light” district was red with bloodshed in intensifying race wars. This senseless violence culminated in the near fatal shooting of the heroic Constable Charlie Leeper by a vagrant Negro, Mr. Bill Scott, on Jan. 9.

Mr. Leeper, who was with his son Ed Leeper and two other friends, was himself responding to an earlier shooting that evening by Scott in the very area in question. When Leeper found Scott in front of the Cottage corner and told him he was the man he was looking for, Scott emptied his .38 caliber on Leeper, shooting him once in the hand and another time in the navel.

Leeper stood his ground and shot back at Scott. He is considered by most a hero. Reno later rejoiced to learn that Leeper, who in the past had devoted much of his time to cleaning up the tenderloin, would survive. Scott died soon after of wounds from the shot.

Following this incident, District Attorney W.H.A. Pike and Washoe County Sheriff McInnis finally showed some initiative and tried to use state law to rid Reno’s bowels of some of its worse characters.

On Friday, Jan. 17, Pike and Washoe County Sheriff McInnis served upon property owners in the Tenderloin notices in the form of an ultimatum regulated by state law. The notices cited Sections 1 and 3 of the Nevada Legislature’s “Act to regulate houses and houses where beer, wine or spirituous liquors are sold,” which states that it is illegal to locate prostitution within 400 yards of any school or school room. Disobeying this law would be punishable by up to a $300 fine and up to 60 days’ jail time.

The results of this are yet to be seen, but the action is much more aggressive than the district attorney’s and the sheriff’s usual “laissez-faire” philosophy. Hopefully, even they have finally realized that arresting the vagrants and setting their bail at $20 is not strict enough. For under that gentle practice the bail is posted by one of the vagrant’s favorite harlots, and they are back swilling their favorite ale by the next evening.

Tensions over what to do with the Tenderloin that have been rising since the turn of the century. The attack on Leeper brought the controversy to a boil.

“Keep the social evil in a heap where it can be watched. That is better than disseminating that element throughout the town,” said Postmaster H.P Kraus on the question of what to do with the “red light.”

Former chief of police Harry Brown agreed with Kraus. He said that, six years ago, when he was Reno’s chief, he purposely put the town’s “demi-monde” where it is now.

“Prior to that time they were scattered,” Brown said. “The women are in the proper locality. They can be controlled and kept under the constant surveillance of the officers where they are.”

Regent of the State University J. N. Evans said he would err toward cleaning the whole place up as long as it’s done thoroughly. “Yes, provided they are removed entirely from the town. If not, leave them alone.”

“It has never struck me that [the prostitutes] are in a very conspicuous place,” countered Rev. Samuel Unsworth.

In almost a concession of victory to the side that favors keeping the girls in town, the City Council on Thursday considered taxing the houses of ill fame. They discovered during the meeting that this measure is provided by state law and would not require a city election. They said creating an ordinance would be all that was necessary.

Reno currently has about 60 prostitution houses, and the money derived from the taxation would go a long way toward providing municipal revenues, they figured. <div align="center">

Chinatown Burns

Reno’s Health Board Chairman Orders Destruction

By Brad Summerhill</div> Nov. 1, 1908
Courtesy Of Nevada Historical Society
Chinatown, Reno, circa 1900: Gambling house opposite Cashes Store near Front Street. Photo courtesy Nevada Historical Society.
Three tension-filled days have passed since a coalition of the city’s foremost leaders burned Reno’s Chinatown to the ground in a fiery spectacle of smoking bramble and collapsing shacks and row houses.

The personages, including the police chief, the fire chief and the city engineer, supervised a crew of prisoners and itinerant Negroes and Mexicans who were armed with axes, sledgehammers, crowbars and torches. Chinatown remnants are on the north bank of the Truckee River near Lake Street, not far from the city’s red light district and east of the old Chinatown near First and Center Streets.

Given no warning of the Grand Jury-sanctioned decision to level their homes, about 150 Chinatown residents were caught by surprise and thrown out with what personal possessions they could carry into the thick snow lining the river and city avenues.

Dr. A.M. Robinson, chairman of the city’s newly formed Board of Health, was pleased with the proceedings, saying that a 30-year accumulation of human waste in the hovels of the Celestials had created a health crisis for the city. In recent testimony to a Grand Jury, the doctor described waste run-off to the Truckee River from the central Chinatown irrigation ditch, cesspools of standing water and large yellow rats scurrying through the alleyways. There was an imminent possibility of a serious outbreak of disease, the doctor claimed.

A doubtful Grand Jury requested an on-site inspection of Reno’s Chinatown and apparently drew similar conclusions. Grand Jury foreman Gulling said that the empanelled citizens had ordered the area to be razed. The Chinese were warned to vacate their homes, apparently through word of mouth and rumor, but the sad-eyed Celestials, fresh immigrants and descendants of Central Pacific railroad workers, found the situation difficult to comprehend. The decision to raze this section of the city was kept secret, apparently for fear that the Chinese residents might work up a legal obstruction or organize an armed resistance.

It is difficult to understand how a group of people renowned for cleanliness during the legendary building of the transcontinental railway had come to live under such horrendous conditions in Reno’s Chinatown. Dr. Robinson and the Grand Jury reported dug-outs below the hovels where opium-addled wraiths rarely saw the light of day. They reported no central sewer system. They reported a terrible stench that blew toward downtown on the rare westward breeze.


The first shack to be demolished belonged to a nameless old joss and a Negro prostitute by the name of Bertha. One wonders if their potentially unlawful and, to the eyes of many citizens, immoral miscegenation determined their elevated status as preeminent targets of the health board directive. The two were thrown into the cold.

The latest news on this incident involves a San Francisco gentleman by the name of Ng Nom, the secretary of that city’s Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, an organization dedicated to the eradication of acts of injustice perpetrated against Celestials. Mr. Nom arrived in Reno by train yesterday, accompanied by an impeccably-attired attorney who remarked that the pictures the association had received of destitute laborers standing in the ruins of their former homes warranted an investigation. Reno’s Chinese population told Mr. Nom that the conditions of their Chinatown had by no means been a threat to the city. They wondered if white landowners had higher and better uses in mind for the disputed territory, which has become valuable commercial land, especially since the incorporation of the city five years ago.


Courtesy Of Nevada Historical Society
Tom worked for the Newt Evans family 1879-87. He later started a laundry on the corner of Second and Center streets. Photo courtesy Nevada Historical Society.

Readers will recall that the former Reno Chinatown, located along the river near First Street, burned to the ground in 1878 during an August night embroiled in enigma and controversy. The actions of the hastily formed Workingmen’s Club, riled at the awarding of the Steamboat ditch contract that summer to Quong Yee Wo & Co. of San Francisco, cast suspicion on the group, which had not been shy about announcing its jingoistic and vigilante leanings.


After the torching of Chinatown and the futile efforts to quell the blaze, the Workingmen’s Club, reorganizing its meeting in the middle of the night after witnessing the conflagration, resolved that within 48 hours every last Oriental must leave town. The labor club, along with the Reno Anti-Coolie Society, denied responsibility for the fire, however. Shortly thereafter, the State Fair Pavilion with its cupola dome occupied the former Chinatown land.

After meeting with city officials, Mr. Nom decided that the actions of the city of Reno were “completely justified,” according to one report. Several bitter “John Chinamen” have sought to hire attorney Sardis Summerfield to sue the city, but very likely the effort will prove to be so much wasted energy. The Celestials do not own the land nor the dwellings. Therefore, the damages done to these virtual non-citizens have been very little, from the point of view of the city government and the law. Furthermore, when one considers that the area that has been burned to the ground this week has frequently been the sanctuary of hobos, vagrants, drunks, dope addicts, criminals and other undesirables of various shades, any sensible citizen of the new city of Reno is led to the conclusion that what has been done constitutes a good and progressive action under the heading of “eminent domain.” <div align="center">


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Shotgun Blast Downs Gambler

Michigan Native Lincoln Fitzgerald Is Attacked by Unknown Assailant

By Dylan Riley </div> Nov. 19, 1949
Courtesy Of Nevada Historical Society
This photo from the Nevada State Journal shows an investigator at 123 Mark Twain Ave. Photo courtesy Nevada Historical Society.
Local casino owner Lincoln Fitzgerald was gunned down last night in his driveway in what police are calling a “midnight alley ambush.” A shot from a sawed-off, 12-gauge shotgun at 11:40 p.m. left him critically wounded at Washoe Medical Center, where doctors say he has shown “amazing stamina.”

Fitzgerald, shot in the back near his hip as he opened his garage door, suffered a severed spinal cord, damaged liver and perforated lung as the result of a single shotgun blast.

The second shot, meant for his head as he fell to the ground, missed and hit the side of the garage. X-rays showed 110 pellets scattered throughout his body.

Many people speculate that it was an attempted mob hit, as Fitzgerald and Nevada Club co-owner Danny Sullivan were extradited to Michigan last August to face illegal-gambling and bribery-of-public-officials charges. The bribery charges were later dropped, but the two were found guilty of the other charges and fined $52,000 before returning to Reno to resume their Nevada Club operation.

Sullivan paid court costs of $33,000 and a fine of $700. Fitzgerald’s costs ran up to only $18,000, and he had to pay only $300 in fines.

Police believe he was shot at close range, from a distance of no more than a foot.

RPD Police Chief Greeson said he was convinced robbery was not a motive in the attack, even though detectives are looking at fired casino employees as possible suspects.

Fitzgerald is well-known for carrying large amounts of money and even pays his employees in cash.

Greeson’s “heard a lot of talk about the attack being gang-related, but that hasn’t resulted in anything definite yet.”

Another ambush involving local gambling figures was attempted here in the last two weeks, but Greeson, while admitting to hearing of them, refused to comment.

Details remain elusive in that case as well.

Mrs. Fitzgerald told officers she was in the bathroom of their home, preparing to go to work, when she heard the shots. Police found shell wadding on the garage floor, apparently from the second shot, which helped in their conclusion of the type of weapon used in the attack.

They also believe that the attacker “must have studied the habits of the Fitzgeralds for some time and was familiar with the fact that they customarily left for the club at about a quarter till midnight every night.”

Police theorize that the gunman waited at the side of the garage, watching through a window and waiting for his cue from the garage light being turned on and the door being opened, as was the usual routine, before shooting Fitzgerald point blank.

The second shot, which missed, besides leaving Fitzgerald in critical condition and not dead, also left an important clue behind.

The shot pattern helped police determine that the type of shotgun used was a sawed-off double-barrel as opposed to a regular shotgun.

The type of shot used also tells police something important.

“The shot in Fitzgerald’s body is size 4 or 5, a weight generally used for shooting waterfowl or other game birds,” Chief Greeson said, “which would seem to indicate a local job.”

It is speculated that local club owners Bill Graham and Jim McKay, owners of the Bank Club, where George “Baby Face” Nelson works as a bouncer, may have had a motive in the shooting. Having Nelson, a notorious stickup man, on the payroll, may have also given them access to a “hired gun,” but police refused to comment.

“Professionals on a job like this probably wouldn’t use anything that light,” the Chief said. “They’d be much more likely to use shells carrying buckshot.”

Fitzgerald’s partner, Danny Sullivan, doesn’t know “who would even want to shoot Fitz.

“In this world, you never know who hates you, though,” he added.

While popular speculations that the Purple Gang out of Detroit was behind the hit, other theories of organized “muscle men” with affiliations much closer to Reno are being discussed in “semi-official quarters.”

While the ranks of known gunmen at large are obviously under suspicion, Greeson doesn’t seem concerned.

As one officer put it, this case may end up being “another Bugsy Siegel.” Siegel was mowed down in a machine gun execution in Hollywood several months ago; his killers remain at large.

Although police may pursue underworld allegations of extremely hush-hush meetings with shady racing wire service figures by Fitzgerald in the past few weeks, they will definitely begin a systematic check of dealers fired in recent weeks at the Nevada Club, to learn whether the shooting may have been prompted by a revenge motive of a disgruntled employee, even though they themselves admit it’s “just a shot in the dark.”

In the meantime, an armed guard will stand outside Fitzgerald’s hospital room around the clock.

Epilogue: Lincoln Fitzgerald survived the assassination attempt, although he was left with a limp. He died in Washoe Medical Center in 1981, five years after opening the downtown casino that still bears his name. <div align="center">


Downtown Reno crumbles

Underground Gas Pockets Ignite in a Hellish Explosion That Has Left Several Dead

By Miranda Jesch </div> Feb. 5, 1957
Courtesy Of Nevada Historical Society
The scene was macabre yesterday afternoon after a gas explosion turned downtown Reno into a raging holocaust. Dual explosions were heard as far away as Sun Valley, as the roofs were blown off several businesses along Sierra Street, between First Street and the Truckee River, at 1:03 p.m. Fiery rubble from the detonated buildings shot like balls from a cannon across the street into the Elks Club and the Gray-Reid-Wright Co. department store, which quickly erupted in flames.

Paul Finch, 25, a reporter for the Nevada State Journal, heard reports of “gas” in the Sierra Street vicinity over a police radio in his office. He ran the couple of blocks to catch the scoop on what he thought was a simple leak in a gas line.

“I was racing and all of a sudden there was this huge explosion,” he said. “Fire shot up about 50 feet in the air. It looked like an atomic bomb had hit. I tried to do what I could to help. There were a lot of people lying around with lots of blood.”

A group of sportswriters and reporters were enjoying a luncheon in the Nevada Room of the Mapes Hotel when the building shook from the concussion of the explosion. Several reporters thought the vibrations came from an earthquake; others thought boulders were being blasted in the Truckee River. The meeting was adjourned and the news correspondents rushed to the scene.

“The wail of sirens was heard from every direction,” said sportswriter Ty Cobb. “Fire trucks and tow trucks were converging on the scene. Flames billowing out of stores from Spina’s to Paterson’s gave off waves of heat, which drove back the most curious spectators. A moment later law enforcement officers were clearing crowds to a safe distance.”

Roland Meyers, a construction worker for the new J.C. Penney store, was on the roof at the time of the explosion. He said it appeared to have originated in Frank Spina’s Nevada Shoe Factory.

“It looked like the top of the building just went up in the air and then caved in. The debris shot up into the air higher than the building on which I was working.”

Sierra Pacific Power Company knows the blast was caused by gas but is still investigating where and how it began. Frank A. Tracy, president of Sierra Pacific, said the gas might have come from main lines, which leaked out as a result of some unauthorized work on gas pipes.

Firemen controlling the blaze and clearing wreckage expected to find a plethora of bodies. Fortunately, most of the shops were cleared of patrons before the blast, thanks to Sierra Pacific employees and firemen who issued warnings prior to the tragedy.

It was often hard to see much through the columns of black smoke. What was clear were the shoes littering the street from Tait’s Shoe Store, Paterson’s and the Nevada Shoe Factory. National Guardsmen were on patrol to prevent looting.

Along other portions of the street and sidewalk there was so much broken glass blown out from windows that rescue workers had to wade through it. Charred cars cluttered the street, some pinning injured persons beneath them.

One of those persons was Frank Spina, 48, of 777 W. Seventh St., owner of the Shoe Factory. Photographer Don Dondero, who was at the Mapes with other press folk, witnessed Mr. Spina’s lifeless body.

“It was a hell of a fire, and there was lots of smoke. On the west side of Sierra Street after First Street, there was a shoe repair shop and a car parked in front of it. And right there the owner of the store was under the car.”

Spina is one of two confirmed fatalities. The other is Mrs. Adeline DuPratt of 543 Gordon Ave. Mrs. Shirley Fleming, wife of the neurosurgeon Dr. Charles E. Fleming Jr., and Elizabeth Thompson are in critical condition at Washoe Medical Center. Approximately 40 other sufferers are at the hospital undergoing treatment for minor burns and injuries caused by falling debris.

Justice of the Peace William Beemer was one of the first men at the scene. He immediately began giving first aid to victims, who were scattered across the scorched and bloodied sidewalks. In a shirt drenched with blood, Beemer ran into buildings where fingers of flames licked and singed his clothing, looking for more victims. He would materialize now and again from a fiery building only to yell, “That’s all I can find,” and then plunge back into the inferno.

Cobb continued to survey the grisly streets into the evening. "Pools of blood the size of dinner plates were clotting on the sidewalk at several places in front of Gray-Reid’s," he said, "mute testimony to the extent of the tragedy."