So close to Hell you can see … East Reno?

How the places where we live got their names

This downtown sculpture is of Reno’s namesake, General Jesse Lee Reno, who never actually lived here.

This downtown sculpture is of Reno’s namesake, General Jesse Lee Reno, who never actually lived here.

Photo By David Robert

If things had gone down differently, your driver’s license might say you were from the battle-born state of Esmeralda, Johnny Cash could have gotten the Folsom Prison Blues by shooting a man in Argenta, and Reno would have been so close to Hell you could see East Reno.Those are names that Nevada, Reno and Sparks almost ended up with.

“Names are redolent of the times and the minds that gave them birth,” wrote Charlton Laird in the forward to Helen S. Carlson’s 1974 book, Nevada Place Names.

For many of Nevada’s place names, “the times” started in the 1850s and lasted though the next few decades. As discoveries of gold and silver fueled population growth, many of our towns and streets were established, named and renamed.

“The minds,” it seems, were too occupied with the hard work of mining and settling to always keep detailed notes on their motivations for naming places.

In some instances, archival oversight doesn’t obscure a name’s origin, especially when the name had a built-in mnemonic. You can guess what used to be at the end of Mill Street or what shape the rock formation is in Pyramid Lake. Tourists in Las Vegas looking for certain casinos will know they’re close when they find Tropicana Avenue or Flamingo Road. History students in the future should have no trouble parsing out where Elko’s Wal-Mart Boulevard or Carson City’s Retail Drive got their names.

Sometimes, the origin of a name becomes hazy after a few generations.

“People inherit the name, but they don’t necessarily understand it,” says Nevada state historian Ron James.

“Place names are kind of fossils of the past,” he says. “They reflect the layering of history. Anything with a ‘-pah’ is almost definitely an Indian name.” Tonopah or Mizpah, for example. The Truckee River, which had been, for a while, the Salmon Trout River, was named for an Indian guide. Washoe County, Washoe Lake and Washoe Valley took their names from the Washo (or Washoe) tribe.

Nevada toponymy (the study of place names) is an inexact science. Verifiable facts are well-spiced with anecdotes, assumptions and arguments.

Lake Mansion, 250 Court St., was the home of Myron Lake, who was considered the founder of Reno.

Photo By David Robert

Home means Oro Plata
“Nevada” means “snow-covered” in Spanish, as in Sierra Nevada, the often snow-covered mountain range we share with California. It’s just one from a list of names we could have ended up with.

“The region had been known generally as the ‘Eastern Slope’ or ‘Washoe,’” wrote Carlson. California newspapers referred to it as “Carson Territory” or “The Territory of Sierra.” According to Carlson’s Nevada Place Names, James M. Crane, the territory’s delegate in Washington, D.C., submitted a proposal to the federal government in 1858 to establish a permanent name for the region, which would soon become a state. Crane suggested “Sierra Nevada Territory.”

A few years later, during the state’s 1864 Constitutional Convention, delegates considered a new round of potential names. Some favored references to the region’s people and geography: Humboldt, Washoe, Esmeralda. Some—Oro Plata, Sierra Plata and Bullion—conjured thoughts of the area’s mineral wealth.

After a three-week deliberation, the committee stuck with Nevada.

I shot a man in Fuller’s Crossing
In 1859, according to Carlson’s Nevada Place Names, Reno was Fuller’s Crossing, named for C.W. Fuller, a Californian who built a hotel and a bridge across the Truckee River. The bridge washed away a few years later. Fuller rebuilt it and sold it to Myron Lake. Along with the privilege of ownership came the privilege of nomenclature. For five years, Reno was known as Lakes Crossing.

Historians Guy Rocha and Dennis Myers (RN&R news editor) point out, in an essay titled “Wanted: The Real Reno:” “Those who don’t know [why Reno is named Reno] generally say Major Marcus Albert Reno, the officer who, until his exoneration in recent years, bore the blame for the defeat of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s troops at the Little Big Horn in June 1876.”

Problem is, Reno became Reno in 1868, several years before Marcus Albert Reno became a household name. It was actually named for Union General Jesse Lee Reno, who was shot from his horse and killed during a Civil War battle in Maryland.

Some suggested naming Reno “Argenta” in reverence to the silver that was transported there from nearby mines, but the Central Pacific Railroad, which had the authority to establish and name towns, decided, at the behest of war veterans, on the more compact “Reno.”

Lake’s Crossing (later Reno) as it appeared in 1881.

Painting By Cyrenius McClellum

Virginia Street, the road outta here
Virginia Street wasn’t named after the little girl who didn’t believe in Santa, nor was it coined after the state between Maryland and North Carolina. Not directly, anyway.

The reason for the street’s name?

“That is an echo of another time,” says Burt Bedeau, district administrator for the Comstock Historic District. The downtown street where dazed casino tourists now wander started out being nothing more than the road out of town. It led to what was, in the late 19th century, the more urban and more economically significant Virginia City.

“It shows you how important Virginia City was,” Bedeau says. “There was no Reno Street in Virginia City.”

The now-quiet, Wild West-Victorian relic of a town was allegedly named for a prospector, James “Old Virginny” Finney (or possibly “Fenimore”), nicknamed for his home state of Virginia, a man who apparently enjoyed his libations as much as the next hard-working miner.

Bedeau recounts, “The story goes that he tied one on one night and was none too steady and went to retrieve a bottle of whiskey.” Legend has it that Old Virginny dropped the bottle, and it broke. Loathe to see the valuable thirst-quencher go to waste, he saw fit to recast it as a ceremonial water. He stomped upon the ground and shouted, “I christen this place Virginia City.”

Whatever may have actually happened, Bedeau advises, “We’ve had 150-plus years to make up stories about this place, and we’re pretty good at that, so I would take it all with a grain of salt until it’s set in stone, which almost nothing is.”

But here in Reno, so close to Hell you can see Sparks, which was, after all, named in 1905 for Nevada Gov. John Sparks, not for its resemblance to the underworld, we at least have some mighty good (and possibly true) stories.