The secret history of Reno

The city’s 150th birthday is a good time to learn some history

At the California/Nevada border in 1938, labor leader C.L. Adams (on the fender) led a contingent of workers seeking to support Nevada workers.

At the California/Nevada border in 1938, labor leader C.L. Adams (on the fender) led a contingent of workers seeking to support Nevada workers.

One day in March 1923, Reno’s postmaster heard from the U.S. Post Office in D.C. that Washoe County had a new fourth class post office at Diessner, a location of which no one in Reno had ever heard and could not find.

The same day, the Reno City Council dealt with park matters—an offer by S.H. Wheeler to donate to the city a block bounded by Crampton, Burns, Locust and Wilson streets for a park.

And Reno City Councilmember Roy Frisch proposed creation of a park in a rock quarry at Stewart and Wheeler streets.

After a day of searching, it was announced that Diessner had been located. It was 20 miles north of Vya and six miles south of the Oregon border. Then as now, there was great turnover in Nevada’s population, and residents did not always know the terrain.

Today there are homes, not a park, on the block Wheeler offered to the city. When given a choice between development or the good life, city officials, then as now, usually chose the former.

Frisch got his park—Stewart Park still exists. But Frisch himself later vanished, never to be seen again, a victim of the corruption that permeated life in Reno.

One thing we don’t have from that single day in 1923 is an instance of the city’s deep-seated racism. But we can be all but certain it manifested itself in some way that March day, because it was so woven into the town’s fabric. Reno was, after all, fertile ground for Klan organizers and saw a Klavern established a few months later.

There were no professional historians in Nevada until Russell Elliott in the 1950s. Until then, local history was written by local figures with a stake in the players. As a result, history arrived for later generations cleansed and sanitized. There was little of the bigotry, corruption and venality that accompanied the growth of the town.

Newspapers, first the Crescent, then—more permanently—the Gazette and Journal, tended to be community boosters, yet the seamy sides of the town come through clearly, so it’s difficult not to wonder what horrors they withheld for fear of driving off investors or tourists.

A 150th anniversary seems like a good time to reclaim some of this lost history, and learn from it.

Another Reno

When Nevada entered the union during the Civil War and until the 1890s, it was a Republican state. The party of Lincoln treated African Americans benevolently. When, in 1879, there was legislation in Congress proposing reservations for blacks, the Nevada State Journal mildly editorialized, “It lacks practicality.”

Blacks in Nevada were treated better than Asians or Native Americans, but it was only a matter of degree. Community benevolence fluctuated from hostility to gentility. Often blacks were objects of curiosity, as when in 1900 the Reno Gazette ran an article titled “The Negro in hot weather.”

African Americans tended to have a Reno of their own, as when they built a church on Bell Street in 1910. To be black in Reno meant to live apart from the other Reno.

Violence against blacks could be employed with impunity. In 1908, Tom Ramsey pistol whipped a black jockey who declined to race, nearly causing a riot.

In 1907, the McKissick Opera House played Under Southern Skies, a play about a “poor girl suspecting that there is a negro taint in her blood … [who] sacrifices herself for her family’s sake.”

In 1908, the Journal editorialized, “Haiti is a land of savage beasts.”

In 1909, the Reno Gazette warned “WHITE SUPREMACY GOING DOWN” about the lack of a white fighter to face African American champion Jack Johnson. When the Great White Hope fight was held in Reno the next year, a photograph of all the boxing champions attending the fight was taken. The reigning heavyweight champ who won the title again that day was excluded.

Even service to the country did not shield blacks. In 1943, the Reno USO Council held a meeting to decide what to do when the owner of a building rented for a USO center for African American soldiers canceled the rental agreement, returned the rent check, and told Mayor August Frohlich he had received complaints from other property owners. Later, at a meeting chaired by Frohlich, the problem of hotels and restaurants being unwilling to serve African Americans was discussed, with the possibility of moving Civilian Conservation Corps buildings to the city for black housing suggested, and local USO director Father Thomas Collins reported that a new site had been located at 221 Lake Street.

In 1946, instead of welcoming black veterans into a local chapter, the American Legion chartered a separate Reno post for African Americans.

In 1952, the Army announced that because Reno businesses refused to serve African American soldiers stationed at Stead Air Force Base, the Army was starting bus service between Stead and Sacramento for black soldiers to use for R&R.

The next year, Air Force officials, noting that there were no clubs in Reno admitting African Americans, urged the Reno city council to approve a liquor license for Theresa King, who wanted to operate King’s Lounge at 900 E. Commercial Row. A white physician, Dr. Morse Little, provided a character reference for Ms. King.

Reno clubs said they mostly integrated in 1960 after Gov. Grant Sawyer warned they would give the city a black eye during its role as host city for the 1960 Winter Olympics.

But what was reported to be Reno’s first sit-in was staged by African Americans a year later at the Overland Hotel’s café while elsewhere in the downtown the same day a picket line was thrown up at the Nevada Bank of Commerce.

In 1963, the Gazette ran a cartoon of Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) captioned “HIM AND HIS BIG MOUTH” and showing the boxer’s head made up mostly of mouth.

Marianne Reddick, owner of the Academy Personnel Agency said a local businessperson had chewed out one of her job counselors for sending a black applicant on a job referral, so she had “White Only” printed on work referrals.

Food and dignity

Native Americans had seniority, but the example set by community leaders, including newspaper owners, had a lot to do with how Renoites treated tribal members. In 1891, when a group of representatives of eastern tribes came to Nevada to visit the Paiute prophet Wovoka, Reno’s Journal belittled them. In 1893, a group of Native Americans were sent to San Francisco to be “exhibited” at a fair. In 1911, Native American Jack Macini was hit by the Overland Limited, mangled, decapitated and killed—all of which was a source of amusement to the Gazette, which published a long supercilious story filled with disdain and a white person’s version of tribal lore—and elsewhere in the same edition there was a one-inch death notice on a second, apparently less interesting “buck Indian.”

Newspaper owners changed, and sometimes the attitude toward Native Americans changed with them, becoming more sympathetic if patronizing. The Journal in 1911: “It is a reproach on civilization that these young Indians should be in the condition of close cousins to savage wildcats.”

Tribal food was a regular grievance. Whites cut down pine nut trees, a regular part of the native diet, deeply angering tribes. Whites constantly complained about the tribes fishing—as they had done for centuries—from the Truckee River, named for a Piute leader. In 1900, the Journal bragged that its campaign against illegal fishing in the Truckee was making headway: “It is reported that a number of Indians have been infringing the law between here and Laughton’s [west of Reno] and it would be well if the offenders were captured and made an example of.” Tribal members were regularly arrested for selling trout in Reno.

At a Native American settlement on the east end of the Truckee Meadows, a store owned by George Moffit was blown up, killing him and injuring his wife and child.

In 1902, tribal leader Captain Jim wrote about the loss of tribal lands: “Now on account of not having homes the Washoe Indians wander from place to place and learn these destructive habits which the white people have introduced. … Some white men says that we have no business to drink whiskey if we know it to be dangerous, but they do the very same thing, yet they are supposed to be civilized men.”

If some whites reached out to them, officialdom was there to insist that tribal members be shunned. In 1914, Victor Catrini was convicted in Reno police court of associating with Native Americans. His sentence—leave Reno.

White officialdom seldom aided Indians, but in 1924 Indian police officer Sam Johns arrested Alex Jamison for selling denatured alcohol to Native Americans in the jungles along the Truckee River.

After World War II, Congress reacted to the uncomfortable parallels between German treatment of the Jews and U.S. treatment of the tribes by creating a Claims Commission. The Washo tribe filed a claim of $43,811,985.84 based on the 1862 value of Washo land, mineral, timber, fish and game rights, plus interest, all as a result of findings by professional assessors. Twenty-one years later, the Commission settled the case by paying $5,000,000 to the Washo.

In 1975, a Native American employee of the Washoe County School District accused the district of misusing federal funds earmarked for tribal education by “trying to eliminate us from the curriculum.”

Laundry and arson

In early Reno, the Chinese were known for excellent vegetables and as laundry operators. But as new arrivals, they were also identified as a threat to the jobs of whites.

In 1879, the Journal: “[U.S. Secretary of State William Evarts] having declared the influx of Chinese to this coast is ‘an invasion, not an immigration,’ it becomes the duty of every good citizen to expel the invaders.”

Two major efforts were undertaken by whites against the Chinese in Reno—the White Laundry and the burning of Chinatown.

Because the Chinese dominated the laundry business in Reno, white businesspeople met, formed a corporation, and pooled their money to build a White Laundry to try to drive the Chinese laundries out of business. On April 2, 1886, a ball was held in Reno to honor the anti-Chinese movement and celebrate the opening of the Reno Steam Laundry Association building. The next day, the Gazette editorialized that the laundry for whites—people, not linens—would be a test of whether white residents were willing to drop their patronage of Chinese laundries.

Arson was tried against Chinatown twice. In 1878, a Reno off-shoot of Denis Kearney’s racist San Francisco Workingman’s Party movement, responding to a construction contract going to a Chinese firm, burned most of Chinatown down. Its residents moved across the river and reestablished Chinatown there.

In 1908, city officials elicited a condemnation order against Chinatown from the city health board and again burned Chinatown down, leaving the inhabitants in the snow. Businesspeople who disliked publicity that might drive off industry or tourists could have read later reports in places like the Boston Transcript of the Chinese Benevolent Association of San Francisco wiring President Roosevelt asking him to help “right the wrongs suffered by the Chinese of Reno.”

Roosevelt was of no help on that matter, but not long after, when the Nevada Legislature caused an international incident, he summoned U.S. Senators Frank Newlands and George Nixon of Nevada and apparently asked the two Nevadans to lobby against an anti-Japanese measure—it described the Japanese as “parasites of the world” and also criticized Roosevelt—in the Nevada Legislature.

The power that the example of alleged adults can have was seen during this same period when a group of boys in Reno with a slingshot tormented a Japanese man named Hashamura. An article on the incident in the Goldfield Chronicle ran just beneath an article on plans for juvenile courts in Nevada.

During World War II, Nevada was nearly surrounded by states—Utah, Arizona, California, Idaho—that hosted internment camps for U.S. citizens. Why not Nevada? Because Gov. Ted Carville made clear to federal officials that he wanted no part of Japanese, even imprisoned ones. In 1943, he stopped 100 Japanese Americans evacuated from the West Coast from assisting Moapa farmers with their tomato crop.

In 1957, the City of Reno’s condemnation committee declared a Reno historic landmark, a Chinese joss house (house of worship) at First and Lake streets—one of the few remnants of the city’s rich Chinese heritage—to be unfit for use. It was removed.


Alcohol prohibition and hard times made a combustible combination in Nevada.

In the early 20th century, there was an influential reform group in Reno that did not want prizefighting and divorce to be the only things for which the city was known. They actually had a certain level of success promoting Reno as a health resort.

But organized vice was lucrative, and a wide open town eventually prevailed over civic betterment.

The open town policies of Mayor Edwin Roberts sent a message, and soon Reno became a fiefdom of gangster bosses—George Wingfield, William Graham, James McKay, Tex Hall. All enjoyed a patina of respectability because of their legal businesses while they ran a town that became a criminal mecca like Joplin or Chicago. Auto gangsters like Baby Face Nelson and the Barker gang found their way to Reno to cool off between crimes.

Unsurprisingly, prohibition officers were regularly caught in crime themselves, including state director John Donnelley.

Reno newspapers played the game and did nothing to disrupt the corruption, referring to Graham and McKay as “sportsmen.” The first Nevada Pulitzer Prize went to the Sacramento Bee in 1935 for an exposé of judicial affairs in Nevada. It was a novelist, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, who wrote what Reno newspapers at the time kept quiet, and Clark’s book, which referenced a Reno boss named “Nick Briasi,” told the tale in 1945:

Mr. Hazard told Briasi … a lot of things he must have been storing up for a long time. He mentioned a murder in Douglas Alley, a minister who had been forced to leave town because of a drunken speech the mayor had made from his pulpit, unexplained fires in out-of-town nightclubs, prohi raids from San Francisco that busted up some clubs, but never touched others, dope peddling that nobody could trace, even in a town as small as Reno, the finances of the red-light district. … “You push this, you two-bit, back alley Capone,” he yelled at Briasi, “And I’ll open it up if it costs me every nickel I’ve ever made.”

Graham, McKay, Hall and their cronies were immune in Nevada courts, but federal prosecutors eventually won convictions of them—but not of Wingfield. Roy Frisch was supposed to testify until he disappeared. When the gangsters were released from prison, they were welcomed back to Nevada with open arms.

Some later writers emphasized the colorful aspects of the corrupt town, never mentioning those who suffered at the hands of the crime lords, paying the price of graft and vice.


Workers were among the worst tormenters of Asians. But the time came when workers themselves suffered at the hands of Reno leaders. Labor troubles were common in the Depression. In the 1922 national railroad strike, Nevada Gov. Emmet Boyle set a terrible example by personally leading an attack on a group of pickets outside a Las Vegas Union Pacific stockade.

Ten years later, in 1932, contempt of court charges against two Culinary Union officials over picketing at Reno’s Monarch Café in spite of a restraining order obtained by the owners were dismissed, but an injunction against picketing was granted.

Then the Reno City Council got involved. The Culinary Workers Union pulled pickets off seven Reno restaurants after the Council enacted a picketing ban. It was an outrageous attack on free expression, but the law was used repeatedly over the years. In 1937, two labor union picketers were arrested and charged by city attorney Douglas Busey under the law. The next month, in heavily union Sparks, that City Council considered adopting a similar law, drawing the ire of local Machinists Union leader Philip Drury.

In 1938, law enforcement took sides in a labor dispute when Washoe County Sheriff Ray Root and a couple of hundred American Legion “deputies” tried to block solidarity pickets from California from entering Nevada to join local union members picketing Reno’s Isbell Construction at Verdi Glen. The Californians set up on the west side of the state line and picketed the state of Nevada, asking motorists not to enter the state. Police had obstructed the constitutional right of freedom of movement, specifically “right of free ingress into other States,” as the U.S. Supreme Court phrased it.

When Culinary Workers Union member Paula Day was arrested for violating Reno’s anti-picketing law in front of an East Commercial Row cafe in 1939, Busey tried unsuccessfully to get the issue to the Nevada Supreme Court for a ruling on the legality of the ordinance, but neither Day nor the Culinary attorney attended a hearing.

The use of the ordinance declined during the war years, and it was still on the books in the 1960s. A test case was sparked when American Federation of Casino and Gaming Employees representative Stanley Philipie picketed and leafleted in front of the Horseshoe Club in Reno. The Nevada Supreme Court overturned the arrest, saying expression can be regulated, “but it cannot be forbidden entirely.”


It is easy to say today’s Reno is not yesterday’s Reno. But this century and millennium began with an arson attack on a Reno synagogue. Picketers at the Reno census office were arrested four years after the city ordinance was overruled. Thirty thousand people signed a petition this very year calling for a University of Nevada, Reno student to be expelled for having an opinion and expressing it nonviolently.

Civilization can be a very thin veneer.