Wealth and water

Exhibit shows how Nevada has prospered despite limited H2O

Drink in views of Northern Nevada’s past with photo collages such as “Reno’s Golden Age.”

Drink in views of Northern Nevada’s past with photo collages such as “Reno’s Golden Age.”

I grew up in the fertile Sacramento Valley, where rain is absolutely crucial to the economy. During periods of drought, everyone became preoccupied by the lack of water. Just like in Reno, waiters no longer automatically slapped down glasses of water on your restaurant table—you had to ask—a sign that we were headed down a deadly path of parchedness, slated to become the Gobi Desert of the West.

Anytime water is scarce, it becomes sort of glamorous—an endless source of fascination. Peter L. Bandurraga, director of the Nevada Historical Society, explores his fascination with Nevada—a place of perpetual drought—in Water: Life in a Dry Land, an exhibit featuring black and white photos of historical Northern Nevada, now on display at the Club Cal Neva-Virginian.

“I went off and looked at the mountains for a while, and I came back with the idea of water,” Bandurraga said. “Without water, you don’t have anything.”

The exhibit’s featured pieces are a series of collages, each of which corresponds to a period in the region’s history. Bandurraga selected the photos and wrote the text that accompanies each collage; Lamise Carano and her team of designers at Lexicon Creative Visual Marketing did the design and installation.

“Traditional curators live to have a photo with a caption to the right,” Carano said. “Because this [exhibit] was outside of the Historical Society [building], we wanted to do something different.”

The first collage, “Living on the Land,” is dominated by a photograph of Pyramid Lake, looking characteristically still, silent and mysterious. Surrounding the photo of the lake are photos of agricultural settlements that the lake helped support.

Step over to the next collage, “Riches From the Earth,” and you’ll see early Nevada’s rugged technology—railroads, mills, and mines—hard at work. At the outset, explains the exhibit’s text, Virginia City was a boomtown teeming with mining wealth that would go on to build the San Francisco Stock Exchange and help fund the Civil War. Yet while silver and gold gave Reno its initial luster, many settlers also drifted into the valleys and began ranching. To make this agricultural way of life possible, the first federal reclamation act, the Newlands Project, channeled water from the Truckee and Carson rivers into thousands of acres of farmland.

The third collage tells the story of “Mr. Wingfield’s Reno,” an infant Reno that was quickly becoming a town of financial stability—and slightly shady politics. The fourth collage, “Reno’s Golden Age,” begins in the 1930s when, in an effort to protect the state’s economy, the divorce period was shortened, the wait for a marriage license was eliminated and gambling was given a more legitimate-sounding name: “gaming.” “Reno’s Golden Age” continues through the 1940s and 1950s, when Reno began to thrive on its now-legal gaming industry.

Step into the vault at the back of the room and see the darker side of this “Golden Age.” Inside the dim, aromatic vault, there are three large, backlit photos of Reno nightlife, showing a town that is at once seedy and romantic. The most beautiful of these shows the Palace Club at night, its lights glowing eerily behind a thin drape of mist.

“Reno is a town of the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s,” Bandurraga said. “It had kind of a film noir [look].”

Water: Life in a Dry Land may begin by showing Nevadans’ knack for desert survival, but it goes on to take viewers on a journey through our mines, mills, blackjack tables and wedding parlors. On dry summer days, this rich, visual storytelling is sure to quench your thirst for history.