Gambling in Reno dates back long before cowboys learned when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. According to the Nevada Historical Society, Reno had a long history of gambling even before the white man arrived. Native Americans from the Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone tribes made serious business of betting on games and contests when they celebrated a rabbit hunt and during pine-nut harvests.
Reno is named for Civil War Gen. Jesse Lee Reno, but the Union officer never set foot on Nevada soil. He was shot off his horse on Sept, 17, 1862, during a battle in Maryland. Why is a western city named for a general from the East? After the Civil War, it was fashionable to name train stops, like Reno, after Union military officers, according to the Historic Reno Preservation Society.
The next time you slide into your favorite jeans, thank Reno tailor Jacob Davis. In 1871, the inventive tailor created riveted work pants out of heavy cotton duck material obtained from fabric wholesaler Levi Strauss & Co. The pants were so popular that Davis and Strauss applied for and obtained patent number 139,121 in 1873 for their copper riveted work pants manufactured out of blue denim. Today, those pants are known as Levi’s Jeans.
From 1929 to 1939, Washoe County Courthouse officials gave their stamp of approval to 30,000 couples who said “I don’t,” crowning Reno as the Divorce Capital of the World. Many of those couples may have said “I do” in Las Vegas, which is known as the Marriage Capital of the World and lies 444 miles to the southeast of Reno.
Famous aviator Charles Lindberg wowed Reno residents when he landed his transatlantic monoplane, “Spirit of St. Louis” in the city on Sept. 19, 1927. Having just finished his first solo nonstop, 3,610-mile transatlantic flight in May of that year, the famed pilot spent the day in Reno attempting to convince dubious audiences of the safety of commercial aviation and urging Reno to construct a larger airport.
Reno’s nickname, the “Biggest Little City,” was devised by an out-of-stater. In December 1928, the Reno City Council, Chamber of Commerce and Reno City Improvement Association offered a $100 prize for a new slogan to fit the landmark Reno Arch that welcomes people to the city. G.A. Burns of Sacramento found out about the contest from miles away and submitted the winning entry.
Though Dawn Wells was stuck on Gilligan’s Island from 1964 to 1967 as Mary Ann Summers, the well-liked actress was born and raised in Reno. Wells became Miss Nevada in 1959 and also competed in the Miss America Pageant. The native Nevadan originally considered medicine as a career, but then she fell in love with drama club and decided to get a degree in theater.
Famed aviator, movie producer and business tycoon Howard Hughes bought the Harolds Club Casino in 1971. The famous Reno hotspot that started out as a tiny, 25-by-150-foot club in 1935 grew over the years, eventually including an unusual tower area featuring a maze of small rooms for gambling and musical entertainment. When Hughes took over, he opened things up with a $20 million, four-story expansion.
Samuel Clemens got his start in the Reno area in 1862, a few years before the city was named. After trying unsuccessfully to strike it rich with gold and silver, the young man gave up on fame and fortune through mining and turned to writing. He took a job at the Virginia City newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise, where he took on the pen name Mark Twain.
Prior to the 1960s, if you wanted to win (or lose) a week’s worth of wages, you traveled to Reno, which was once the gambling capital of the United States. When the flashier, louder Las Vegas gained momentum, Reno took a step out of the limelight, but gaming is still a favorite pastime in the “Biggest Little City.” After all, the history of gambling started here!
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