Thursday, May 07, 2009

Discovering Sparks’ History

The grand opening of the Legends at Sparks Marina shopping/dining/entertainment mega-complex this summer puts a spotlight on the former railroad town of Sparks, which celebrates its 105th birthday next year.

Legends is a $1.2 billion development that includes a hotel-casino and the region’s largest shopping mall with some 50 tenants including Scheels All Sports store (already open), Banana Republic factory store, Converse, Nike Factory Store, Saks Fifth Avenue Off 5th and other vendors. The grand opening is scheduled for June 18.

As for the history of Sparks, the community was formally incorporated on March 15, 1905. The community, however, can trace its roots to a few years earlier when the Southern Pacific Railway Company decided to shorten and straighten its main line across Northern Nevada.

The railroad rerouted its tracks along the eastern Truckee River corridor to eliminate several dangerous curves and grades.

In about 1903, the railroad announced that as part of this realignment it would relocate its main division point in the region from Wadsworth to a site about four miles east of Reno. It originally looked at Reno for its new shops, but went east because of cheaper land.

To entice its workers to move to the new site, the railroad made a generous offer—a tract of land would be set aside adjacent to a new roundhouse and the railroad would give each employee clear title to a 50-foot by 140-foot lot. Additionally, the railroad offered to transport any existing house in Wadsworth to the new community at no charge.

Records show that in the summer of 1903, a drawing was conducted with employee names in one hat and lot number in another, and each was randomly awarded their lot. Some 67 lots changed title that day at a price of $1 per lot.

The new town was called “East Reno” for a short time, then “Harriman,” after E.H. Harriman, owner of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Finally, in April 1904, Harriman decided to name the community in honor of Nevada’s popular Governor John Sparks.

One hundred years ago, the new town was incorporated and during that same year saw the opening of a depot and freight yard. Additionally, in 1905, the community’s first school was built and a volunteer fire department was organized.

Over the past century, the railroad has become a less important part of the town’s economy but has remained an important symbol of the past. The Sparks High School athletic teams are called the “Railroaders” and the downtown’s “Victorian Square” development theme evokes the architecture and style of an earlier rail era.

The Sparks Bicentennial Railroad Park in center of the downtown boasts a couple of reminders of the city’s rail roots. One is Locomotive No. 8, built in 1907 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works. The ten-wheeler was one of the last steam engines to operate on the Southern Pacific line and was retired in 1954.

Attached to the engine are two historic Southern Pacific train cars, including a 1911 Pullman Car, said to have been used in 1948 by President Harry Truman on the successful whistle-stop campaign that helped get him reelected.

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