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Uncovering the Unique & Surprising History of the Truckee Meadows

*photo of Wilbur D. May source: Source: Wilbur May Museum

Many surprises can be found in park history! If you are a lover of the Reno, Sparks, and Washoe County parks like I am, then in addition to their many amenities, you may enjoy learning about the geology, flora and fauna. But, have you ever wondered about their histories? Who owned the land before it was a park? What was the land used for? How did it become a park? How did it get its name? These are among the many questions I have been trying to answer as I research the parks’ histories.

There are some 210 parks in this area—from large regional parks to small “pocket parks” and many in between. So far I’ve only researched about 35 of them, mostly in Washoe Valley and southern Truckee Meadows, and the history is fascinating! Here is a taste of what I’ve learned so far.

  • Many of parks started out as ranches in the early days. Pioneers settled in the Truckee Meadows to supply the miners in the Comstock with food and provisions, or to operate lumber and quartz mills. Many of the early ranchers grew alfalfa to feed their sheep, beef and dairy cattle. Later on, some residents raised thoroughbred horses and pure-bred dogs.

  • Reno residents over the years have supported the parks by voting for bond issues to purchase land for parks. Additionally, developers of residential subdivisions were mandated to create neighborhood parks. But many of the parks, such as Rancho San Rafael, have benefited from donations of philanthropists such as Wilbur May, Max Fleishman, and Dr. Massoud Dorostkar.

  • Prominent Reno citizens who have contributed to the community have been honored with parks, such as the Clarence Bath horse arena, Link Piazzo dog park, Miguel Ribera Park, Ellen Steiner’s Park, Jack Tighe Memorial Fields at Moana Park, as well as Wingfield Park and many more.

Donner Party Park source: Jill Richardson
  • Celebrities have come to Reno over the years and enjoyed themselves at our parks. Gary Cooper and many other movie stars of the 1940s skied at Sky Tavern. Hollywood heart-throbs Mike Douglas and James Brolin came out to Hidden Valley Regional Park to see singer Wayne Newton’s prize Arabian horses in 1973. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt turned up at the Pedrioli Ranch in 1943, which is now Wilson Commons Park, and wrote about her favorable impressions of the ranch in her daily column, “My Day.” President Ronald Reagan was at the opening of Rancho San Rafael in 1982. And the Donner party camped a few nights at the park which now bears their name at the base of Rattlesnake Mountain in 1846 before their ill-fated attempt to cross the mountains for California.

  • Athletes came to Reno too-- Satchel Paige and Reggie Jackson played baseball at Moana Stadium (now Moana Park and Sports Complex) in 1979. Jim Jeffries trained at Moana for his 1910 heavyweight title fight against Jack Johnson, and Olympic sprint champion Jesse Owens ran against a horse there.

Photos Courtesy of The Parks Re-Photography Project

  • Some of the parks have other interesting aspects, such as being associated with one of the many ditches, or pioneering wind turbines, or making use of geothermal energy. At least one park was formerly a dude ranch, another is an old quarry, and another had been a fish hatchery rearing station which helped save the endangered cui-ui fish. One of oldest roads in Nevada runs past one park, while another has a stone schoolhouse from 1940 where a famous poet, Joanne De Longchamps, penned her creations. The Great Reno Balloon Race has taken place at Rancho San Rafael since 1982 and Galena Creek Park almost hosted the 1960 Olympics ski.

  • Several parks are on land once owned by LaVere Redfield, the “Howard Hughes of Reno,” and whose life as a shrewd businessman is fascinating. His widow has donated millions to various causes in Reno including the UNR School of Medicine.

  • Some parks are located on or near old train stations for the Virginia and Truckee Railroad. Another park resides on a former golf course.

A Who's Who of Historical Guests and Reno Residents

You too can be of help. Do you have information about the history of any of the parks? Perhaps you have old photos or are a descendent of rancher on which a park is now located? I’d like to hear your stories to add to the history of the parks. Feel free to email me at

*With only around a quarter of the parks researched by me and a few other volunteers, there is so much more to learn about! And we need more awesome volunteers! If you're interested in becoming a park history or biodiversity researcher, check out our volunteer page to apply! As each park is researched, the history is posted on the website.

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