Myron Lake: Reno’s Avaricious Founder: Part II

In May 2018 Reno celebrates its 150th birthday. | Mark McLaughlin

Nevada’s “Biggest Little City in the World” is celebrating the sesquicentennial anniversary of its founding 150 years ago. Reno’s first real-estate parcels were sold at auction on May 9, 1868, just in time for the arrival of track-laying crews for the nation’s first transcontinental railroad.

READ Part I at TheTahoeWeekly.com

The city is named for General Jesse Lee Reno, a Civil War hero who died fighting for the Union in 1862. As a favor to U.S. Army General Irvin McDowell, Leland Stanford, president of Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR), named two train stops in Nevada after war heroes: one for Gen. Reno, the other for Gen. James S. Wadsworth, also an admired commanding officer mortally wounded in that war. As the last stop heading east with access to wood and water, Wadsworth became a vital supply depot for the railroad. Today less than 1,000 people live there.

Myron Charles Lake was a shrewd entrepreneur, but his business ventures frequently exploited and angered citizens of the
city he established.

One of Nevada’s most prominent early citizens was Myron Charles Lake, considered the principal founder of Reno. He was a shrewd entrepreneur, but his business ventures frequently exploited and angered citizens of the city he established. During the 1860s, Myron Lake controlled an important toll bridge (Lake’s Crossing) over the Truckee River and owned the franchise to a fee-based turnpike on Sierra Valley Road (now Virginia Street), the main commercial thoroughfare through the Truckee Meadows.

Despite his politically approved monopoly of toll traffic, it produced only modest revenue during the first years of operation. Over time, however, traffic to the Comstock mines increased and Lake raised his tolls. Lake invested his proceeds in growing an empire. He built a large grist mill for grinding grain into flour and he made structural improvements to his inn and road house near the bridge (site of today’s Virginia Street Bridge). He also added horse stables and a sturdy barn. Ultimately, the most important move was Lake’s purchase of 137 acres on both sides of the Truckee River, where the core of Reno stands today.

In 1868, as Central Pacific’s track-laying crews approached the Truckee Meadows from the west, it was Lake’s chance to capitalize on his real-estate holdings. He contacted Charles Crocker, construction superintendent for CPRR, and said that he could provide land for a town site on his property north of the river if the company would construct a train depot near his bridge and turnpike. For Lake and the railroad, it was mutually beneficial. Central Pacific acquired the right-of-way through Lake’s property, as well as alternate city blocks in the new town site. For his part, Lake retained half of the lots on his land north of the river, while the train’s arrival increased his toll business exponentially.

Once the railroad reached Reno, all the freight teams and traffic that had been crossing Donner Pass using the difficult Dutch Flat/Donner Lake Wagon Road started using the train for hauling supplies over the Sierra to Nevada. Many of the freight companies transferred their operations from Sacramento to Reno, where they could pick up freight and goods at the Central Pacific’s Reno Station. Most supplies were destined for Carson City or the mines at Virginia City so southbound traffic on Lake’s toll road boomed. He started making money hand over fist, eventually earning more than $100,000 per year.

In 1871, Lake began to develop the acreage that he owned on the south side of the Truckee River, across from Reno. He called it the South Addition and the wily real-estate baron soon began wheeling and dealing. The Nevada State Legislature had just relocated the county seat from Washoe City to Reno, so Lake offered a free acre of land to build a proposed courthouse there. Lake wanted a stately brick courthouse for curb appeal in his new South Addition. As an added bonus, Reno citizens would have to pay to cross his bridge to conduct official business with the state or county. Despite loud protests by Reno citizens, Lake got his courthouse approved.

The courthouse location endorsed by the Washoe County Commissioners further stirred the hot embers of a smoldering problem in Reno —Lake’s monopolistic toll franchise. For several years, residents had signed petitions demanding that the city purchase Lake’s toll bridge and turnpike for conversion to a free public road. Lake refused, of course. For now, he was still legally protected by the 10-year franchise authorized by the State Legislature in 1862. Lake also argued that he and his bridge were both here before Reno was a town. In 1869, political pressure resulted in the commissioners passing a general 25-cent rate reduction in Lake’s tolls, but that didn’t appease Renoites for long.

As more homes and businesses were built in the South Addition, merchants on the north side of the river cut delivery service to the neighborhood, complaining that their clerks had to pay each time they crossed Lake’s bridge. The simmering issue finally came to a boil in 1872 after the Virginia & Truckee Railroad built a bridge over the Truckee River just downriver from Lake’s Crossing. In short order hundreds of pedestrians began using the new railroad bridge to bypass Myron Lake’s tolls.

Reno’s first citizen was incensed and initiated legal proceedings claiming that the V&T bridge had been built within 1 mile of his — a key point protected by his exclusive franchise. Lake also struck back physically, erecting a fence across the railroad bridge that V&T crews quickly removed. A further blow to Lake’s empire came in January 1873 when the Washoe County Commissioners refused to grant him an extension on his expiring franchise and declared the main commercial artery through Reno a public highway. Incredibly, Lake refused to give up. He gated the bridge and stood on it with a loaded gun, demanding a toll to cross. He was arrested, fined $20 and ordered to keep the gate unlocked. Finally, his lawsuit against the V&T and the State reached the Nevada Supreme Court, but in another defeat for Lake, in May 1873 the justices voted against him and declared his bridge “free to cross.”

After that Lake’s professional and private life began to unravel. In 1879, his wife Jane sued him for divorce, charging him with extreme mental and physical cruelty. The highly publicized divorce case (decided in his wife’s favor) further exposed Lake as a cold-hearted capitalist focused more on money than humanity and public service. Lake died on June 20, 1884, at the age of 56, a wealthy man but with a tarnished reputation as Reno’s first robber baron.


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Mark McLaughlin
Mark is an award-winning, nationally published author, historian and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.