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New Virginia Street Bridge Looks To Reno's Past And Future

Julia Ritchey

The city is reopening the new Virginia Street Bridge on Tuesday with a ribbon cutting ceremony and procession. As Reno Public Radio's Julia Ritchey reports, the city hopes the bridge will usher in a new era for the downtown with a nod to its past.

The year was 1905 and Reno was in the middle of a growth spurt. An iron truss bridge spanned the north and south shores of the Truckee River to allow horses and buggies to pass through, but by the turn of the century it needed something more permanent.

Architect John Leonard of San Francisco designed a classical structure that would replace the outdated bridge, building what was one of the first reinforced concrete bridges in the state.

"1905 was an important moment; that was really the dawn of the modern era..."

That's local historian Alicia Barber, creator of Reno Historical, an app that documents Reno's historical buildings and infrastructure.

"It was the dawn, in many ways, of Reno's tourist industry. That was the year that Reno's migratory divorce trade started, and people started to come to Reno for quickie divorces. And it was actually a time of a lot of construction in the area. There was a Masonic Lodge that was built two years later on the site of the current Masonic Lodge."

The bridge would later gain notoriety as the "Wedding Ring Bridge" where new divorcees would cast off their golden bands into the swift currents of the Truckee.

The bridge will once again symbolize a new age for Reno when it's re-opened Tuesday, April 12 after 10 months of construction.

The $18 million overhaul features wider pedestrian walkways, open views to the Sierras and a fully revamped plaza across from City Hall with public art and access to the river.

The improvements were necessary for flood control and safety, according to the project manager Kerrie Koski.

"The old bridge had a center restriction, it was more like two arches,” she says. “This bridge here is a pony truss and it has no restriction in the center of the river bed."

Twenty-six steel cables support the two arches of the new design, which is painted a steely gray. The city also refurbished four lampposts and a few original railings from the old bridge. 

Credit Julia Ritchey
Original lampposts from the old 110-year-old bridge were refurbished and reincorporated.

"We thought it was important to keep some of the old elements of the bridge for nostalgia and other reasons — we committed to that," says Koski.

Charla Honey, an engineering manager with the city, helped spearhead the design process for the new infrastructure six years ago. She says the project prioritizes redevelopment.

"This is more than a transportation structure, this is actually the first location where people cross the river in Reno,” says Honey. “It's an important part of our history. With that in mind, we have also built this interpretive area here at the Post Office corner that will discuss the history of all the structures here."

The ribbon cutting can't come soon enough for some business owners, like Beverly Van Dusseldorp. She runs the Antique Angel Wedding Chapel adjacent to the bridge and says construction has been a major headache.

"Of course it has affected our business," she says. "You put any impediment in front of people and they turn away."

Still, she likes the look of the new bridge and hopes the walkways and other amenities will drive more foot traffic.

"It is a very nice bridge, and it is probably one of the nicest things that has been constructed through the city," says Van Dusseldorp. "I think that maybe with the new bridge maybe the local populace would tend to come downtown more, rather than staying away, thinking that downtown is a dead place to be."

The bridge unveiling comes at a time of major activity downtown. Just across the bridge, the renovated old Post Office now houses a hipster mall in its basement with a coffee shop, juice bar and local barber.

Furniture store West Elm announced plans to move into the ground floor, the first major retailer to move downtown in decades.

Credit Julia Ritchey
View of the new Virginia Street Bridge from the Truckee River access point.

Historian Alicia Barber says the bridge is just another way of reactivating the corridor.

"Throughout the ages, this has been a very important place for our city and community to gather, to get from one place to another, but also to congregate,” says Barber. “And it still is that today, and I think this new bridge really signifies that."

City engineer Kerrie Koski says the goal was to have a bridge that would last at least as long as its predecessor.

"The previous bridge was here about 110 years,” she says. “The design life of this new bridge is well beyond 100 years, so we're looking forward to enjoying it for many, many years to come and many generations to come."

The city plans to fully capitalize on the symbolism of the new bridge. A champion team of mules will be the first to cross, followed by several historic cars from the National Automobile Museum.

Call it a bridge to the future deeply rooted in the past.   

**The public is invited to attend the ribbon cutting April 12 beginning at 11 a.m. Some streets will be closed off, so arrive early for parking. More details on the project at http://vsbreno.com.

Check out a time-lapse video of construction, courtesy the City of Reno: EarthCam Streaming Time-lapse Movie

Julia Ritchey is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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