Building A 4-Lane Highway Across The Sierra

Dec 21, 2017

A postcard from 1938 depicts the two-lane U.S. 40 over Donner Summit in the winter of 1938.
Credit Photo by the Nevada Photo Service, James R. Herz Collection, Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.

Anyone who frequently drives along Interstate 80 across the Sierra has probably experienced travel delays due to heavy traffic or snow. Historian Alicia Barber looks back at early efforts to make the journey smoother in this segment of Time & Place.

Before the construction of the modern interstate, driving over the Sierra between Reno and Sacramento meant dealing with U.S. 40, a winding highway with just one lane heading in each direction.  Even modest amounts of snow could make the narrow roadway impassable for days, and one record-breaking storm in 1952 closed the highway for an entire month.  Every winter, Reno’s casinos went through a seasonal slump as nervous drivers kept their distance.

Raymond I. “Pappy” Smith outside Harolds Club.
Credit Neal Cobb Digital Photograph Collection, Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.

By the early fifties, Raymond I. Smith, known as “Pappy,” the patriarch of Reno’s famous Harolds Club, was determined to get Reno a four-lane highway over the Sierra.  Interviewed in 1999, longtime Harolds Club advertising and PR executive Roy Powers remembered how Smith helped drum up public support for the project:

"He came up with this idea of a highway sign program all the way across Donner Pass that showed a truck in silhouette going up a hill with cars lined up slowly behind him, and it was 'Make this four lanes. Write your congressman or senator now.'”

The passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 laid the groundwork, and the selection of Squaw Valley as the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics stepped up the timeline. At first, California only planned to widen the highway as far east as Truckee in time for the games. But thanks largely to Smith’s continued lobbying, the four lanes were extended all the way to the Nevada state line.

Also interviewed in 1999, Pappy’s daughter, Twyila Smith Whear, remembered attending the official dedication ceremony at the summit with her father.

"He wasn’t mentioned much during the dedication, and he spent years and years, and hundreds of thousands of dollars—probably more than any other Nevadan—getting that highway built," said Whear. "That was okay with him, but he got it done."

Sections of scenic U.S. 40 can still be driven through the Sierra. But be sure to check the weather forecast before you go.

Alicia Barber is the author of Reno’s Big Gamble: Image and Reputation in the Biggest Little City. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries. Full transcripts appear in the book, A Family Affair: Harolds Club and the Smiths Remembered, published by the University of Nevada Oral History Program.