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The Founding of the University of Nevada, Reno

An old picture of Morrill Hall, the first building on the UNR campus.
Courtesy of University Archives
University of Nevada, Reno Libraries
Morrill Hall was the first building on the University of Nevada, Reno campus.

Classes are underway at the University of Nevada in Reno. And in this segment of “Time & Place,” historian Alicia Barber tells the story of how, why and where it all began. 

The University of Nevada has stood proudly on a hill overlooking downtown Reno since 1886, when its first building was dedicated. But that wasn’t the university’s first location. The State University of Nevada, as it was originally called, was actually founded in Elko in 1874. 

At that point, Nevada had been a state for just ten years and had a population of around 50,000. But a university had been planned from the start. It was specifically mentioned in the Nevada constitution, which called for “a State University, embracing Agricultural, Mechanical, and Mining departments.”

That language was critical, for one very important reason: the Morrill Act, which was passed by the United States Congress in 1862. That act, named for the Vermont congressman who introduced it, established the new category of Land-Grant Colleges. Under this new program, the federal government would grant each state a large amount of public land that the state could then sell to establish and maintain a public college. The colleges funded by federal land grants were intended to provide not only classical education, but practical training that could benefit working people.

It took a while to lay the groundwork, but Nevada received its land grant, and in 1873 the state legislature was ready to decide where the campus should go. Reno and the state capitol of Carson City lobbied especially hard, but in the end the honor went to Elko, which gave northeastern Nevada its first important state institution. It also didn’t hurt that Nevada’s Governor at the time, Lewis R. Bradley, was from Elko County.

But things didn’t go so well in Elko, which many considered too remote. Most of those who attended were from the local area, and enrollment never rose above 35 students at a time. Many residents of western Nevada, where more than half of the state’s population lived, considered it more convenient to send their children to college in California. If Nevada’s state university had any hope of succeeding, it needed to be where the people were.

The state legislature agreed, and in 1885, they officially transferred the campus to Reno. The next decision was where to put it. That’s where rancher John Newton Evans, known as Newt, stepped in. Evans offered to sell the Regents ten acres of his sprawling ranch, on a sage-covered hill at the north end of town. The location was perfect. The Board of Regents accepted, and construction of the campus’s first building began right away. When it opened in 1886, it was named in honor of Vermont congressman Justin Smith Morrill, who had sponsored the federal act that made the university and others like it possible. Today, Morrill Hall anchors the southern edge of the growing campus of the University of Nevada in Reno, its second—and permanent—home.

Historian Alicia Barber is the author of Reno’s Big Gamble: Image and Reputation in the Biggest Little City. For more information about the history and architecture of the University of Nevada, Reno campus, you can visit the University of Nevada tour on RenoHistorical.org.

As a note of disclosure, the license to KUNR is owned by the Board of Regents for the Nevada System of Higher Education.

Alicia Barber, PhD, is a professional historian and award-winning writer whose work focuses on the built environment and cultural history of Nevada and the American West. After earning a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin in 2003, she moved to Reno, where she taught at the University of Nevada, Reno for the next ten years, and directed the University of Nevada Oral History Program from 2009-2013.
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