Last week, unable to spare the time for a vacation in Tuscany, I decided to spend a day in Sparks.
You might be tempted to begin a self-guided tour downtown where Sparks grew up across the Lincoln Highway from the big railroad yard. I prefer to save it for last.
Five Faves in Sparks
But I do suggest getting off the I-80 freeway at Rock Boulevard and taking Victorian Avenue east through the center of the little city. This is partly to familiarize yourself with it, and partly to take you past Scudder’s Performance at the corner of Victorian Avenue and 6th Street with its startling rooftop whimsy.
We turn north on McCarran to Prater, and east on Prater to #1495: Peg’s Glorified Ham’n’Eggs for breakfast (more on food below).
Back in the car we continue east on Prater to Marina Gateway Drive, turn south to Lincoln, east to Legends Bay and then south into the Legends Outlet Mall at the Sparks Marina.
Legends is a treat for the eyes, so imaginatively designed that it stirs your own imagination to wander through it. Even if you are not a shopper you will enjoy just walking around.
There is an adjoining Scheel’s store which was designed by an architect who was obviously given free rein, and it’s an exuberant environment, to the point of translucent columns that are aquariums stocked with fish that seem bored stiff, a full-size Ferris Wheel, and a set of life-sized Presidential dummies spaced along the second floor balcony. Even if you don’t need a kayak, ask to see the one with the little paddles in its belly that you pump with your feet.
Legends and its near neighbors are part of the Sparks Marina what, development? neighborhood? district? which is based upon the large unexpected expanse of water called Sparks Marina Park Lake. It’s another surprise in this surprisingly interesting area, and you’d never know it was once the eye-sore and economic blight called the Helms Pit.
From here we take E. Lincoln further east to Wild Island, a modern manifestation of Sparks’ family-friendly character. It’s a pleasure palace that opened as a water park in 1989 and has come to include every kind of recreation for children and their parents. Miniature golf, Go-kart raceways, 40 lanes of bowling, and a lot more including Water Dogs Sports Bar and Grill offers two bars and “more TVs than you can count”.
Except for the Sports Bar, it reminded me of a warm summer evening in Copenhagen many years ago, and a tour guide who led me through Tivoli Gardens, a famous entertainment park thriving with smiling people who ranged from early childhood to elder geezerdom. “There is something here for every taste,” she said, waving at the happy world around us. “Except the lowest.”
And from the highest platform for Red Viper, a Pro-Slide FREEfall more than five stories tall, you get a great bird’s-eye view of Sparks. Look west and you see the Nugget towers downtown, with Reno in the distance. Look north and you see roofs extending to the horizon. Look east and see one of the industrial districts that have replaced the railroad as the source of local prosperity. Or look south to the river where in the early 1850s the Stone & Gates Crossing prompted a little village to accumulate: eight or ten businesses — a butcher, a blacksmith, a saloon, a couple of dozen small houses and a school. It was the first settlement in the Truckee Meadows, and the only one until the railroad came through in 1868 and Reno was established.
Sparks didn’t appear until 1904, but when it did, it came all at once.
Five Years Ago
in the NevadaGram
If you had driven into Eureka that evening, the falling snow would have persuaded you to stay the night, and if you were bold enough to venture through the chilly night to the Opera House doors, you’d have been treated to one of those inexplicably transcendant experiences that force us to love this cranky old state after all.
Ralph Cuda is the music teacher at the Eureka High School, and his Dixieland Band is his old teacher plus five friends he’d played with professionally 15 years before. They had all arrived in town earlier that day, practiced together for an hour and a half, and now they played a long set of deliciously tight ensemble jazz from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
If it were just those talented guys bringing that buoyant music to life in the old building, packed to the rafters — well, to the balconies — with a rapt audience, it would have been a memorable night, the kind you tell friends about when you get home.
But it was also a surprise party in honor of Wally Cuchine, the recently retired impresario of the Opera House (among other Eureka County responsibilities) who was astonished to find so many of his friends from around the state in the audience.
So if you’d been there with us you’d have have witnessed an outpouring of affection and appreciation, and got from that maybe some sense of what makes Nevada unique among the states.
And then the band came back out and played some more sweet-spirited dixieland jazz. It was a fabulous night, the old brick building filled with light, warmth and good cheer; the music swirling through the theater while outside a blizzard roiled slowly and silently through the dark night.
There has been nothing as dramatic in Sparks’ history as its abrupt beginning: the railroad switching yard at Wadsworth plus the neighborhood of workers’ homes around it were uprooted, rails, houses, shops, sheds, trees and all, loaded onto flat cars, hauled to an empty patch of desert four miles east of Reno and put back together again.
The Sparks Museum at the corner of Victorian Avenue and Pyramid Way offers a glimpse of the city’s history, both within the old City Hall and across the street where a vintage steam locomotive, cupola caboose and Pullman executive car are displayed along with a replica of the original Sparks depot, and the restored one room Glendale Schoolhouse (brought in from the village mentioned above). Tours of the train and museum are offered on Saturdays between 1 and 4 pm and are included in the $5 price of admission (12 and under are free).
The railroad was on the south side of the Lincoln Highway with an enormous new 40-unit round house — largest in the world at the time — and the town stretched along the north side. It stretched so far, in fact, that it gained a place in ‘Ripley’s Believe It Ir Not’ as the longest single-sided street in the USA (20 blocks, as I remember).
Once reassembled, the new community was christened Harriman for the railroad tycoon responsible for its presence, but when the City was incorporated the next year its name was Sparks, in honor of Governor “Honest John” Sparks. This was understood as an effort to shore up the standing of the new city’s principal industry in an era of furious anti-railroad sentiment.
In 1907 the city council outlawed the popular local pastime of driving up to a saloon in a buggy and having drinks at the curb. Family oriented and hard-working, Sparks became the butt of local jokes, such as: “Reno is so close to Hell you can see Sparks.”
Other than the endless banging of the boxcars in the switching yard and the clanging and hissing and whistling and squealing of the through trains in and out of the station, everything was quiet in Sparks for nearly 50 years as the little city grew slowly with the railroad.
For all that time the big roundhouse was Sparks’ best brag, while Reno, with its free-and-easy divorce, gambling dens and city government in cahoots with gangsters became world-famous.
Sparks’ Living Landmark
Built by Ralph Galletti as a tamale factory in 1945, the Coney Island was named for the amusement park across the street. Upon his return from service in World War II, Ralph’s son John added the dining room. John’s son Greg now runs the business with his sister Lorri contributing gourmet Italian dinners on Wednesday nights. It is a legendary local hangout. Great food, 1945 ambiance.
Eleven ‘Notable People’ are listed on the Sparks Wikipedia page. I didn’t know half of them, but I did know these: Mädchen Amick, actress on Twin Peaks, Witches of East End and a flop (not her fault) set in Laughlin; Brian Crane, who draws Pickles; Jim Gibbons, black sheep ex-Governor of Nevada; Karl Rove, political hatchetman; and Dan Serafini, pitcher for the Naranjeros de Hermosillo.
I haven’t conducted exhaustive research but I doubt there’s another city in the USA where a player for the Naranjeros de Hermosillo makes the Notables list (Dan also pitched in the Majors for the Twins, Cubs, Padres, Pirates, Reds and Rockies, and in Japan).
Missing from the list is Louise Bryant, a Sparks girl who became a journalist and the wife of John Reed, the writer who is one of only two Americans buried at Moscow in the Kremlin wall (Big Bill Haywood, who learned radical socialism in the Nevada mines as a teenager, was the other).
Her story and John’s was told in the movie “Reds”. Surely Louise is as notable as a pitcher in the Mexican League.
Here are the details about my Five Faves in Sparks:
Peg’s Glorified Ham’n’Eggs is our designated breakfast destination in Sparks, partly for the excellent food and cheerful service and partly for the fact that breakfast is served outside as well as inside, allowing Jones to join us. A thoroughly commendable way to begin the day.
Richie Ballerini has been singing at Pietro’s Famiglia Ristorante every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night for 7 years now, roaming through the dining room and belting out the music of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and other popular singers of the 1950s and ’60s — always the original arrangements. He is mildly playful as he floats through the room, leaving smiles in his wake. Add this to Chef Pietro’s delicious food and the attentive but unobtrusive waiters, and you have an evening to remember fondly.
The Nugget is on its second owner since John Ascuaga sold the small casino he’d built into a skyscraper. The place has been the emblem of modern Sparks since Dick Graves started it in the 1950s, and John’s Oyster Bar had been the emblem of the Nugget since the price of a pan roast was $3 (I remember when it went up to $3.50). Now they’ve taken John Ascuaga’s name down and the price is up past $20. I don’t care what they charge, I’ll keep going back for more as long as the recipe is the same and there’s more to be had. (hey, $3.50 was serious money once upon a time!).
When Tom Young and his partners opened Great Basin Brewery in 1993 they sold more beer in their first month than any other brew pub in the USA — so much so fast that they sold everything they had and ran out of beer. Since then that problem has been overcome so well that Great Basin brews are distributed in all 17 Nevada counties and 17 more in California as well. We like the beer and we like the cheerful pioneer spirit it’s brewed with!
BJ’s Barbecue has been a Sparks favorite for many years and promises to go on forever. Delicious barbecue of course (you can buy it by the pound to take home), and a half-pound burger for every day of the week. Everything made right here, everything fresh, everything good. Breakfasts are superb, on a level with the Griddle in Winnemucca and the Cracker Box in Carson City! Robin and I are particularly fond of the chicken-fried steak, which was our wedding dinner at the Mozart Cafe in Goldfield and always seems special to us.
Now back in the car to explore the outer reaches of the city. From Wild Island go east into the large industrial neighborhood that houses the UPS and FedEx depots among dozens of other facilities, to Vista Boulevard (the long way) or West to Sparks Boulevard (the shorter way). Pick one and drive north into the sea of roofs that spreads for miles. Clusters of commerce are sprinkled here and there, but mostly it’s great tracts of houses. Here’s a taste:
Sparks Boulevard ends at the Pyramid Highway, which we take south back to the old downtown. If you take Vista, you go farther north, passing the Red Hawk Golf Course and leaving Sparks for Spanish Springs. Vista ends suddenly and becomes something else at its intersection with Hubble Street. Take Hubble north to La Posada, and La Posada west to the Pyramid Highway and south to Victorian Square.
The Sparks Nugget and its towers, the bright row of saloons and restaurants across the street, the nearby 14-screen movie complex, the elevated Freeway traffic whizzing by all conspire to create the illusion of an urb, but as we now know, it’s the only urban piece of Sparks. You could spend a pleasant weekend right here — three of my ‘Five Fave’ restaurants are here, and a fourth just up the street — but to see the reality of Sparks, which occupies about 36 square miles, you’ve got to get in the car and drive.
Ten Years Ago
in the NevadaGram
Pyramid Lake is not like Tahoe. It is shallower, warmer, and substantially more alkaline than Tahoe, lower in elevation, and not so easily accessible. But these differences are not the decisive ones.
Tahoe is rhapsodically beautiful. Pyramid is a shock; in addition to its primitive, challenging beauty, it projects a profound antiquity. Gazing out across its surface is an experience almost four-dimensional. The past is very present here, the ancient past, beyond history.
Pyramid is home to the unique and endangered Cui-ui, a bottom swimming lunker dating back into prehistory.
Fishermen wade out deep and cast for trout even in wintry weather. In ancient times this fishery was a magnificent survival resource. Then for a while, when the first wave of white settlers came, it was big business. Commercial fishermen harvested 100 tons of trout between winter 1888 and spring 1889, for shipment all over the U.S. By 1912 a local entrepreneur was hiring as many as 50 Paiute fishermen to catch and ship from ten to fifteen tons of trout a week for sale in the southern Nevada mining camps.
In 1925 a Paiute named Johnny Skimmerhorn caught the world’s record cutthroat here; a 41-pounder. But by 1940 the cutthroats were gone. Restocking began in the early 1950s, and today five to ten pounders are not uncommon at Pyramid. Fishing for cutthroat is closed in July, August and September, and fishing for the endangered Cui-ui is prohibited year around except for Tribal members.
There are two fish hatcheries at the lake, one for cui-ui, the other for cutthroat trout. At the larger Numana Hatchery south of Nixon, eggs from spawning adults are taken and raised to fingerling size. Tours are offered when staff is available, and your guide will probably be a tribal member (call 775-574-0500 for tour schedules).
Dave Stamey was in Winnemucca last month, so Robin and I made a point of being there too. And so did 88 other people who crowded into the back room at the Martin Hotel — a sellout crowd and a terrific performance.
How is Winnemucca pronounced? Our resident philologist insists that the way you pronounce the word reveals your connection to this pleasant place. If you say WinneMUCCa, you’re likely a native. If you say WINNemucca, you’re definitely not a native and might even be from California. Not as obvious as ‘mispronouncing’ Genoa or Verdi, but just as telling.
Sports News: Four teams were entered in the tournament: the Trashy Cowboys from Duckwater; the Honkey Tonkey Donkeys (Eureka High School girls); Old Men and Ashley, and the Donkey Dunkers. The latter two were defeated in the Elimination Round, and the Duckwater boys prevailed over the Eureka girls in the Championship round. No-one remembers the scores.
Overheard at the Martin Hotel in Winnemucca: “The world is not against you, Benny, it’s just for itself”.
What They’re Saying About Us: A small Nevada town between Searchlight and Laughlin is for sale: $8 million.
Brief Notes from Beyond the Mountains —
Sparks will host the Corks & Kegs event at the Nugget Casino Resort in the Nugget Grand Ballroom on April 9th. The following week come to the Nugget for the Reno Ukulele Festival that starts on April 14th and lasts trough the 17th. On the Reno-Sparks border is the Reno Xtreme Barrel Race at the Reno-Sparks Livestock Events Center, “The Biggest Little Barrel Race in the World”! The event begins on April 27th and runs through May 1st . Also nearing the end of April is the Reno Jazz Festival at the University of Nevada Reno, that starts on April 28 through the 30th. You won’t want to miss the Grand Sierra Resort’s Cinco de Mayo Festival on Apr 29th through May 1st! . . Up on the Comstock, come on out to see Poor Man’s Whiskey in Virginia City on April 8th.
At St. Mary’s is a Spring Exhibition & Reception on April 9th at 1pm to 4pm. Also at St. Mary’s Art Center on April 10th go to Canvas and Cocktails on the Comstock, “Brunch and Brushes”. The legendary Virginia City Grand Prix is scheduled for April 30th through May 1st . . . Down the hill, Carson City hold it’s City-Wide Short Film Competition on April 7th. Then on April 16th Carson City holds the V&T Wine Cheese Dessert Train event at the East Depot. The Carson Valley Pops Orchestra will host a ride on the historic Virginia & Truckee Railway with live music and dining at Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City on April 30th. Southward in Carson Valley the Golf Club at Genoa Lakes will hold it’s 27th Annual CVI Spring Stag Golf Outing “36-Hole Scramble”. Then on April 28th through May 1st go to Genoa’s Cowboy Festival. A short scenic drive down 395 south will take you to Topaz Lake where you can GET PAID TO FISH! at the Topaz Lodge Fishing Derby that runs through April 17th. . . Travel up into the Sierra’s to the Tahoe Truckee Earth Day at Squaw/Alpine resort on April April 16th. On the south end of Lake Tahoe check out the
Sierra Fam Rail Jam at Sierra at Tahoe Resort on April 8th. Delight your taste buds with “An Epicurean’s Delight, the Signature Chef Dinner at the
Chart House Lake Tahoe. Featuring Chef Mats Larsson.” This Signature Chef Dinner at the Chart House Lake Tahoe is scheduled for April 20th. . . East on Interstate 80 in Winnemucca step on out
to Music at the Martin with Ned Evett on April 9th at the Martin Hotel, and later in the month is the annual Shooting the West Photography Symposium that starts on April 26th and runs through the 30th. In central Nevada off of Highway 50 in Austin is the Lincoln Highway Car Show on April 11th
Also off of Highway 50 in Ely is White Pine Weekend on April 9th through the 10th. . . Down in southern Nevada check out the Pahrump Valley Cruisers Show on April 16th. Or head over to Mesquite for Eureka Uncorked on April 16th. Along the shores of the Colorado River goto Rockin’ On The River Festival in Laughlin on April 15th. Also in Laughlin is the 18th Annual Blues and Brews Festival that starts on April 22nd and runs through April 24th. Henderson’s annual Heritage Parade & Festival is scheduled for April 23rd, Trip Advisor listed Las Vegas as #2 (after NYC) among the “25 Top Destinations” (whatever that means) in the USA and then listed a lifetime’s worth of attractions and activities for visitors to the Magic City — 1473! Here they are . . . The Clark County Fair & Rodeo takes place on April 6th through the 10th. The suds will poor supreme that the 2016 Great Vegas Festival of Beer on April 9th, and the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend
will begin on April 14th and run through the 17th . An Always a pleasing sight is the Miss Nevada United States on April 17th.
Parting Shot —
Lahontan State Recreation Area Easter Egg Hunt, 2015. Photo courtesy Nevada State Parks