The Virginia Street Bridge gained its fame during Reno's heyday as the divorce capital of the nation. Lore had it that immediately after receiving their decree, women would march to the center of the bridge and, in an emphatic good-riddance, throw their wedding rings into the Truckee River (less satisfying but safer than tossing the ex-husband over the rail). But did divorcees actually jettison valuable jewelry just for spite? It seems unlikely, although Nevada State Archivist Guy Rocha says there is evidence that at least some women did so because over the years salvage divers have recovered a number of rings.
In any event, Hollywood loved the story. In a 1939 film, "Reno" a woman strides from the nearby Washoe County Courthouse to the bridge and gives her ring an emphatic toss. More famously, in 1960's The Misfits, Marilyn Monroe does the same. According to the National Park Service, the bridge was occasionally referred to as the "Bridge of Sighs," borrowing from the name of the celebrated bridge in Venice.
To a lesser degree, the bridge also became noted for its beauty. Although built of concrete, it was scored to look like masonry, and the arches had a classical design. The bridge was topped with an elaborate iron railing that became the background for many a tourist photo.
But the structure that became known as the Virginia Street Bridge was not the first span built across the Truckee. In fact, it was the fifth in a series of bridges in what eventually would become downtown Reno. Charles W. Fuller constructed the first bridge in 1860 on what had become the main route westward into the promise of California. Appropriately, the place became known as Fuller's Crossing. One of the Truckee's frequent floods soon destroyed the wooden structure, so Fuller built another and sold it to Myron Lake in 1861. As a result, this part of the river became "Lake's Crossing."
With tolls, the bridge proved to be a good moneymaker because in addition to linking the East to California, it linked California to the riches of Virginia City's fabled Comstock Lode. So when another flood wiped out this bridge in 1867, Lake could easily afford to rebuild it. But his name disappeared from the site in 1868 when the transcontinental railroad arrived and the station was renamed in honor of Civil War hero General Jesse Reno. In 1877, the Washoe County Commission authorized a new bridge, this time a bowstring arch truss made of iron.
The current bridge was built in 1905, at which time the iron bridge was relocated to Rock Boulevard, where it survived until yet another flood wiped it out in 1955. The Virginia Street Bridge was designed by San Francisco architect John B. Leonard in a Beaux Arts style, and was built by Cotton Brothers and Company of Oakland, California. While Reno was still a small city, the bridge was a popular fishing spot, and men and boys could often be seen casting from its rail. In the same era, lit candelabra were placed on the railing as a favorite part of downtown Christmas decorations. Because of both its reality and its mythology, the bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
However, during high water the bridge creates a bottleneck when logs and other flood-swept debris catch against its center piling. This exacerbates flooding by backing up the water and pushing it onto nearby streets. That became a major issue after the massive flood of January 1997, when yet another public-government effort began to create effective flood protection throughout the Truckee Meadows, the valley in which Reno sits. A Community Coalition of citizens and government officials, working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, determined that the blockage had to be corrected, and this led to a debate over whether to replace the bridge with a more accommodating span or to improve the flow while preserving the old structure. Preservation was complicated by the dilapidated state of the bridge, especially after a 2005 flood left a large hole in the foundation. Still, preservationists persisted, and a local planning process decided to evaluate the possibility of retaining the bridge if affordable.
One of the proposals to save the bridge would have constructed bypass channels on either side to accommodate more flood water. However, in March 2007 the Corps reported that the bypass channels would still collect debris, so wider bypasses would be needed, requiring destruction of the historic Masonic Building and part of the city's River Walk, as well as adversely affecting numerous other properties. Also, the Corps estimated that the cost would rise from $40 million to about $60 million, while a new bridge would cost only $30 million. Preservationists wanted the Corps to conduct a more thorough study with a physical model of the river and the enlarged bypass channels, but experts said that could take up to two years. They supported their cause by noting that the City of Reno had signed a legally binding agreement with the Federal Highway Administration promising to rehabilitate the bridge. But because of cost and the desire to get something done before the next major flood, the Reno City Council voted on March 28 to proceed with a new structure. In the following years, the city held a number of meetings to get input from citizens on what structural form the bridge should have.