The establishment of a State University is specifically provided for in Article XI of Nevada's State Constitution, adopted September 7, 1864--notably, not a typical component of state constitutions. Instruction was to be provided in the disciplines of agriculture, mechanic arts, and mining.
In 1874, the State University of Nevada was founded in Elko. That site proved to be impractical, with most of the state’s residents living in the western part of Nevada, so in 1885, the legislature approved the move of the University to Reno. Land was soon acquired on the bench at the north end of the town, and students were enrolled in the spring of 1886. The first diplomas were awarded in 1891.
Morrill Hall was the first structure built on campus, which originally encompassed ten acres. The building housed the entire university until a dormitory was constructed in 1890 and a machine shop was finished in 1892, built primarily by students. Other buildings soon followed. But the state’s economic decline, with the waning of the bonanza days of mining led to a struggle at the university to build enrollment and gain stature.
Fortunately, Clarence Mackay, the son of John Mackay, one of the successful Comstock silver barons, stepped in as a major benefactor. He funded an athletic field and stadium and several buildings around a quadrangle modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s design at the University of Virginia. The university gained early prominence with its Mackay-funded School of Mines. The elm-lined Quad and the University's original core campus were listed as a Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.