While only seven blocks long, Riverside Drive is one of the most beloved streets in the city of Reno—and not by accident. Riverside Avenue, as it was first known, was created to be the city’s loveliest boulevard. From its origin in the 1880s, passengers traveling in horse-drawn buggies, and later, automobiles, could, as they drove along, view the Truckee River in all its stages, full and frothing in winter and spring, calmer, lower and reflecting sunlight in summer and fall.
In 1888, the avenue served as the southern boundary of the new Powning's Addition, where lots had just been platted and announced for sale. The parcels along what founder C.C. Powning called "the most fashionable driveway in the county" were purchased by the movers and shakers of the fledgling town.
At first, the road retained a rural feel, with moderately-sized Queen Anne Victorians on spacious lots with room for gardens and even chickens and other small animals. The avenue was plowed and improved in the 1890s, and in an effort to retain its scenic beauty, the County Commission purchased two sites for public parks or squares. In 1902, one of those sites became McKinley Park, named for the nation's 25th president, William McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901. In 1908, the city agreed to deed McKinley Park to the School Board to construct McKinley Park School.
Recognizing its value as a scenic drive, citizens petitioned the City Council in 1909 to widen the avenue to 60 feet, and in 1912, both the Fulton and Barber families deeded portions of the front of their lots to the city, to be used as park space. The triangular Lunsford Park, east of Washington Street, was formalized around 1914.
As time went on, the early Victorians were joined by brick Craftsman bungalows, many featuring generous front porches from which to enjoy the river view. Many of these original homes still grace the avenue today. The Art Moderne Loomis Manor Apartments and Neoclassical Revival First Church of Christ, Scientist added to the beauty of the drive in 1939.
Riverside Drive has been threatened many times with closure or reduction, to great community protest. In 1970, the City’s Parks and Recreation Commission proposed closing off the block between Ralston and Stevenson Streets in order to construct a dike and park area to assist in flood control. The property’s owner, John Cavanaugh, Jr., demolished three houses on the site the following year, stating his interest in constructing a six-story office building.
Local citizen’s groups voiced their strong disapproval of Cavanaugh’s plan, and in 1973, the Fleischmann Foundation granted the City of Reno enough money to purchase the parcels in order to create a permanent park, now called Bicentennial Park. In developing the landscaping plan for the site, the City decided to close the section of Riverside Drive between First and Ralston Streets in order to connect the park to a new walkway running alongside the river.
Since then, Riverside Drive has retained its full glorious length, anchored on the west by the Booth Street bridge and on the east by Ralston Street, which curves around to provide an unobstructed view of the elegant First Church of Christ, Scientist (now called the Lear Theater). Years of urbanization have left Riverside Drive the only public street in downtown Reno that runs along the north bank of the Truckee River, a timeless view accessible and cherished by all.