Motels and Early Auto Tourism

Reno boasts an extraordinary array of tourist lodgings with ties to early motor tourism. It all started when the Lincoln Highway Association was established in 1913 to provide a continuous, improved highway from New York to San Francisco. The route–through western Nevada and passing through Fallon, Sparks, and Reno to the California state line–was set by 1921. A branch led southward along South Virginia Street through Carson City and the communities along the Lake Tahoe shore. The Victory Highway, named to honor the veterans of World War I, followed the Humboldt River Route, converging with the Lincoln Highway in Sparks.

With the establishment of the highways, automobile tourism became an economic force in the region. The first accommodations catering to motor tourists were campgrounds with a pad where travelers could pitch a text next to their “machine,” ideally with water and food nearby. Many of these early facilities, called tourist camps or auto camps, sprang up on the Lincoln Highway between Sparks and Reno. Soon, tourist cabins replaced tent pads and parking spots. Called cabin courts, cottage courts, auto courts, or tourist courts, the cabin complexes offered beds and bedding, bathrooms, and often kitchens.

By the end of World War II, legalized gambling, the migratory divorce trade, and the area’s beautiful natural setting drew increasing numbers of tourists to Reno. The term “motel” was coined in 1925, but it came into common usage after the war, when automobile tourism took a big leap forward. Individual cabins became attached, swimming pools were installed, and colorful neon signs beckoned travelers to stop and rest. By the 1950s, corporate America established the first motel chains.

Toward the end of the decade, motels sprang up along the proposed route of the new interstate (U.S. 80), where signs would be clearly visible from the highway. The old motels along the historic routes through Reno and Sparks lost most of their automobile tourist trade and many now serve as low-income housing. Still, many retain their historical integrity as well as their original neon signage, and offer great potential for restoration and revitalization, as many communities throughout the country have discovered.

NOTE: Because this is a virtual tour and not a walking tour, the entries are organized chronologically, NOT geographically. Please consult the tour map for the breadth of the area covered and distance between sites.

This tour will continue to expand as more entries are added. Research assistance provided by RTC Washoe.