About Reno's Divorce Trade
Nevada was one of the first states to loosen up its divorce laws. As a result, people began coming to Reno in significant numbers to split the sheets starting in the early 1900s. Reno, then Nevada's largest city, became divorce central for the entire United States. In competition with other states for this lucrative business, the Nevada Legislature kept lowering the residency requirement to remain at the top of preferred places to get a quickie divorce, with basically no questions asked. In 1931, the time requirement was cut to six weeks and gambling was legalized. During the 1930s, over 30,000 divorces were granted in the Washoe County Courthouse. In popular culture, Reno became known as the "Great Divide." Getting a Reno divorce was called taking "the cure" and getting "Reno-vated."
By cashing in on sin, Nevada was able to weather the economic storm of the Great Depression better than many other areas of the country. Over the years, divorce laws have loosened up just about everywhere else, pretty much killing this golden goose that helped sustain Nevada through much of the 20th century.
The Virginia Street Bridge Legend
The Washoe County Courthouse in downtown Reno is a block south of the Virginia Street Bridge (built in 1905) and the Truckee River. The story is that divorcees (the vast majority of people coming to Reno for a divorce were women), after obtaining their final dissolution of marriage decree, would kiss a column on the Courthouse portico, then walk to the Virginia Street Bridge and toss their wedding rings into the rippling waters of the Truckee River. Did it actually happen?
According to information from former Nevada State Archivist Guy Rocha in the One Nevada Encyclopedia, the legend may have been started by a few women who really did toss their rings from the Virginia Street Bridge. Rocha said evidence for this comes from divers having found some rings over the ensuing years. However, the practice on a wholesale basis seems unlikely. What is more likely is that they continued walking over the bridge and cashed in at the nearest pawn shop. Remember, the height of the divorce trade was during the Great Depression and most folks wouldn't be throwing away money on purpose.
Recent Evidence for the Virginia Street Bridge Legend
The New Year's flood of 2005 seriously damaged the center support on the Virginia Street Bridge. Repair work involved diverting the Truckee River and shoring up the span with rocks and concrete. Several divers were employed for this task. While downtown watching the work and taking pictures, one of the divers showed me a jeweled ring he said had come from the river, found while he was repairing the bridge. I was not able to follow up, but the ring seemed to add credence to this unique Reno urban legend.
See the Virginia Street Bridge Legend in the Movies
At least two movies depict ring tossing from the Virginia Street Bridge. Reno was made in 1939, but by far the most famous is The Misfits, the last movie made by both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. In this film, the Monroe character enacts classic scenes from the legend, emerging from the Washoe County Courthouse and throwing her wedding ring into the Truckee River from the Virginia Street Bridge. Click below to shop for your copy of The Misfits.
Vestiges of Reno's Divorce Trade
The boom times for Reno's divorce trade had faded by the 1960s. During its heyday, however, accommodating and providing services to this class of transient visitors provided incentive to numerous Reno business enterprises. Both the Riverside Hotel and the El Cortez Hotel (both still standing) were built to house divorce seekers. Numerous small houses and cottages were built around the central part of Reno. This area is now known as Old Southwest Reno and is one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city. Rooming houses and apartments also provided shelter for folks taking the cure. The dude ranch experience popular today arguably evolved from the divorce ranches around Reno, which sprang up as yet another enterprise able to profit from the divorce trade.
Sources: One Nevada Encyclopedia, National Park Service.