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It’s true: Reno’s divorcees once hurled their rings into the Truckee River.
Photo: Charlie Johnston (all)
Did Reno’s divorcees really throw their wedding rings into the Truckee River? If so, has anyone ever found any? Or, was it just something dreamed up by a novelist in 1929? The answers are yes, yes, and, most likely, yes. It is a fact that hundreds of wedding rings were flung into the river, only to be discovered in the 1970s by three prospectors working a gold dredge under the Virginia Street Bridge.
But the debate still rages about how the so-called tradition got started. According to a Reno Gazette-Journal article by Nevada historian Guy Rocha, the acknowledged expert on the subject, it probably started about 80 years ago, when Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr. wrote Reno.
The 1929 novel, in which a woman flings her ring into the rushing waters to “cleanse her marital past,” is based on the author’s 1927 divorce. While Vanderbilt was waiting for his separation to become official (at that time the required stay was three months, which was shortened to six weeks in 1931), he may have gotten the idea from a pamphlet titled Reno! It Won’t Be Long Now: Ninety Days and Freedom!, which described the first-known account of “ring-flinging.”
While it is still unknown where the pamphlet writer got the idea, the custom soon became a part of Reno’s divorce lore, spawning movies, newspaper stories, and books about “The Divorce Capital of the World.”
Yet, for many years many Renoites still doubted that any rings had been thrown into the river. Believers in the ritual remained undeterred until 1950, when a Truckee River cleanup project by the Junior Chamber of Commerce turned up only one damaged wedding ring. Subsequently, the local press declared that the ring “myth” was just that, a myth.
Then, in the summer of 1976, three prospecting buddies with a dredge decided to look for coins—not rings—under the Virginia Street Bridge. Armed with a free permit from the Nevada Fish and Game Department, Walter Dulaney, Darrell Garmann, and Jerry Felesina donned scuba and snorkeling gear and probed under long-submerged boulders, vacuuming sand and gravel into a sluice box. On day one, they recovered 25 pounds of old coins from the frigid waters—and more than 40 rings. As word of their newly found treasures traveled, the effect on downtown Reno was electrifying. Crowds in the hundreds lined the railings, eager to see the men’s findings.
That summer they found about 90 rings, numerous coins and casino tokens, and even a strange pistol with a name engraved on the side. The gun once belonged to a notorious doctor from Carson City who performed many illegal abortions, for which he spent a few years in the Nevada State Prison.
Among the hundreds of pounds of silver coins was a Carson City dime dating to 1873, estimated to be worth about $800 at the time. Other artifacts included rusty oxen shoes and horseshoes, commemorative medals, gold crosses, brooches, and watches, gold-filled teeth, and iron keys and locks, some of which were put on display at Reno’s Washoe County Library.
Only one person publicly protested the project, and he was quite vociferous about it. Charlie Mapes, owner of the Mapes Hotel, which once stood adjacent to the Virginia Street Bridge, was dismayed to see hoards of his customers flocking to the bridge, leaving behind the slot machines and blackjack tables. Incensed, he regularly complained to the Reno Police Department, directing them to check the men’s permits on a continual basis. The dredgers got used to flashing their permits at the bemused officers.
Over the next three summers, more than 400 rings were retrieved. One gold ring was memorable: Set with a garnet, it bore a dreary inscription: “Love is Stronger Than Death, 1890.” Finding a diamond ring was the most exciting part of the project, Felesina says. It was also the most disappointing. For a few seconds, he was “sure he was a millionaire.” But, even though he carefully fished the ring out of the water, the facets holding the stone were worn so thin that the diamond floated off and was impossible to relocate in the swirling sand.
Unfortunately, the ring collection did not survive intact. In the 1980s, one of the prospector’s relatives stole the most valuable rings and sold them off to support a drug habit. They were never recovered. All that remains of the once valuable collection are lots of cheaply made “fake rings,” probably purchased at the nearby Woolworth’s Five and Dime Store and tossed over the railing in a nod to the tradition.
Hundreds—perhaps thousands—of rings were flung into the Truckee, but where the idea originated, and how long those rings had been underwater, still remains a mystery. Did the 1927 pamphlet writer—perhaps in the employ of a divorce lawyer—“invent” the custom as a marketing tool, cleverly designed to attract clients to Reno? Or did the practice begin long before that?
We do know that countless women (and a few men) honored the famous custom, descending the steps of the Washoe County Courthouse, divorce papers in hand, and directing their steps toward the venerable bridge. There they may have lingered briefly at the railing, gazing down into the frigid waters as they contemplated their future without a spouse. Finally, with a sorrowful sigh—or maybe a joyous shout—they cast down a symbolic ring, watching it disappear into the swift current. Now their marital past was “cleansed,” and they were free to start life anew.
They were “Reno-vated.”
Special thanks to Genevieve Lemue of Been There Bought That Clothing
151 N. Sierra St., Reno, 775-327-4131