Tour Around Nevada: Sparks
March – April 2016
Jokes aside, northern Nevada town is a little slice of heaven.
BY MEGG MUELLER
Sparks Councilwoman Julia Ratti had a big birthday wish.
“I was traveling to New York City and I grabbed Nevada Magazine at the airport and saw the Tour Around Nevada story,” she recalls. “I posted on Facebook my birthday wish was for Sparks to win.”
Happy birthday, Julia! To say that the citizens of her town responded is an understatement. My inbox almost crashed from the number of emails I received voting for Sparks. While some mentioned Julia’s request, most came with information about why Sparks should be chosen; this was no mere gift for a friend or colleague…it was full-on community pride at work.
RIDING INTO HISTORY
In 1902, the Southern Pacific Railroad Company shortened and straightened its lines across the Forty Mile Desert, eliminating Wadsworth, the division point at that time. This move created the necessity for a new division point. Rather than ante up for the higher-priced real estate in Reno, the company settled for the swampy, flood-prone area just east of the city. After six months of spreading new ground, the average elevation of the site was raised by 18 inches, and from 1902-04, construction of the railway roundhouse and new railway facilities was underway.
The roundhouse and accompanying businesses served as the central employer and revenue generator for Sparks for 54 years, before the advent of the diesel locomotive led to the demise of steam locomotives.
In the 1950s, subdivisions began springing up in the grazing lands northeast of the city. With the railroad now playing a diminished role, Sparks began to transform into a residential community. In the 1970s, warehousing and manufacturing plants were constructed on the south end of the city, giving Sparks a network of new roads.
The city continued to develop and its first high-rise hotel and casino— John Ascuaga’s Nugget—was completed in 1984.
In 1997, Mother Nature delivered a surprise. Helms Pit—a gravel pit more than 100 feet deep in east Sparks that had been used to supply rock for road and construction projects—was at the mercy of torrential rain. The rain brought some of the highest recorded flooding in the area’s history, and subsequently filled the gravel pit. The unexpected Sparks Marina has given rise to residential development and recreation, including fishing, kayaking, SCUBA diving, and sailing.
THIS PLACE IS NO JOKE
A long time ago, there was a joke that stemmed from this historic railway town’s close proximity to its more indecorous neighbor. It was said “Reno is so close to hell, you can see Sparks!”
I remember thinking that play on words didn’t do either city justice. The flavor of Sparks is so distinct, and yet it complements Reno’s larger-city vibe so well, a symbiosis takes place that elevates the entire region.
“I love the character of the urban core; it’s my favorite part,” Julia says. She and her husband live in a house built in 1948 in downtown Sparks and protecting the older core neighborhoods is one of the things that prompted her to run for the city council.
“We can hop on our bikes and ride to the brewery, or all the wonderful special events happening in Victorian Square,” she says. “I love the pieces of Sparks that aren’t the polished suburban development.”
Victorian Square is the home of such events as the Nugget Rib Cook-Off, Hot August Nights, Sparks Hometowne Christmas, and the state’s largest farmers market each summer. As the city continues to recover from the economic downturn, Julia notes that development of the Victorian Square pedestrian-friendly area is continuing, with apartments being built and formerly shuttered businesses reopening with fresh offerings.
“The biggest misconception about Sparks is people hear ‘family friendly’ and think there’s not a lot of activity going on,” Julia says. “That’s definitely not the case here.”
The Sparks Museum and Cultural Center tells the story of the area’s history and people through exhibits and collections, but also an outdoor train exhibit with a steam locomotive, caboose, and a Pullman executive car.
The Legends Outlet Mall is seeing new retailers and restaurants join its ranks and it’s home to the area’s only IMAX theater. In east Sparks, the Golden Eagle Regional Park is hosting so many tournament sporting events year-round, it’s responsible for more visitors to the city than all the Victorian Square special events combined.
There are more than 50 parks in the city, with a location and design sure to please any need. Some highlights include Pah Rah Park—a 16.5-acre community park that hosts the city’s only all-abilities playground. Other amenities include more playgrounds, tennis and basketball courts, and many more ways to get outside and have some fun. Then there’s Rock Park along the Truckee River, which has a new whitewater park suitable for rafting, tubing, and kayaking; Burgess Park which has a skate park and tennis courts; and Shadow Mountain Park that is home to some serious softball tournaments due to the number of available fields.
The granddaddies of Sparks’ recreation offerings are certainly the marina and Golden Eagle Regional Park, however. In addition to the water sports at the marina, there’s a dog park, walking paths, playgrounds, and picnic areas, all with scenic views of the surrounding mountains. Golden Eagle is a massive park—it has the largest single installation of artificial turf in North America at 1.4 million square feet. If you’re looking for some wide-open place to play, this is your spot; there are softball, baseball, soccer, and football fields, plus volleyball courts, bocce ball, and a pro shop.
Bad jokes aside, Sparks’ proximity to northern Nevada’s myriad outdoor offerings, its rich culture and history, plus a delightful small-town feel, , leave the town in the perfect position to live in and visit. No matter who its neighbors may be.