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The history of the Donner Trail Ranch at Verdi, 10 miles west of Reno, at the junction of the Truckee River, Dog Creek and the historic Donner Trail Road, is intimately bound with the history of Western Nevada, as well as that of the gold camps of California and the earliest wagon trains and stage coach routes across the High Sierra.
The background history of the Donner Trail Ranch reaches far back to the first wagon train migrations across the High Sierra. On a route first marked out by the Washo and Paiute Indian parties, the old “mountain man” Caleb Greenwood in 1844, the Steven’ party in 1845 and the tragically-fated Reed-Donner party in 1846, the Emigrant Trail or the Donner Trail really began on the banks of Dog Creek and the Truckee River with a simple log structure built in 1849 that was used as a tavern and stage stop called Bull and Pepper’s Station. That structure burned down and it was on the evening of March 5, 1864 that the main Ranch House was formally opened as Merrill’s Inn, a stage coach and toll road stop on what had become the Henness Pass and the Dutch Flat Toll Roads from Reno to the gold camps of California. The route up Dog Valley Summit and thence southwest to Donner Lake carried much of the freight wagons between Virginia City and Reno on the Nevada side and the booming towns of Dutch Flat, Auburn and Sacramento on the California side. Completion of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1867 through the Truckee River Canyon at Verdi took much of the freight traffic off of the toll roads, but with the coming of automobile traffic in the early 1900’s and the designation of the Donner Trail Road as the Lincoln Highway, once again this route became a major transcontinental link for the growing West. As the Victory Highway, the road up what is now Old Dog Valley Road from the Donner Trail Ranch became the main auto and truck route between California and Reno until finally in 1927, U. S. Highway 40 was completed through the Truckee River Canyon.
The Donner Trail Ranch of 2800 acres was the result of gradual assembly and acquisition by many owners over the past 100 + years. It included the original Merrill, Fox, Hill and Holstrom ranches in whole or in part, as well as parts of the old Verdi Lumber Company holdings. Names well know in Verdi and in Western Nevada has been associated with the ranch over the years—the Waltz Brothers, the Kanes, Rankins, Canepas and Mosconis.
In 1945 the ranch came under the ownership of John “Jack” Fugitt. He moved the ranch building back from the Truckee River banks, remodeled and expanded it and developed it into an exclusive guest ranch. Fugitt sold the ranch in 1956 to a group of promoters who renamed it the Truckee River Country Club. In 1959, Harry and Joan Drackert leased the property from Baxton Realty Company of Los Angeles and New York and renamed it the Donner Trail Guest Ranch. The Drackerts offered their guests, many of whom were “six weekers”, a gracious introduction to “The West.” “Six weekers” was a term given to those that were looking for a quick divorce as it took six weeks to become a resident of Nevada. The ranch offered opportunities for horseback riding, hiking, hunting, excursions to Lake Tahoe and Reno or simply quiet rest as the guests preferred.
The Drackerts and their dude ranch operations were the subject of articles in national publications, both newspapers and magazines such as the New Yorker. These articles often mentioned the famous guests of the ranch. Among the rich and famous who stayed at Donner Trail were Saul Bellow, Evelyn Funt (Mrs. Allen Funt), Mary Rockefeller (Mrs. Nelson Rockefeller), Katherine Place (later, Mrs. Jackie Jensen), Margaret and Andreas Papandreou, Ernest Du Pont, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. Alvino Rey and family (the King Family singers), and Johnny “Tarzan” Weissmuller. It was not unusual for a wedding to take place immediately following the divorce of one or both of the newlyweds. While the ranch was well known for it’s guests waiting for a divorce, there were many guests that visited for just pleasure.
The Drackert’s lease was abruptly terminated in 1970 when the owners decided to subdivide the property. The main ranch house became the Donner Trail Dinner House in 1979, owned by Filiberto and Karen Ferroni. The restaurant was operated for seven years before closing in January, 1986.
The property was sold to Eldorado Hotel Association and is currently owned by Pioneer Inn Associates Ltd Partnership. In 1991 the guest buildings were demolished and the main ranch house was demolished in 1994. Today, the only structures are a pump house and cold storage at the location. An historical marker on the property points out that the ranch site was the last natural crossing of the river before the Henness Pass Road began its climb over the Sierra in 1866.
The Verdi Inn was built in 1926 by Alibrando Panelli. Ali designed and worked beside the builders. It was a 22 room hotel with a restaurant and bar. Ali was the chef and his wife, Stella, was the bartender. It was the centerpiece of the town for many years and also served as a bus stop for both the school bus and the Greyhound.
The bar was built by the Brunswick Billiard Table Co. in New Jersey of Philippine Mahogany. The back bar was made of rosewood from the Black Forest in Germany. The bar was shipped to San Francisco where it was damaged in the San Francisco fire. It was then shipped to Reno by wagon train. The bar was used at the Grotto Bar in Reno on 3rd and Sierra Street where it was again damaged in a fire. As a result of that fire, 8 feet was taken out of the middle and that is what Ali installed in the Verdi Inn.
Ali and Stella rented the east end of the building to Emmett and Louise Leonard in the 1940’s. The Leonard’s opened a lunch stand with several booths and served soup and sandwiches.
The Inn was sold to Ed and Gert Engel in 1961. At first, they operated only a bar. They got into the restaurant business accidentally. On Saturday nights, when a band would play, the Engels started giving their patrons free spaghetti at midnight using a family sauce. It went over so well they started selling spaghetti dinners one day a week. As business picked up, they gradually added such delicacies as breaded frog legs, charbroiled steaks, lobster tail and scampi.
On September 15, 1985, the Verdi Inn was damaged by fire. The outside of the building was intact, but there was smoke and fire damage throughout. The historic bar was charred.
In 1986, the Engels sold the building to Vincent and Michael DeDomenico, brothers from San Francisco. The building was remodeled in a style called “Gothic Western” by Michael. It was supposed to open as a bar and restaurant with banquet facilities. Construction was never completed and the building remains vacant and deteriorating.
The quaint community of Verdi has quieted down since its days as a bustling mill town.
Written by Matthew B. Brown - Nevada Magazine - January/February 2009
When Walt Walker was growing up in Verdi in the 1930s, the only warning the town had that a fire had broken out was the sound of a rifle shot piercing the air. For anyone familiar with the town’s history, they’d guess a lot of ammo had been spent through the years. “The old town was destroyed by fire every time you turned around,” says Bruno L. Coli, a resident of Verdi for all of his 80 years.
In October 1944, fire destroyed a church, hotel, and saloon. In response, Walker and two friends established a volunteer fire department in 1948. “We put a fire engine together and had a little garage in the middle of town,” says Walker, who was born in Verdi in 1930 and has lived there ever since.
It’s that sense of community that longtime Verdi residents hold dear and has kept them here for most or all of their lives. “I have four kids, and they all live here. One of them is already retired here,” Mary Powning says with a laugh. Powning has lived in Verdi for nearly 80 years. What does she enjoy about the town? “Everything. The beautiful scenery and the people. I’ve been here a long time, and I intend to stay.”
Verdi is the first Nevada town you pass if you’re traveling east on Interstate 80 into Reno. What was once the main highway, now Old Highway 40, makes up Verdi’s main street. On one end, there’s Gold Ranch Casino, a popular place to fill up for those making the drive west into California, and on the other, Backstop Bar & Grill, a locals’ hangout. In between you have the Truckee River and a fascinating history revolving around the railroad and lumber trade.
Named for Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, the town was established in 1868 following a short stint as O’Neil’s Crossing. Officials of the Central Pacific Railroad, which was constructed from 1867-69, were responsible for the name change. The town “became a major mill town and terminal for the shipment of ties and construction timbers, with a network of logging railways reaching into the timber north and west,” as stated on Verdi’s historical marker accessible off Old Highway 40 (also State Route 425 and Third Street). The Crystal Peak Company, established in 1864, prospered in mining and lumbering.
The area is also known for the “Verdi Train Robbery” (the site of the heist is actually closer to present-day Reno), more commonly known as the Great Train Robbery, of 1870. Ringleader A.J. “Jack” Davis and four others held up Central Pacific No. 1 and looted an express car carrying close to $50,000 worth of gold pieces and silver bars.
For all of its success as a lumber town in the 19th and 20th centuries—some residents contend that the population of Verdi was more than Reno at one time—Verdi couldn’t seem to escape its arch enemy: fire. According to a timeline provided by the Verdi History Preservation Society, there have been more than 20 major fires in the town’s nearly 150-year history. It was the fire of 1926, however, that devastated the community most and changed its course from an active stop on the railroad to the sleepy town it is today.
Despite its quaint disposition, Verdi has plenty to offer the casual tourist. For starters, the Verdi History Center, which contains interesting photos and other memorabilia, opened in the fall. Crystal Peak Park has a scenic walking trail that follows the Truckee River. Later this year, a community fishing pond will open at the park and host such family events as kids fishing tournaments. You can cross the historic Crystal Peak Toll Bridge, built in 1928, on Bridge Street, also home to the Verdi Library, which has a wealth of information on the town’s history. Residents and visitors can play the nine-hole Crystal Peak Golf Course, and Boomtown Hotel Casino and Cabela’s outdoor superstore are also in close proximity.
If you make the short drive down Third Street, don’t be deceived by the town’s small appearance. There are a good number of homes in the area. “I used to look out to sagebrush, and now I see houses,” Powning says. But you still get a sense of serenity that doesn’t quite exist over the hill in Reno. “It’s quiet out here, you’ve got the hills around you, entertainment close by, and a good [elementary] school,” Coli says. “Overall, it’s an enjoyable experience.”
A fiery past
The Verdi History Preservation Society, Inc. consists of local residents concerned with the preservation of the history of Verdi and the surrounding area. In 2002, with the support of the Verdi Community Library, we started collecting
photographs and artifacts that pertain to Verdi. We now have 85 scrapbooks that contain photos and histories of some of the families of early Verdi and we are working to collect more information.
We have opened the Verdi History Center at 740 Second Street in Verdi, NV and have several displays with artifacts and photographs. The Center is open to the public on the second and fourth Saturday of each month from 1:00 to 3:00 PM Appointments can also be made by contacting us at 1-775-345-0173 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are interested in Verdi's history or have information or photos to share, we can make copies and return the original to you. Items donated to the History Center will be preserved.
As we gather more information, we will be expanding our website, so please check back with us from time to time.