Mary Ringhoff, Edward J. Stoner. The River and the Railroad: An Archaeological History of Reno. Shepperson Series in Nevada History. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2011. 248 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-87417-843-2.
Reviewed by Mark Walker (Sonoma State University)
Published on H-Urban (September, 2012)
Commissioned by Robert C. Chidester
Most archaeological research in the United States today is conducted under the ungainly rubric of “Cultural Resource Management” (CRM), as part of legally mandated historical studies, within an often complex framework of federal, state, and local laws and regulations, and in places that are often far from exotic. As CRM archaeology is driven by development and regulations rather than research preferences, important archaeological research takes place on sites and in areas that in all likelihood would escape academic notice, including urban areas, and often on a scale that is not possible within the strictures of conventional grants and research funding. On the down side, much of this work is buried in technical reports that satisfy regulatory requirements, but little else. Publication even in professional journals is rare, and publication for the general public, for whose benefit this work is theoretically conducted, rarer still. The River and the Railroad is an important exception--an accessible and readable account of an urban CRM project.
Mary Ringhoff and Edward J. Stoner present findings from an extensive archaeological project in Reno, Nevada. The work was conducted as part of the construction of the Reno Transportation Rail Access Corridor (ReTRAC). ReTRAC is one of the largest public works projects undertaken in Reno, and entailed the excavation of a fifty-four-foot-wide trench across two miles of the city in order to lower the Southern Pacific Railroad below street level, mitigating some of the effects of having a railroad bisect the city. The work took place from 2001 to 2005. The archaeological subcontractors, Western Cultural Resource Management, recorded eighty-three archaeological sites and a previously unrecorded basement room in a standing historic building. Two sites were prehistoric and eighty-one were historical. As most of the sites were disturbed by modern construction, only eight of the sites were excavated. Only one site, the prehistoric Daylight Site, possessed stratified features and artifact deposits. The remaining sites were largely architectural and structural remains. The only historical artifact deposits were a pit full of bottles from a local bottling works, the Franks Bros. Bottling Works, and an unassociated dump of material along the railroad tracks, the only residential deposit identified during the project.
The first chapter, “A Brief History of Reno,” is a general overview of Reno’s prehistory and history. The following chapters are roughly chronological and organized based on the archaeological features excavated in the project. Chapter 2, “Occupants of the Daylight Site,” discusses an intact prehistoric site discovered beneath the railroad fill, which was the only stratified site identified during the project. In addition to the findings from the site itself, this chapter provides a clear presentation of archaeological practice, covering such basic topics as stratigraphy, radiocarbon dating, and artifact analysis, and more complex topics, including the study of gender and the modern coordination between archaeologists and Native American groups.
The following chapters discuss the historical development of the city, and are thematically organized based on the archaeological findings. Each chapter begins with a general overview of the topic, with more specific subchapters that integrate the relevant archaeological features with broader historical issues. Chapter 3, “Reno and the Railroad,” deals with the interrelated development of the railroad and the city. It is divided into three subchapters--“Railroad Buildings,” with the archaeological hook being remnants of the railroad depot, the Depot Hotel, and the Wells Fargo office; “Railroad Crossings,” which discusses the problems of having a railroad bisect the town, with the archaeological component being the remnants of signals and a pedestrian walkway; and “Commerce and the Railroad,” a discussion of the commercial growth of the railroad district, and illustrated by the discovery of a sidewalk basement (a storage room directly beneath a sidewalk).
Chapter 4, “City Infrastructure and Everyday Life,” covers the development of municipal infrastructure within the city, and the struggles that this development often entailed. As with the previous chapter, the authors take some rather unprepossessing archaeological features, such as fire cisterns, water pipes, and a valve box, and draw out their significance by setting them in the context of serious municipal issues. Chapter 5, “The Story in Broken Bottles,” focuses on a single industrial concern, the Frank Bros. Bottling Works, represented by a pit filled with bottles from this enterprise.
In chapter 6, “African American-Owned Businesses in the Lake-Evans Block,” the authors examine African American businesses in the project area, working from the discovery of architectural remnants of two black-owned clubs, the Harlem Club and the Dixie Club. This chapter provides a good discussion of the impact of racial ideologies and segregation in the development of Reno, particularly the development of a self-supporting African American community. The historic-era archaeological remains consist primarily of architectural and structural features. From a strictly scholarly perspective, these are admittedly not the sorts of remains where historical archaeology is at its strongest, but the authors have done an outstanding job of placing these features in broader contexts. One should also note that the value of some archaeological features extends beyond their scholarly interest. Archaeologically speaking, we learn little new, for example, from the excavations of the remains of the Harlem and Dixie clubs, but as a tangible connection to the racial history of Reno the remains have a value that extends beyond their information potential.
The River and the Railroad makes several contributions. It is a valuable source for the history of Reno and as a case study in the development of western urbanism, but one should bear in mind that the historical research was driven by the archaeological findings, so is not a comprehensive history of the city. The book’s most important contribution lies in the authors’ effort to realize the potential of the archaeological work on the ReTRAC project by making it available to a general audience. It is a model presentation of urban archaeological work for a nonspecialist audience, and one hopes more archaeologists will follow their example.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-urban.
Mark Walker. Review of Ringhoff, Mary; Stoner, Edward J., The River and the Railroad: An Archaeological History of Reno.
H-Urban, H-Net Reviews.
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