Submitted by Jody Rice
This post has been updated to correct the Washoe Market photo caption. The correct location is North Virginia Street, not Tahoe Street.
Karl’s slacking again, so today in This is Reno join me, Jody Rice, to hear a 1958 tale that highlights small-town Reno’s knack for inserting itself into the national news and some of its now forgotten picturesque islands.
“Hobo Jungle Yields Lost ‘Rich’ Inventor,” reads the Oct. 6, 1958 headline in the Salt Lake Tribune.
Similar headlines ran across the country the day after Elmer C. Meukel, 41, was found living on the Truckee River’s Scott Island, a den of iniquity in east Reno.
The days and weeks before, a massive search was on for the electronics whiz because an engineering firm wanted to develop his invention aimed to stop airplane crashes midair.
The last Meukel heard, his invention was a failure, so with bills mounting, he deserted his wife and three children in Los Angeles to try and find work elsewhere.
Three months later, the quirky Meukel regaled newspaper followers with tales of his life as a hobo, hitchhiking and freight-hopping from transient communities only to end here, to heal a sprained ankle and serve as the lieutenant governor of the scenic 12-acre, so-called hobo jungle.
At the time the quaint island, he explained, was split in parts by those inhabitants who drank and those who did not. Among his group, Meukle’s assigned chore was to scavenge for baked goods left in the trash behind Reno stores. His spoke fondly of his six-week stay on the south side of the island capped off with a weight gain of nearly 40 pounds, according to various newspaper accounts.
“We’d end up with wonderful stews, better than I’ve ever had at home,” said Meukel in a Oct. 6, 1958 RGJ article. “For a while we even had pancakes for breakfast every morning after I found a broken sack of flour which had been thrown away. We made syrup by boiling ripe cantaloupe in a tomato can.”
Meukel’s fifteen minutes of fame quickly faded once he returned to Los Angeles. Soon after, the engineering firm announced it was no longer interested in Meukel’s invention and another firm filed court documents claiming his invention infringed on their patents. Little else is known about Meukel’s life or family after he left Reno.
“He (Meukel) told the Times he had several other offers, but the paper never reported anything about them,” according to a Oct. 5, 2008 Los Angeles Times article. “Elmer C. Meukel left the world with one final mystery.”
That conundrum being the Social Security Death Index listing of two men by that name, both born July 2, 1917 and both died in 1998, one on July 2, the other on Nov. 15, according to the LA Times article.
Like the eccentric randomly-found living there, the shrub- and tree-covered land mass was always an enigma and point of contention. Ownership rights and disagreements did not end until the 1970s, when the south channel of the river was filled in and the land disappeared under the river or became part of the south bank of the John Champion Park.
“Opium dens, flimsy shacks, and the city dump flourish on this land,” writes Patty Cafferata in a Oct. 25, 2008 RGJ article. “The area was referred to as the jungles, where bootleggers, squatters and murderers lived.”
Since Reno’s beginnings, there were legal battles over who owned the land, where once sat a concrete plant, the city dump, a Reno boat club, alfalfa fields, bootleggers, housing development plans and a radio station. And by the remote nature of where it was located, it was prone to uncontrolled fires and flooding.
While Scott Island was large and home to a great deal of activity, there was a smaller, lesser known island in the Truckee, located in downtown Reno.
This unnamed island, located between the Virginia and Center street bridges was narrow strip of land, built by the – Civilian Conservation Corps – during the Depression in the 1930s, according to a June 20, 1990 RGJ article.
“It was supposed to be a beauty spot of sorts and helped create jobs for the unemployed,” said Reno resident Frances Bennett Brislin, to the RGJ in 1990. “Several Christmas seasons it was decorated with lights, as was the Virginia Street Bridge, but it was hard to keep up because each time there was a spring runoff the water would wash away part of the island and it had to be built up again.”
Long- revered city and county gardening icon J.H. Reeve was in charge of the island, that was never officially named before it was demolished in 1951 by the Army Corps of Engineers.
In 1936, a WPA crew under Reeve’s direction transplanted 60 evergreens from Reno’s hills to the island, which was eventually equipped with a fountain and sprinkler system. Donations of shrubs and plants were used on the island. Its only access came by way of ladders off the nearby bridges.
This island too had its critiques. While some proffered names like “Inspiration Island” or “Guild Island,” to be named after Judge Clark Guild Sr., others saw it as a detriment to the natural flow of the Truckee River and a flood issue. This proved to be the island’s downfall.
“They also got rid of a great attraction on the other side of the Virginia Street Bridge,” said Brislin to the RGJ in 1990. “There was a small dam, 3 or 4 feet high, about 70 feet upriver. It was topped by glass-covered lights, which glowed through the water flowing over it.”
The Virginia Street Bridge itself was decorated with lights to match the island and dam, but all would be removed in the name of flood control, said the RGJ article.
Reno always seems braced for its next headline-grabbing thriller or its perpetual economic reinventions. The one constant being the flow of the Truckee River through our town, borne out of people’s need to cross it originally by way of the Virginia Street Bridge. Since the mid-1990s, this area along the river has undergone a steady revitalization into the city’s official Riverwalk. While islands along the river have come and gone, the rich and unique stories that happen in “the Biggest Little City” live on and often grab the nation’s interest. Big things have always happened here in little Reno.
So there you have it, another Reno anecdote often lost with time. Next time, I’ll share an account of a couple of Italian brothers who saved the family farm here by becoming bootleggers. In the meantime, stay healthy, happy and safe out there, huh?
From Karl: Jody Rice is a Reno lass who grew up with my sons, learned to write good at Swope Middle School, then Reno High and the University of Nevada Journalism College. She’s been writing around our hamlet for years and I’m pleased to have her join me for an occasional foray into local history!
Karl Breckenridge was slowly going nuts. So he decided to help out This is Reno by writing a daily out-of-his-mind column for the duration of the coronavirus shutdown. Now that it’s over he’s back to his usual antics, drinking coffee with the boys at the Bear and, well, we’re not sure what else. But he loved sharing his daily musings with you, so he’s back, albeit a little less often, to keep on sharing. Karl grew up in the valley and has stories from the area going back to 1945. He’s been writing for 32 years locally.
Read more from Karl Breckenridge
Karl’s pal Jody shares the rich history of bootlegging, decorating, and engineering within the confines of the Truckee River’s banks and its picturesque islands.