The Genesis of Reno: The History of the
Riverside Hotel and the Virginia Street Bridge
(From Chapter 4: Bridging Two Centuries)
Shortly after midnight on Friday, September 18, 1891 the Virginia Street Bridge was the scene of one of the most lawless and grisly events in Reno history. The town had been in a festive mood that day; the eighth annual State Fair was due to open the following Monday, and the whole town was awash with an air of excitement.
A man known in Reno as Louis Ortiz (real name, Louis Bravo), twenty-seven years old, had just arrived back in town that day after a judge had banished him a month earlier for assault and battery on a fellow citizen. Upon his return Ortiz had immediately headed for the bar at the O’Keefe brothers’ Grand Central Hotel on Plaza at Virginia streets where he spent the evening sharing libations with other barroom habitués. The Grand Central Hotel was certainly not a genteel place; in fact, the O’Keefe brothers themselves were said to have taken a few pot shots at one another on more than one occasion, and it was often said that there was always a fight by 4 p.m. at the Grand Central. Dan O’Keefe began to close the bar at midnight and he asked all the customers to leave. A few stragglers, including a very intoxicated Ortiz, headed to the front porch to finish their beverages. But as soon as he reached the porch, and without warning, Ortiz pulled out a revolver and fired a shot that struck one of the other men in the buttocks. When he was challenged, according to the local newspaper, which allowed no profanity in the day, Ortiz yelled, “I want to kill some s__ of [a] b____,” and he fired again. The second bullet went through the coattails of a nearby fellow and then struck sheriff’s officer Richard Nash, who was hurrying to the scene to quell the problem, in the groin area. Despite his injury, Nash and a few of the other men finally subdued Ortiz and dragged him to the jail.
Nash was a very popular peace officer in Reno, and he was certainly worth every penny of the $13 a month salary he was paid. He had come to town in the 1870s and had been connected with the police force ever since; he had even run unsuccessfully for sheriff five or six years earlier. “There are no better officers than Dick Nash,” the newspaper wrote. “He is strictly temperate in all his habits and in every respect a model man. . . . [He] is fearless as a lion . . . but last night the drunken brute he was trying to arrest came near getting him.” Ortiz, meanwhile, talked to the same reporter the next morning at the jail and said, “I don’t know what I did . . . I was drunk yesterday all day and I don’t know nothing. . . . I don’t know why I was arrested.”
That night, according to the newspaper, “Prominent citizens were missed from their usual haunts and the town was quiet as a grave . . . [A]t 11:45 a hundred or more men were seen coming down First Street.” It was a vigilante mob. The men were all masked, and they ordered people off the street as they passed by, most folks hurriedly scuttling out of the way. Across the iron bridge they marched, and headed for the courthouse where the jail was located. When the group arrived, a number of the men held the deputy at bay with revolvers, took the cell keys from his pocket, pulled Ortiz out of the cell and led him back to the iron bridge. Ortiz, sensing his fate, asked for a glass of water and a priest. He was given the water, along with a flask of whiskey that he gulped down quickly, but there was no priest offered. The mob put a rope around Ortiz’s neck and began to throw it over one of the bridge’s outside arches, but some in the group pointed out that if the rope broke the victim would fall in the river. So the rope was pulled down and thrown over the crown of the arch in the middle of the bridge. “[A]t the command of ‘Haul away’ he was soon suspended between heaven and earth,” the newspaper reported. As quickly as they had come, the vigilantes quietly dispersed and returned to their homes, leaving Ortiz dangling high overhead in the middle of the Virginia Street Bridge. The headline in one of the newspapers reflected the feeling of many in the town:
The County and Town Well
Rid of a Worthless Vagabond.
The Man Who Was So Handy With His
Gun Departs This Life at the
End of a Rope.
A coroner’s inquest was held the following day, and quickly found, “That the deceased came to his death at the hands of parties to the jury unknown.” And that was the end of it. No one was ever brought to justice for the lynching. Officer Nash’s wound was serious, but not fatal. A month later the town commissioners granted him a bonus of $150 for his exemplary service in the capture of Louis Ortiz. More than a half-century later a Reno old-timer, Mrs. John T. Read, reminisced about this example of frontier justice: “I did not see him up there,” she recalled, referring to the hanged man; “but only because I was too young . . . On the way to school the following day, though, all of us went past the bridge to stare at the scene.”