University history

A History of the University of Nevada, Reno

In 1864, the Constitution of the State of Nevada calls for the creation of a “State University” with instruction in Agriculture, Mechanic Arts and Mining. Ten years later, the University of Nevada, Reno was founded.

Since its inception in 1874 as the state of Nevada’s first university, the University of Nevada, Reno has delivered on the promise of providing the citizens of Nevada with a better future. As the state’s land-grant university, and ranked among the nation’s top research universities by the Carnegie Foundation, the University is known as a high-impact institution. Students and faculty are solving the pressing issues our time and providing new paths for the state’s next generation of leaders.

Over the past decade, the University has grown at a dynamic and record-setting rate, including student enrollment, number of National Merit scholars, student diversity, faculty achievement and productivity as well as infrastructure. The record growth of the modern University of Nevada, Reno, is in direct contrast to the first few decades of the University’s existence.

Campus scene, southwest view, 1900
This 1900 view of the University of Nevada campus from the northwest shows the historic Gymnasium, the Mechanical Arts Building, Morrill Hall, Lincoln Hall, the Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station Building, and Hatch Hall.
Credit: Special Collections & University Archives - University Libraries

When the University was founded in 1874, fresh from the enabling language of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, which created an endowment fund specifically for colleges and laid the groundwork for the modern American public university, it was in many ways fighting an uphill battle for relevance.

Nevada was sparsely populated, with only a handful of high schools – by 1886 there numbered only seven. The University’s first iteration in Elko, which welcomed the institution’s first student body of seven students in October 1874, was more of a preparatory school than a true university. The fledgling university’s prospects for survival improved in 1885-86, when the Board of Regents transferred the University from Elko to Reno. The campus, now nestled on a hopeful bluff above the Truckee Meadows, opened its first building, Morrill Hall, in spring 1886 and welcomed 35 students. By 1900 the campus had grown to 11 buildings, two student dormitories and a gymnasium. In 1936, University enrollment surpassed the 1,000-student mark.

Sepia image of Morrill Hall building with sagebrush in front of the building and a small shed behind the building

Morrill Hall, ca. 1886
Morrill Hall, constructed in 1885, was the first building on campus and was originally known as the Main Building. It still stands today at the southern part of the Old Quad. (Image credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

The Mining Hall is photographed here after its extension was added (sepia photograph). The Mining Hall was built in 1889 as the second permanent structure on campus.

Mining Hall, ca. 1909
The Mining Hall was built in 1889 as the second permanent structure on campus. Later became the Physics Building until it was demolished to construct the Mackay Science Building. (Image Credit: (University Libraries Digital Collection)

People and horse buggies surround Morrill Hall during an event. Morrill Hall, originally known as the Main Building, was the first building constructed at the university in 1885 and still stands today at the southern part of the Old Quad.

Morrill Hall during an event, ca. 1898
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

View of the entrance to the University in 1903 with Morrill Hall in the distance, a dirt road in the foreground and trees dotting the landscape

University Entrance Gates, ca. 1903
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

View of snow on campus with a man shoveling a path to the President's house on the right and the tree-lined quad on the left

Quad & the President's House, ca. 1911
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

Students walk outside of the University hospital building in 1907, which was torn down in 1960 for Getchell Library

Hospital building (torn down 1960 for library), ca. 1907
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

View of the Quad lined with small trees and views of the Mackay School of Mines and Physics building in the distance

Quad, Mackay School of Mines & Gymnasium, ca. 1911
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

A bi-plane sits on the Quad with the Electrical Engineering Building and Mechanical Arts buildings in the background

Bi-plane sits on the quad, ca. 1929
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

Beginning in the 1960s, the stage was set for the most sustained period of growth for the University, which has continued to this day. The University achieved national prominence in many areas over the next several decades. Drs. Robert Gorrell and Charlton Laird’s “Modern English Handbook” became the standard textbook for colleges and universities throughout the nation for more than three decades. Walter Van Tilburg Clark, author of “The Ox-Bow Incident” – along with University graduate Robert Laxalt considered the state’s finest novelist – was the University’s Writer-in-Residence for a decade. Department of Psychology researchers Allen and Beatrix Gardner conducted internationally acclaimed communication research with chimpanzees.

The Mackay Science Building is viewed from the southwest corner of the tree-lined quad.

Mackay Science Building, ca. 1935
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

Manzanita Lake reflects Lincoln Hall, Frandsen Humanities and the Tram.

Manzanita Lake, ca. 1940
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

1957 image of cars parked near the entrance to the Sarah Hamilton Fleischmann School of Home Economics Building

Sarah H. Fleischmann Building, ca. 1957
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

The historic Mackay Stadium is photographed from the east. The grandstands and southeast end-zone are shown.

Mackay Stadium, ca. 1960
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

The Quad and the Mackay School of Mines Building are photographed with the statue of John Mackay in front of Mackay School of Mines.

Quad & Mackay School of Mines, ca. 1960
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

This front view of the Getchell Library shows the Thompson Building to the left of the photograph. The Noble H. Getchell Library was completed in 1961 and opened in early 1962

Noble H. Getchell Library, ca. 1965 
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

In 2017, the University unveiled the 108,000-square-foot E. L. Wiegand Fitness Center as well as the successful renovations of historic Lincoln Hall and Thompson Hall. By fall 2018, the University reached nearly 22,000 students, with a record of nearly 5,000 students graduating during the 2018-2019 academic year. The University also reached high-water marks in National Merit and Presidential Scholars, while faculty productivity, campus diversity and retention all remained at record levels. In 2018, the campus’ newest student residential community, Great Basin Hall, opened.

View of the front of the Knowledge Center with pathways dividing grass areas and students walking across campus.

Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, ca. 2010
(Image Credit: Office of Marketing & Communications)

View of the Joe Crowley Student Union with grass in front and walking paths with a few students crossing campus

Joe Crowley Student Union, ca. 2009
(Image Credit: Office of Marketing & Communications)

View of the front of the E.L. Wiegand Fitness Center surrounded by trees, walking paths and a University road

E.L. Wiegand Fitness Center, ca. 2017
(Image Credit: Office of Marketing & Communications)

Not surprisingly, in 2019, the University learned that it achieved one of the most prestigious honors an institution of higher learning can ever receive: It was chosen as one of just 130 universities by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education as an “R1” institution – “very high research activity” – which is reserved for doctoral-granting universities with exceptional levels of research activity.