Nevada History



The University of Nevada, Reno was founded in 1874 as the state’s first university in Elko, Nevada, about 300 miles northeast of its present-day campus in Reno. In 1885, the legislature moved the University from Elko to Reno.

Morrill Hall, named after U.S. Sen. Justin S. Morrill of Vermont, author of the 1862 Land-Grant College Act that led to the development of the University of Nevada and similar institutions, was a one-building university that housed the president’s and registrar’s offices, classrooms, a library, museum, and living quarters for the groundskeeper.

In 1891, 17 years after its founding, the University presented its first diplomas to a graduating class of three that included Frank Norcross, a future U.S. District Court Judge, Nevada Supreme Court Justice and member of the Nevada Legislature.

The family of John Mackay, an Irish immigrant who helped direct the extraction of more than $100 million in ore from two Virginia City mines in the mid-1870s, played a key role in helping the campus grow. A 7-foot, 8-inch statue of Mackay, created by Gutzon Borglum, who later carved Mount Rushmore, has stood on the north end of the Quad since 1908. The elm-lined Quad and the University’s original core campus, much of it funded by Mackay’s heirs, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and considered a U.S. cultural resource.

University officials made great strides in improving the campus’ standing as a small, 1,000-student public college in the sparsely populated West of the 1920s and 30s. By the 1940s, Hollywood movie producers, attracted by the University’s vine-covered, Ivy-League-like brick buildings and idyllic Manzanita Lake, were using the campus as a setting for popular films, including “Mr. Belvedere Goes to College,” with Shirley Temple; “Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble,” with Mickey Rooney; and “Mother Is a Freshman,” with Van Johnson.

By 1958, with 2,000 students attending classes, the institution was on the verge of dramatic change. New colleges of education and business were in their first years. The student body, which had not had a student center building for the first 70 years of the University’s tenure in Reno, finally had a headquarters with the opening of the Jot Travis Student Union.

This union was replaced in November 2007 by the Joe Crowley Student Union, one of the most transformational buildings ever built on campus. This 167,000-square-foot, environmentally-friendly facility signaled a shift in campus expansion, offering the campus and community a new centrally located “front door” to the University from Virginia Street. In 2008, one of the nation’s most technologically advanced libraries, the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, opened next to the Joe Crowley Student Union.

In the last 145 years, the University has risen to meet the challenges of one of the fastest-growing states in the nation, celebrating an all-time record student enrollment of 21,463 in the fall of 2018.