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The Jewel of the University of Nevada, Reno

by Douglas Boedenauer

The Birth of the Lake

Manzanita Lake is one of the most iconic landmarks on the University of Nevada, Reno campus. For almost a century the lake has been the site of public recreation, campus tradition and a diverse collection of wildlife. Located at the southern end of campus, Manzanita Lake serves both as a historical landmark, and as one of northwest Reno's most prominent displays of man-made beauty. Much has happened during the lake's hundred-year history, and it continues to be enjoyed by the students of the University of Nevada, Reno and the Reno community.

According to the Nevada Sagebrush, Manzanita Lake was officially dedicated at noon on November 25, 1911. The ceremony attracted widespread attention, drawing the cadet marching band and a substantial portion of the students and faculty. The lake was created when the Orr irrigation ditch, an agricultural waterway that pre-dated the University of Nevada, was dammed. The remnants of the Orr ditch can still be seen at the southern tip of the University's campus. Before the lake was created, the area was known as Evans Pond, a small body of water that was built in 1878 as part of Evans ranch, an area which included all of northwest Reno before the University of Nevada Reno began to purchase the land in 1884.

The Orr Ditch before being converted into Manzanita Lake. 1911
Orr Ditch before Manzanita Lake was created 1911
Manzanita Lake and Lincoln Hall 1920
Manzanita Lake and Lincoln Hall 1920

The filling of the ditch and surrounding ravine were made possible because of the financial assistance of Clarence H. Mackay, the son of Nevada legend John Mackay. According to the Nevada Sagebrush, Mackay's gift to the university amounted to roughly $10,000. It allowed the president of the University of Nevada, Joseph Stubbs, to realize his dream of beautifying the school's campus. Prior to the creation of the lake, Clarence Mackay took President Stubbs to the University of Virginia. Upon returning, Stubbs declared that he endeavored to "make the University of Nevada as beautiful, as attractive, and as inspiring as the University of Virginia is today."

A Campus Tradition


Student Painting
A student painting by the shore of Manzanita Lake 2007
Mackay Day
Mackay Day at Manzanita Lake 1929

At Manzanita Lake's opening ceremony, Regents J. W. O'Brien and A. A. Codd expressed their wish that the lake be used for sporting activities, such as boating, ice skating, and especially swimming. While swimming is no longer allowed in Manzanita Lake, the students of the University of Nevada, Reno have taken every possible opportunity to enjoy its waters and the surrounding area. As soon as Manzanita Lake was officially opened to the public it became a coveted destination for outdoor recreation. The most popular activity that the lake offered was ice skating. Every year, when the lake froze, students and community members would put on their skates and head onto the ice.

Throughout its history Manzanita Lake has not only been a recreational hotspot, but has also played a large part in campus tradition. According to the Reno Evening Gazette, less than a year after Manzanita Lake was unveiled, the sophomore class woke the new freshmen, brought them to the lake, and proceeded to throw them into it. This stunt served as the catalyst for countless similar pranks and hazing rituals, such as the dunking of students who failed to observe the dress code during Mackay Day. Mackay Day had been established as a campus tradition to honor University's benefactor John Mackay. Through the years, Mackay Day has staged a variety of events at Manzanita lake, including races around it and swimming competitions.

While Manzanita Lake has been a popular location for student traditions, some incidents that have occurred at the lake have not been so lighthearted. In 2002, a tragedy took place when a freshman pledge of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity drowned in the lake during an initiation activity.


Student Relaxing Near Manzanita Lake 1980
A student relaxing near Manzanita Lake 1980


For decades Manzanita Lake has been recognized as a great place for recreation and relaxation, but more recently it has perhaps become best known for its wildlife population. Ever since its creation, Manzanita Lake has been home for a variety of birds, including ducks, geese and swans. The regal swans at Manzanita Lake have always been popular attractions, serving as iconic figureheads for the lake. Generally, at least two swans are always in residence at Manzanita Lake.


Natasha, a swan born at Manzanita Lake 2005
Natasha, a swan born at Manzanita Lake 2005
Manzanita Lake several years before clean-up 1960
Manzanita Lake several years before clean-up 1960
Manzanita Lake 2005
Manzanita Lake 2005

While the swans enjoy a high degree of celebrity, they have also been victims of several tragic and occasionally bizarre misfortunes. On May 8, 1977, two of Manzanita Lake's swans were brutally murdered by an unknown person in a senseless act of animal cruelty. Several months later, Lena, one of two black swan replacements, was killed by a roaming dog. However, these horrible incidences are counterbalanced by new life at Manzanita Lake. In 2010, for example, four cygnets were born to the campus' current pair of swans, Zeus and Olivia.

Students Get Involved

Manzanita Lake has serves as a readily available research site for students at the University of Nevada, Reno. Throughout its history, Manzanita Lake has given students from the various science departments a convenient opportunity to study its thriving ecosystem. In 1977, students from the University's Department of Veterinary Science were given the opportunity to investigate a disease that seemed to be harming the lake's wildlife. In 1961, student members of the UNR chapter of the Blue Key Honor Society embarked on a project known as "Project Mud." Their goal was to clean the lake and restore it to its "once scenic state" (Nevada State Journal 8). The group completed its goal in 1964, when the Blue Key organization drained Manzanita Lake, cleared it of debris, and installed a filtration pipe at the lake's bottom. A similar effort took place in 1970, when civil engineering students designed a filtration system that would allow Manzanita Lake to purge its own pollutants.

In November 2011, Manzanita Lake will reach its centennial anniversary. During its existence, the lake has achieved much more than helping beautify the campus. It has become an integral part of the University's history and provided students, faculty, and campus visitors with countless memories. Besides contributing greatly to campus life and activities, the lake continues to provide refuge for wildlife in an urban setting. The lake and its surrounding landscaping grant tranquility to everyone on campus who take the time to contemplate it amid the fast-paced concerns of the University in the twenty-first century.