A good deal of evidence indicates that the Galaxy memorial grove of trees at Rancho San Rafael was never completed.
The grove, planned as a memorial for the victims of a 1985 Galaxy Airlines plane crash in south Reno, has been in the news recently because a plaque at the site was stolen.
Paradoxically, while many locals have offered to help replace the plaque, the grove itself appears never to have been completed because of weak community support.
A Jan. 17 Washoe County news release reads, “Seventy-one trees were planted for the 70 travelers who died and for the one survivor, George Lamson Jr., who was 17 at the time.” However, that release appears to have extrapolated from the original planned scope of the grove and an assumption that the project came to fruition. Every indication is that it remains unfinished at about 40 trees.
Opening day of the 1985 Nevada Legislature received far less attention than such occasions usually command. Nearly all news crews in the region were pulled to Reno by the Jan. 21, 1985, crash of Galaxy flight 203, a troubled Lockheed L-188 Electra 4-engine turboprop. The plane carried a large group of Minnesotans who had been in the area on a resort junket. The previous year the craft had served as a campaign plane first of presidential candidate John Glenn and then Jesse Jackson. It generated anxiety within the Jackson campaign and the Secret Service, prompting a Service-requested probe of the plane’s safety. In an article on the Galaxy crash, Time magazine said the Lockheed plane was “designed to bridge two aviation ages” because it combined jet engines and propellers.
The plane crashed in a Reno recreational vehicle business about a mile and a half south of runway’s end. Three of the 70 people on board survived, but two of those died shortly afterward, George Lamson on Jan. 29 and Robert Miggins on Feb. 4. George Lamson Jr. was thrown clear, coming to rest on Virginia Street still strapped in his seat. Though he survived, he was plainly a victim of the crash, both because of his injuries and because he lost his father in the disaster.
Seven days short of the one year anniversary of the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board found that the pilot and copilot probably failed to concentrate when strong vibrations shook the plane, causing the crash, and that the ground handlers contributed to the crash by failing to close an access door that caused the vibrations. The NTSB urged that airports make certain that competent people service and maintain the planes and that ways be found for air traffic controllers to receive information during emergencies when the flight crew members have their hands full.
Plans for a memorial had several missteps, starting with the location.
At a Jan 25 memorial service for the victims at the Church of the Little Flower, Reno Mayor Peter Sferrazza said there should be a permanent memorial at the site of the crash. “The city joins the rest of the nation in mourning the loss and in offering condolences to the survivors and relatives,” he said. “A memorial on the site would be an eternal message to those who lost their lives.”
The mayor subsequently named Doris Isaeff to head a group to create a memorial. At some point the idea of a remembrance at the site was dropped and a 70-tree grove of redwoods was born.
“I place this wreath in memory of the 70 souls who perished here one year ago today and the sole survivor,” Isaeff said during a half-hour ceremony at Rancho San Rafael on Jan. 21, 1986.
Salvation Army Maj. Kenneth Angel—then a familiar community leader of efforts to cope with the sudden 1980s rise in homeless in Reno—said the Galaxy Grove would “serve as a reminder that life goes on, reaching up to heaven.”
Family members of crash victim Karen Weaver were on hand at the ceremony and placed some yellow roses on the wreath. “The people of Reno want you to know you are not alone,” Isaeff told them. “God bless you and comfort you.” Lamson Jr. was also present and placed flowers on the boulder from which the plaque was recently stolen. A Reno Gazette-Journal photograph of him doing so shows a clear unbroken view behind him toward Sierra Street. Today that view is of the trees that have been planted and grown tall.
Isaeff said the ceremony was the start of efforts to raise $14,000 for the grove. She also said fundraising had been delayed until after the holidays because “people were being asked to give to too many things.”
Fundraising and tree planting began. The next stumble came with the redwoods. They tended to die. The project switched to Colorado Spruce.
As the project progressed, Isaeff learned about the victims and had occasional contact with family members, particularly George Baxter Coston, the father of a stewardess on the flight. Then Isaeff and Coston lost touch. (A George Baxter Coston died Sept. 30, 1988, in Kinston, N.C.)
There is little basis for believing the full complement of 71 trees was ever planted. Records are fragmentary. County park operations superintendent Eric Crump told us, “Based on our records, there were 10 Giant Sequoia trees originally planted in the grove in April of 1987.”
Upon a further search of county records, Crump added some more information. “Our records indicate two donations to the grove, one for $2,400 and another for $100. … We have yet to find any record of additional trees or donations.” There were apparently two funds, one held by the county and one created by the city panel planning the memorial.
He also said a clipping of a Reno Gazette-Journal story came to hand in county files. This was a January 1992 article by Mike Henderson (“Ceremony to mark 7th anniversary of Galaxy crash”) that reported, “Only a dozen trees—at $200 each—were planted.” It quoted Isaeff saying that local flood relief consumed much of local charitable giving.
Eleven years after the crash, Isaeff told us, “We planted, oh, I think it was 40 trees before the donations started drying up” (“A job left undone,” RN&R, Sept. 11, 1996).
At that same time, Linda Nelson of the park’s arboretum told us one tree could be planted for $150 and up, depending on the size. (The price may have also been adjusted after the switch to Colorado Spruce.) “You can get a pretty good-sized tree for $150,” Nelson said. She added that the park sought sponsors for already planted trees to help pay for the upkeep of the grove.
Isaeff said casinos, usually a source of charitable donations, had stood aside from the project. “I certainly think some of the clubs should have pitched in, but none ever did.”
She drew particular attention to Caesars Tahoe, which did not contribute. During that junket, the Minnesotans stayed at Caesars. During the junket, some members traveled to San Francisco for a day trip. The San Francisco group and those who had remained at Lake Tahoe then converged at Reno’s airport for a flight to Minneapolis. That was the flight that went down in Reno.
By the time Isaeff described the 11-year progress—or lack of it—on the grove, George Lamson Jr. had moved to Reno, of all places. “I can remember when I came out here in ’85, I thought, ’Gee, this would be a good place to live,’ ” he told the RN&R in 1997.
Isaeff, now deceased, ended her work on the project when a family member became ill. Her son Bill Isaeff, a former Nevada chief deputy attorney general, said this week, “I was never sure if all those trees got planted.” He said that as the project dwindled out his mother told him the project bank account had a small amount of money left in it and he suggested she give it to the county, and he believes she did.
Of the plaque, he said, “My mother’s heart would be broken if she knew it had been stolen.”
A visit to the grove site gives little further indication that the grove was completed. There do not appear to be 70—or 60, depending on how many redwoods survived—Colorado Spruce. Moreover, it’s difficult to even tell where the grove is. It is in an area where there are also a St. Patrick’s Grove, a Nevada Bell Grove, and a 20 Year Grove, none of which are clearly delineated and seem to overlap with each other. Nor are there names of crash victims assigned to individual trees.
During our interview with her in 1996, Doris Isaeff said of the failure to complete the grove project, “I feel very bad about it. I truly do.”