Elko, Nevada

August 19, 2004
Filed under Travel

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Towns of the Old West typically sprang up as mining camps, watering holes, railroad spurs and trading posts. Most of them unceremoniously drifted off the map as they lost their purpose. Those left standing achieved their permanence by merely being at the right place at the right time. Elko was a little different – it didn’t just sprout, it was planted. The city took root because someone wanted it to grow and prosper. That someone was the Central Pacific Railroad that, in the late 1860s, was building the western half of America’s first transcontinental railroad. (It met with the Union Pacific, which was building from the east, in Utah on Promontory Point, in May of 1869.) The construction crew and rail line
reached Elko in mid-January of 1869.

The railroad’s front-office folks had arrived the year before. They had laid out a town, with the tracks going through the middle of it, and were selling lots for 300 bucks apiece. Elko was to be a division point for the railroad and a freight center for all of eastern Nevada. Business was lined up for the railroad long before it got here: A mining boom was ongoing from Tuscarora, 52 miles north of town, to Hamilton, 140 miles south of it. And ranching had taken hold. Elko rolled with the booms and busts that cycled through the West during the next 50 years. It became the seat for Elko County, which is larger than Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. And with government jobs came paychecks that steadied the town’s economy during the dips. Where the name Elko came from, no one really knows. It’s a lyrical form of “elk,” so that’s probably it.

Elk thrive here and deer too, especially in the foothills of the Ruby Mountains, south of town. World traveler and broadcaster Lowell Thomas called Elko “the last real cow town in the American West.” That was some 60 years ago. Whether it really is the last – that one may yet to be counted – it’s still the provincial capital of a cattle-ranching empire that embraces parts of four states. Elko works hard to hang on to its cow-town image, which is in peril of being buried in the tailings of progress. Elko now has 2,000 motel rooms and some first-class RV parks, primarily because it’s on Interstate 80. Around-the-clock gambling is available – after all, this is Nevada. Along with scheduled commercial flights from Reno and Salt Lake City, Casino Express Airlines flies Boeing 737s in here daily from cities all over the country.

They bring in gamblers who thrive on travel-package deals that are practically giveaways. The well-aged mining industry is alive and well here, and it’s looking better than ever. It is the biggest employer in town, with the best paying jobs in the state. What’s mined is gold. And it’s a high-tech process. Found in microscopic particles, finely disseminated, it takes 100 tons of ore to produce an ounce of gold. This part of Nevada is now the third largest gold producer in the world, after Australia and South Africa. The market price of gold is posted every day in the Elko Daily Free Press – on the page with the police log, divorces and stocks of local interest.

Elko’s cow-town heritage gets dusted off and shined up big time during the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering held the last weekend in January. Why January, when the snow is deep and the temperature in this mile-high city is seldom above zero? I put that question to Marv Chruchfield, a 70-year-old native who owns Double Dice RV Park and Slot Lounge. “It’s the only time of the year when a bunch of working cowboys can collect indoors and tell stories and recite rhymes. We’ve been doing it here for 20 years. It’s not just a night of poetry; more like close to a week of it, plus music, craft shows and partying. They say it’s high cowboy, low glitz – whatever that’s supposed to mean.” Marv runs a fine RV park, but says it’s impossible to fill his 140 sites, even occasionally.

“The parking lot at Wal-Mart is big competition,” he says. “It is tough to beat free, no matter what we do to make our place appealing.” Marv truly loves it here. Years ago, he was a rancher. Marv gave me the impression that he would rather be roaming through ranch country than hanging around in town. So when he pointed to his SUV and said, “Let’s go,” I knew it was as much a plea as an offer. Turning on to Highway 226 for Tuscarora, now a semi-ghost town, we stopped to watch a group of Peruvian sheepherders loading their charges into trucks. “Unlike cattle, sheep eat right down to the ground and they have to keep moving them to greener pastures,” Marv said.

“This was all cattle country at one time. Then the Basque sheepherders moved in, which caused much unhappiness in buckaroo bunkhouses. Things got violent, until the feds moved in. It was about grazing rights on public land, but if it weren’t that it would have been something else. Many Basques still live here. If you haven’t eaten in a Basque restaurant, Elko’s got the best anywhere.” A century-old smelter chimney is about all that’s left upright of the mining industry that supported a town of 5,000. Today, Tuscarora has a pottery school, a post office and, counting the four or five pottery students, a population of about 15.

Bill’s e-mail address: roadscribe@aol.com.

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