Friday, May 02, 2008

Cowtown of Elko Began as a Railroad Stop

When most people think of Elko, they usually associate it with either ranching or mining because it is the home of the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering and near some of the world’s largest gold mines.

But if you look closely at the town’s history, you find that its roots had more to do with transportation than with ranching or mining.

The first non-Native American to visit the Elko area was explorer Peter Skene Ogden, who traveled through the region during a beaver-hunting expedition in 1828.

About a decade and a half later, wagon trains began passing through and camping near the future town site on the route that would become known as the Emigrant Trail.

The actual community of Elko wasn’t established until late 1868, when the Central Pacific Railroad was building its transcontinental rail line through Nevada.

The railroad selected the site as a railhead and freight terminus because of its proximity to several mining camps, including Lone Mountain and Tuscarora.

Additionally, Central Pacific Railroad officials named the settlement “Elko” by Central Pacific, allegedly because Charles Crocker, the railroad’s superintendent, had a penchant for taking animal names and adding an “o.” The story, however, may be apocryphal.

By early 1869, tents had been erected on lots sold by the railroad and the town began to blossom. In March of that year, the Nevada State Legislature designated Elko as the seat for a new county of the same name, which virtually assured the town’s success.

The town’s first courthouse, a fine two-story red brick structure in the Greek Revival style, was erected on the main street (called Idaho Street) in December 1869.

By 1870, Elko had grown to 2,000 people and boasted a newspaper (the Elko Independent) as well as more substantial homes of wood and brick.

In 1874, Elko was designated the site of the first University of Nevada and a substantial brick college was built later that year. The town’s remoteness, however, limited its appeal and the university was moved to Reno in 1885.

The town continued to prosper as a transportation center during the late 19th and early 20th century. Additionally, during this time ranching became an integral part of the local economy with the development of large cattle and sheep outfits.

By the 1890s, the latter had attracted a large number of Basque sheepherders. To cater to these newcomers, Basque boarding houses cropped up in the town.

Later, these establishments opened their dining rooms to the public and today Elko has several fine Basque restaurants.

During the early part of the 20th century, Elko remained an important railroad stop for Western Pacific and Southern Pacific trains. Additionally, in 1920, Elko was selected as one of the stops for the first transcontinental airmail service.

Another first occurred in Elko in 1941 when Newton Crumley, owner of the Commercial Hotel, booked entertainer Ted Lewis and his orchestra for eight days. It was the first time a Nevada hotel-casino offered entertainment and foreshadowed the popularity of today’s casino headliners.

In more recent years, Elko has gained fame as the site of the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering, sponsored by the Elko-based Western Folklife Center. In late January, the event attracts more than 8,000 people.

In the past decade, substantial gold discoveries in the region have doubled Elko’s size (an estimated 20,000 people live there today) and transformed the former cowtown into a mining boomtown.

The recent changes, however, haven’t wiped out the town’s historic beginnings. Wandering the streets, it’s still possible to find plenty of reminders of the past.

For example, several homes on Court Street (one block from Idaho) date back to the town’s earliest days. The Dewar House at 745 Court was built in late 1869, soon after the town was established.

Down the street are other interesting historic buildings, including: the Bradley House (643 Court), built in 1904 by John R. Bradley, son of Lewis Bradley, Nevada’s second governor; the Map House (4th and Court) built in 1869 and the oldest home in Elko; and the imposing Pythian Castle Hall (421 Court), built in 1927 for a fraternal order.

Additionally, the Elko County offices (6th and Court) are located in former Elko County High School building, constructed in 1895, which is said to have been the first public high school in the state.

The Elko County Courthouse on Idaho Street was built in 1911 to replace the original, which had grown too small. With its Neo-classic style design, including four prominent Tuscan-style columns supporting a large portico, it is one of the most impressive halls of justice in the state.

Elko’s business district still has several historic commercial structures including the venerable Commercial Hotel, which dates back to 1899, the Pioneer Hotel building (now home of the Western Folklife Center), built in 1912 and the Henderson Bank (4th and Railroad), built in 1929.

Of special note is the J.M. Capriola’s western shop (Commercial and 5th), which houses one of the state’s oldest and most famous saddle shops, the G.S. Garcia shop.

An excellent source of historical information about Elko is the Northeastern Nevada Museum, 1515 Idaho Street, Elko. The museum is open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. For information call 775-738-3418.

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