Founded as a railroad-promoted townsite and railhead for the White Pine mines
in 1869, Elko has served for generations now as the provincial capital of an
enormous cattle ranching empire embracing parts of four states.
Sixty years ago Lowell Thomas called Elko "the last real cowtown in the
American West," and until about 15 years ago that was still a good thumbnail
description. But sophisticated new mining technologies permit the harvesting
of microscopic particles of the precious metal from mountains (literally) of
rock and dirt hauled 200 tons at a time to the crusher. Half a dozen large mining
operations produce millions of ounces of gold a year in the region, and even though mining is now on the wane, their
impact has transformed the old cowtown into a prosperous young city.
The Star Hotel on Silver Street is one of Elko's famous Basque restaurants
decade from 1980, when population stood at about 10,000 people (city-size by
Nevada standards) to 1990, the population had almost doubled. In one hectic
12-month period beginning in July, 1986, Elko's population increased by 21 percent.
This growth is spread across the city, and across many square miles of countryside
to the south where Spring Creek was developed in the 1970s, but it is most evident
on Elko's east end. Here a bright, new business district has blossomed at the
freeway offramp, anchored by shopping centers and the Red Lion Casino. Now there's
another commercial nexus at the other freeway offramp, and the city center,
built more than a century and a quarter ago around the railroad switching yard,
has undergone a considerable renaissance in recent years.
Capriola's, at the corner of 5th and Commercial maintains the tradition of G.S. Garcia, while the bar at the old Clifton Hotel next door has upgraded from Budweiser to Merlot
was a time when you could get an espresso at one lonesome place in town; now it's
everywhere. As if to emphasize Elko's youthful urbanity, there was even a
tanning salon on Railroad Street! Well, you can't buy a tan on Railroad Street
any more, but you can get a latte at Cowboy Joe's and eat nouvelle cuisine at
the Stray Dog Cafe next door on Yuppie Row. But don't worry, the traditional
Basque hotels still flourish along the south side of Silver Street (south of
the Stockmen's and much wider without the railroad tracks).
is a Basque dinner house and bar, The Nevada and The Star cater to a regular
lodging clientele, but open their dining rooms to the general public at supper
time. They offer hearty food and plenty of it, served family-style. The atmosphere
is at once homey and exotic, a pleasantly provocative combination.
Hotel is a 19th century landmark, now refurbished in grand style to house the
Western Folklife Center. The Center originated the Cowboy Poetry Gathering and
other projects aimed at preserving and celebrating Western American traditions.
An exhibition gallery is now open, showing ranch-fashioned items, from leather chaps
to meticulously braided horsehair ropes, all so finely made they might be sculpture
or jewelry. A gift shop offers wonderful hand-made goods for sale, as well as
books and other merchandise.
and the Stockmen's are still dominating presences downtown, but one great landmark is
gone now: the switching yard that spawned the city in the first place. It hasn't
been missed. A few pessimists declared that moving the Western Pacific switching
yard three miles east would eliminate the train whistles at all hours of the
night and Elko's birth rate would decline (local joke). The community is delighted
with the peace and quiet, and you'll appreciate all the free parking.
Elko was born with the railroad in 1869
conflicting (and slightly absurd) stories are offered to explain the name; none
is entirely persuasive prospered rapidly after its founding. By 1870 townsite
lot prices had multiplied three and four times, the population had risen to
2,000 or more, and the place had begun to assume its character as the leading
settlement of Nevada's great northeastern cattle country.
By 1873 Elko was in
so soaring and optimistic a municipal mood, largely on account of the success
of the mining discoveries in the districts to the north and south, that it had
bid for and won the State University. The university opened with seven students
in 1874, and closed ten years later with 15, to be moved unceremoniously to
Reno. As a freighting center, Elko fell into decline after the mining
towns it served, and population fell to less than 1,000.
Horse-drawn wagons hauled freight to the outlying mines from the railhread at Elko
Despite the steady growth and importance of the livestock business in the high desert valleys around Elko, the town's affairs did not brighten considerably until 1907. In that year not only did the Western Pacific Railroad reach Elko, but mining revived as ripples of excitement radiated out from Tonopah and Goldfield. The price of beef went from 31/2 to 8 cents a pound, and wool from 4 to 60 cents. In 1911 Elko's population was nudging 3,000.
continued until the devastating one-two of the failure of the Wingfield banking
chain and the national depression which followed immediately after. Caught
in the machinery activated to sort out the bank failure and bled by the decline
in livestock prices, many of the ranches around Elko were foreclosed. In the
years after the beef and wool economies fell into chaos, gambling was made legal
by the state legislature. Elko, like towns everywhere in Nevada, had a new industry,
and unlike most, it had an entrepreneur to make the most of it. Newton Crumley
had operated saloons and hotels in Tonopah, Goldfield, and Jarbidge before he
settled in Elko in 1925 and bought the Commercial Hotel. He and his son, Newton
Jr., operated the hotel with an eye toward the future.
1937 they had added a two-hundred-seat cocktail lounge to the Commercial,
1941 they hired Ted Lewis, the "High-Hatted Tragedian of Jazz," his
orchestra, and his 21-person Rhythm Rhapsody Review for an eight-day engagement.
After Lewis came Sophie Tucker, then Skinnay Ennis and his band. For drowsy
little Elko, more than 250 miles from the nearest radio station, the situation
was stunning. Even more impressive was the effect on traffic along U.S.
40: little of it passed through Elko without a detour into the Commercial.
Ted Lewis' appearance at the Commercial Hotel in 1941 began the Headliner tradition in Nevada casinos.
In 1946 the Crumleys
began "remodeling" a ten-foot wide root beer stand into the sixty-eight
room Ranch Inn Motel-Casino (at that materials-short time new construction
was prohibited but remodeling was permitted). The Crumleys had the largest
non-ranching payroll in Elko County after the railroads, and in 1948 they
sold an accumulation of ranching properties north of town to Bing Crosby.
ranching restored to prosperity, with gambling and big-name entertainment
adding cosmopolitan touches to the municipal flavor, and with newcoming
ranchers like Crosby, Joel McRae, and Jimmy Stewart providing glamor and
Elko entered a golden age at the end of the 1940s.
The Hollywood rancheros have died or sold their Elko spreads now, and the Crumleys are long gone from the scene. The Commercial is being renovated, and the Stockmen's and the Red Lion are flourishing, the latter with gambling flights from small cities around the USA. Elko retains its unique air of awkward splendor with a marvelous diversity of its population: cowboys and Indians, sheepherders, miners and railroad men, gamblers and whores, schoolmarms and ribbon clerks. Oh, and a few tourists.
The National Basque Festival is held in Elko each year on the weekend closest to the Fourth of July.
the population figures suggest, Elko is a bustling little city, offering a
wide variety of services and amenities to visitors. Don't expect to find a
room at Basque Festival time or during the Cowboy Poetry Gathering unless you've
booked well in advance, but at most other times of the year you'll find motel
rooms readily available. Restaurants range from the homespun to the elegant ‹ from
The Coffee Mug near the center of the city, say, to Misty's at the Red Lion.
is still "town" for the buckaroos the locally preferred
term for cowboys who work the cattle ranches out beyond the horizons,
and the stores that cater to them are major attractions. In 1896 G.S. Garcia arrived in Elko to establish
his celebrated saddle shop on Railroad Street. Garcia became one of the foremost
western saddle makers of his time, and his famous American Eagle saddle, elaborately
carved and decorated with patriotic motifs, worked in silver and gold, won gold
medals at both the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and the 1905 Lewis & Clark
Exposition at Portland, Oregon. Will Rogers and Teddy Roosevelt rode on Garcia
saddles, as did dozens of other western celebrities of the first three decades
of the century, hundreds of international customers from Argentina, Australia,
Mexico and France, and thousands of stockmen and buckaroos from around the west.
The J.M. Capriola Co. is the successor to G.S. Garcia, and maintains the tradition. As a visiting
journalist wrote in admiration
in the New York Times some years ago, Capriola's "sells everything for the
cowboy and his horse, from a box of horseshoe nails to a $3,500 saddle." A
hand-made saddle crafted to a classic design might cost a little more nowadays,
but they are still made right upstairs, along with the other leather goods and
the tack that account for three-fourths of Capriola's world-wide business. President
Reagan straddled a Capriola saddle at his California ranch, and Hollywood celebrities
like Sylvester Stallone and Harrison Ford do the same today.
You can watch as custom saddles are made upstairs at Capriola's
Anacabe's equally venerable and welcoming Elko General Merchandise Store is on
Idaho Street. If you live within 150 miles of Elko working outdoors, you probably shop here already. Western and steel-toed boots, blue jeans, hats, cold-weather gear: everything for the well turned out miner, buckaroo, construction worker, outdoorsman. Here you can outfit yourself for a day's ride or a winter in a line shack, or just stop in to soak up the atmosphere.
People from four states shop Anacabe's for outdoor wear
Idaho Street was
once U.S. 40 and it's still Elko's main commercial thoroughfare. It's a solid
stream of traffic from the city center to the east side, a bright stripe of restaurants,
motels and other visitor services.
More than 50 years ago, at what used to be the eastern edge of town before the
age of asphalt and electricity, the city of Elko bought the China Ranch and created
a magnificent City Park with broad lawns, towering shade trees and wide-ranging
recreational facilities. It would be an ornament to cities many times Elko's
Nevada Museum is located on the south side of the City Park. Expanded now to several
times its former size, the museum is a professionally
managed and maintained archive and exhibiting regional history. Most of the
items displayed were donated to the museum by local residents. One exception
is the old saloon bar from Halleck. For this beloved relic the museum is required
to pay rent in the form of one bottle of Beefeater's Gin per year, served over
the bar. Rent day began as a private ceremony, but has developed into an annual
invitation-only affair of considerable eclat in the local community. The museum
is also noted for the variety and quality of its art exhibits, including its
annual traveling show of Nevada photography which is easily the most-visited
art exhibit in the state. One recent addition is the installation of the Spring
Creek Mastodon exhibit. These two million year old bones, about forty percent
of the animal, were unearthed in 1994. The Wanamaker Wildlife Wing is strong medicine, a kind
of Holocaust Museum for mammals. Admission to the museum is $5, $3 for seniors
and students, $1 for children 3-12, free for tykes 3 and under.
The Northeast Nevada Museum is an irresistable attraction for visitors.
The Elko Chamber of Commerce is a near neighbor, in the historic Sherman Station
building, an amazing log structure brought from the Ruby Valley. There's an information
desk and a gift shop with Elko items.
These sturdy structures once stood in Ruby Valley, now they house the Elko Chamber of Commerce.
You can get current visitor information at Elko's Convention Center, also located
at the park complex. The facility hosts meetings, conventions and performances.
You can take Nevada Route 225 north to Wild Horse Reservoir, Mountain City, and
Owyhee. Nevada Route 227 leads southwest to Spring Creek, South Fork State Park, Lamoille,
and the magnificent Ruby Mountains.