Changes come slowly to McGill

View of downtown McGill, including the renowned McGill Club, a local landmark.

View of downtown McGill, including the renowned McGill Club, a local landmark.

The former mining town of McGill in eastern Nevada has seemingly defied time. While the town has certainly changed over the years, particularly after a state prison was built on the outskirts several decades ago, it has somehow managed to look unchanged, especially its downtown district.

Located 12 miles north of Ely via U.S. Highway 93, McGill is one of the best examples in the state of what could best be described as a mining company town.

For many years, nearly everyone who lived in the community worked for the mining company, which was originally called the Steptoe Valley Mining & Smelter Company and, later, the Kennecott Copper Corporation.

Founded in 1908, McGill was initially a tent city that rose in the flats near where the Steptoe Valley Mining Company built a massive smelter. The smelter melted copper ore mined in nearby Ruth and was part of the process of extracting the metal from the rock.

Within a year, however, more substantial houses were erected for the mining company officials and a small business district began to take shape.

To provide housing for workers, the company also began building modest wooden homes for them—hence the identical, cookie-cutter appearance of many of the small, older houses found in McGill.

In 1908, the Nevada Northern Railway was extended through McGill on its journey to Cobre, a transfer point on the Southern Pacific Railroad, located about 130 miles north of Ely.

By the 1920s, McGill had grown to rival nearby Ely as the largest town in White Pine County. Even a disastrous fire in 1922, which destroyed much of the smelting complex, didn’t slow McGill, which peaked in 1930 when the town had more than 3,000 residents.

The unusually long life of the Ruth/Ely area’s copper mines contributed to McGill’s longevity. For much of the next fifty years, McGill maintained a relatively steady population of about 2,000 people, most working for the smelter.

During its more than 70-year mining boom, McGill acquired many of the trappings of community, including churches, a newspaper, a movie theater, a large brick school and a municipal swimming pool—actually an Olympic-size, old-fashioned watering hole.

Additionally, as a result of the mining company’s aggressive recruitment of new immigrants, McGill became one of Nevada’s most ethnically diverse communities. Large numbers of Greeks, Irish, Slavs and other newcomers to the America found their way to McGill to work at the smelter.

But, as with all mining towns, when the mines closed, the jobs disappeared. In this case, McGill’s day of reckoning came in the early 1980s when Kennecott closed its eastern Nevada operations, including the smelter.

Much of the town’s population began to drift away during the 1980s. Construction of the state prison in the late 1980s did bring an influx of new people to McGill so that the population today is about 1,000m but not enough to permanently change appearances.

In 1993, Kennecott cleared away much of the old smelter complex, including the giant smokestack, which was imploded with great fanfare.

Today, while McGill hasn’t recovered from the closing of the mines or the loss of the smelter, it is certainly in better shape than three decades ago. Many of the old company homes have been repainted and fixed up by newer residents.

The downtown business district, however, remains a mixture of shuttered buildings and hardy survivors, including the McGill Drug Store Museum at 11 Fourth Street (U.S. 93).

McGill’s unchanging nature is perhaps best represented by the drug store museum, which opened in 1915 and operated continuously until 1979.

Gerald and Elsa Culbert owned the store from 1950 until it was closed following Gerald’s death. In 1995, the Culbert’s children donated the drug store, which still contained its complete inventory on the shelves, to the White Pine County Museum for preservation and display.

These days, visitors can tour this fully intact, 20th century, small town drug store, which still has an operating soda fountain. The museum is open by appointment (call 775-235-7082). Information about the museum can be found at http://www.mcgilldrugstoremuseum.org/.

For more information about McGill go to the town’s excellent web site at http://mcgillnevada.com/.

Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada special.

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