Photo of a few of the historic storefronts on Front Street in Wells. Much of the district was destroyed by an earthquake about a year after the photo was taken.
In 2008, the historic railroad town of Wells, located on Interstate 80 about 45 miles east of Elko, was changed forever. That day a devastating earthquake struck the community of about 1,200 people, damaging many of the town’s most historic buildings.
While several remain standing, the loss was major as Wells is one of the oldest settlements in northeastern Nevada, with historic ties to the Emigrant Trail, the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad line, and the development of the Interstate Highway system.
Wells, originally known as Humboldt Wells, traces its beginnings to the first travelers across Nevada (or the Great Unknown as it was then called). In the late 1840s to early 1870s, travelers on the California Trail found lush meadows and clear natural springs in the Wells area, which was an important rest stop for the pioneers.
Despite the good grass and water, Humboldt Wells didn’t amount to much until the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad line in 1869.
The railroad selected Humboldt Wells for the location of a water tower and parked a boxcar adjacent to the tracks to serve as a freight and passenger depot. A little later, the site became a division point for the railroad and a small settlement began to develop.
Within a few years, Humboldt Wells (the name was shortened to Wells in the 1870s) had a business district parallel to the railroad tracks, a school, and a population of about 300 people.
In the late 19th century, the development of mines in the region, particularly at Cherry Creek (about 95 miles south), spurred moderate development and growth in Wells, which served as a freight point for shipping the ore.
The construction of the Western Pacific Railroad and the Oregon Short Line, which passed through Wells, provided longer term economic stability to the town, which incorporated as a city in 1927.
In recent years, as railroads either closed down or bypassed the community, Wells has evolved into a crossroads community because of its location at the intersection of Interstate 80 and U.S. 93.
Today, Wells has about 1,000 residents. As a result of changes in transportation modes, from the railroad to automobiles, the commercial center of Wells has shifted from along the tracks to adjacent to the highways.
The result is that the historic downtown was slowly abandoned — this is where much of the earthquake damage occurred — and the town’s newer development has occurred adjacent to the interstate.
One of the survivors of the earthquake was the historic El Rancho Casino, built in 1949 and once one of the finest hotels in the state. While the building was damaged during the quake, the city and historic preservationists have embarked on a plan to renovate the structure into a community center with commercial businesses.
About 14 miles northwest of Wells is the site of Metropolis, a ghost town that owed its existence to farming rather than mining.
Foundations, sidewalks, a cemetery and an impressive arch that was once part of a two-story schoolhouse are all that remain.
For more information about Wells, contact the Wells Chamber of Commerce, www.wellsnevada.com
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