Cowtown of Elko began as a rail center | NevadaAppeal.com

Cowtown of Elko began as a rail center

Richard Moreno
The Nevada Traveler
The majestic Elko County Courthouse, built in 1911, is one of the many historic structures found in the eastern Nevada community of Elko.
Courtesy Nevada Commission on Tourism |

The eastern Nevada community of Elko is usually associated with ranching or mining. But if you look at the town’s history, you find that its origins lie in railroading rather than cattle, gold or silver.

While the area long has been home to the Shoshone people, the first non-Native American to explore the region was mountain man 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 town of Elko wasn’t established until late 1868, when the Central Pacific Railroad was building its transcontinental rail line across northern 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.

Railroad officials named the settlement “Elko,” allegedly because Charles Crocker, the railroad’s superintendent, liked taking an animal name and adding an “o.” According to historian Helen Carlson, he carried a list of names in his pocket and elk was the next name on the list.

Other historians, however, claim the name is derived from a Shoshone word for “white woman” because it was the place where they first saw a white woman.

Regardless of how it gained its name, by early 1869, tents had been erected on lots sold by the railroad and a town began to grow. 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.

In the past few decades, substantial gold discoveries in the region have provided a boost to Elko’s economy (nearly 20,000 people live there today) and transformed the once-time 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 fine 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.