Northeast state railroad town of Wells tries hard to preserve its history
July 30, 2005
The community of Wells owes much of its existence to the presence of – wells.
In the late 1840s to early 1870s, travelers on the California Trail found lush meadows and clear natural springs in the Wells area. Originally called Humboldt Wells, it served as an important rest stop for the pioneers.
But despite the good grass and water, Humboldt Wells didn’t amount to much until after 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.
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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 long-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 1,300 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 traditional downtown has slowly been abandoned and much of the town’s newer development has occurred close to the interstate.
A handful of residents, however, have created a Wells historic district, which includes a handsome walking-tour brochure.
The informative pamphlet describes the histories of more than a dozen Wells historic buildings, many along Front Street or Lake Avenue.
Historic structures profiled include:
• El Rancho Casino (Lake Ave.) – One of Wells’ newer historic structures, the El Rancho was erected in 1949 at a cost of $200,000, making it one of the finest hotel-casinos in the state at the time.
• Bank of Wells (Front St.) – Erected in 1911, the Bank of Wells building was the city’s first bank (and only bank until 1960).
• Coryell House (Ninth St.) – This modest little home was built in 1870 and is the oldest standing residence. It was owned by Horace Coryell, a prominent Wells businessman who headed efforts to incorporate the city and was its first mayor.
• Bulls Head Saloon & Hotel (Front St.) – The Bulls Head Saloon is a venerable Wells’ institution, having been on this site since the railroad established the town in 1869 (it was the town’s first bar). The original Bulls Head was merely a railroad tie cabin, which was replaced by a grander structure that included a hotel in 1887. A portion of the newer Bulls Head burned in 1893, but it was rebuilt a few years later.
• Badt Mercantile/Quilici Market (Front St.) – Erected in the early 1870s, the Badt Mercantile building was owned by Morris Badt, a prominent Wells businessman whose son, Milton, later served as chief justice of the Nevada Supreme Court. In the 1920s, Badt’s market was sold to Sebastian Quilici, whose family operated a general store in the structure until the 1990s.
In addition to the Front Street historic district, Wells is home of the Emigrant Trail Center, a museum with interpretive displays describing the history of the pioneers who traveled across Nevada on the California Trail.
About 14 miles northwest of Wells is 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.
– Richard Moreno is the author of “Backyard Travels in Northern Nevada” and “The Roadside History of Nevada.”