Once the crossroads of far Northeastern Nevada, Mountain City now slowly disappears
“Mountain City is not a town or city or anything else. Mountain City is copper and a little silver and less gold. Mountain City is a state of flux and impermanence.” — Gregory Martin, Mountain City, 2000
It’s fortunate that writers like Gregory Martin and Helen Oster and Shawn Hall and Stanley Paher have written portions of the story of Mountain City, located about 85 miles north of Elko and 16 miles from the Idaho border, because the community is slowly but surely fading away.
Founded in 1869, Mountain City originally was known as Cope after gold was discovered near what became the townsite by a miner named Jesse Cope. A mining district formed in May of that year and within a month some 300 people had settled in the area.
In July — things happened quickly — Cope was renamed Mountain City and by the end of the summer the settlement boasted more than 700 people. Historical accounts say that the town had nine stores, two rooming houses, two bakeries, two breweries, four blacksmith shops, two livery stables, two drugstores, an assay office, a bank, a post office, one first-class hotel, a brothel and an astounding 20 saloons. A year later, it had grown to encompass more than 200 buildings and had a population of nearly 1,000. A school opened in July 1871.
But like so many other mining towns, the ore began to be played out. By early 1872, the population started to decline as miners moved on to more promising areas. By 1875, Mountain City had only 77 residents and by 1882 the population was down to 20.
As mining declined, ranching became more prominent and several large outfits started in the area.
The area continued to experience ebbs and flows over the next decades including shortlived booms from 1877-80 and again from 1904 to 1908.
Mountain City’s fortunes perked up in the early 1930s after the discovery of large copper deposits in nearby Rio Tinto (about four miles southeast). Many of the buildings still standing in the town today date from this period, when Mountain City became the major supply point for those working the Rio Tinto mines.
But like earlier booms, Rio Tinto began to decline in the late 1940s and Mountain City did, too. The town saw a brief flurry of new mining interest — this time, uranium — in the mid-1950s but that fizzled within a few years when the ore deposits proved to be smaller than originally thought.
Since then, the community has had a permanent of between 75 and 80, many of whom work on area ranches, a handful of local businesses and government offices (the U.S. Forest Service has an office there).
Sadly, one of the town’s longest lasting businesses, Tremewan’s Store, which was the subject of Gregory Martin’s book (his family operated it for more than 40 years), closed in 2002. Other businesses, like the Miner’s Club, still stand but long have been closed and abandoned.
One place that has survived is the Mountain City Motel, Bar and Steakhouse, a popular local hangout that offers good food in a friendly atmosphere. It is located at 525 Davidson St. (Highway 225 is called Davidson Street in Mountain City limits), 775-763-6622.
A great source of historical information about Mountain City is Shawn Hall’s book, “Old Heart of Nevada: Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of Elko County,” published by the University of Nevada Press and available from Amazon.
Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.