While Nevada has long been known as the “Silver State,” silver is just one of many heavy metals and minerals that have been mined within Nevada’s borders since the first mining boom of the 1850s. For the White Pine County town of Ely, it was copper that became king.
Founded in the 1870s as a stagecoach stop and situated along U.S. Route 50, Ely remains an active mining town that makes a conscious effort to celebrate its history.
Today, visitors to Ely can experience a variety of both local and mining history, ranging from a historic railroad to Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park and the White Pine Public Museum. Those looking for overnight accommodations can follow in the footsteps of Hollywood icon Jimmy Stewart, daredevil Evel Knievel and President Lyndon Johnson by staying at the historic Hotel Nevada, built in 1929.
Nevada Northern Railway
Kyle Horvath, executive director of the White Pine County Tourism Board, said the Nevada Northern Railway and East Ely Depot Museum are a great first stop for anyone looking to spend some time in Ely.
Originally built in 1906 to transport copper ore for the Kennecott Copper Corp., the railroad and all its components were donated to the town of Ely when the company closed its doors in 1983 after the price of copper plummeted.
“When they up and left they just locked the doors to the train depot and just left, so what we have is the most well preserved, intact steam train yard in the country,” Horvath says.
Visitors to the railroad today can experience a fully operational turn of the century railroad, complete with Baldwin steam locomotives, diesel trains and other equipment displayed in the railroads original buildings.
“You can walk into the buildings,” Horvath said. “They have tons of the original rolling stock in the old engine house. The old snow blowers and the cranes and you can just walk through and check it out.”
A variety of train excursions are available throughout the year, with the most popular being a 90-minute round trip that takes passengers through two tunnels and up to the Ruth Mining District. Other special event train rides that are offered throughout the year include the Night Sky Star Train during the summer months and a Fire and Ice train ride typically held in January that features fireworks.
“When they are repairing trains they are literally making parts with the original tools because you are not going to NAPA and going to buy a train gear,” Horvath says.
During its heyday, the railroad was used to transport copper ore from the mine to the smelter located a few miles away in McGill. The trains could then go through Cherry Creek and connect up with the Transcontinental Railroad and make its way to a major city like San Francisco or Salt Lake City.
Before leaving the property, be sure to check out the restored 1907 East Ely Depot Museum, which documents the history of the Kennecott Copper Corp. and the railroad in Ely.
Museum Director Sean Pitts says walking inside the historic structure is like taking a step back in time to when the railroad closed down nearly 40 years ago.
“My favorite thing about the museum is the distinct impression you get as you walk around that people expected to come back to work but never made it back to work,” says Pitts.
The calendars on the walls have not been turned since 1983, and office equipment is left exactly where it was when the mine shut down and all railroad activity ceased. In one desk, an employee’s spare change still sits.
“The storeroom has every single form necessary to run this railroad is stacked on the shelves. I am careful to dust it off periodically, but leave it exactly the way they left it,” he said.
The East Ely Depot Museum is one of seven state museums in Nevada, and more than $3.2 million has been spent on its restoration.
White Pine Public Museum
Horvath says that history buffs looking for the classic one-two-punch in Ely should make the quick drive over to the White Pine Public Museum after spending some time at the railroad.
“I always tell people to get the train history at the train yard and then you hear the rest of the story at the museum,” he says. “That is going to be your mining, geology, Native American history, what life was like on the frontier.”
“It is cool because a lot of the history that is in there is from families that live here,” Horvath added.
One museum display showcases the history of The Lincoln Highway in the area, which is known as the first transcontinental highway in the United States. The historic highway forms what is now U.S. Route 50. The Original cement markers featuring a red, white and blue stripe and bronze relief of the highways namesake, President Abraham Lincoln, can be seen in downtown Ely.
Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park
Those looking for another dose of Ely’s mining history can make the 18-mile drive south to the 1,600-acre Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park. While the park features the beautiful scenery of the Egan Mountain range and a variety of hiking, ATV trails and camping, the six stone beehive shaped ovens are the park’s star attraction.
Built by Eastern European immigrants between 1873 and 1876, the ovens were used to make the charcoal that was needed to heat the crushed ore to extract the silver. Each oven stands 30 ft. high, is 27 ft. in diameter and has 20 inch thick stone walls. Their parabolic shape reflected heat back into the center of the oven to reduce heat loss.
“You had two mines in the area,” Park Supervisor Steven Gray said. “You had the Ward mine and you had the Taylor mine, this is back in the 1870s.”
It took three-years to build the ovens, which were only active for three years. The local timber needed to make the charcoal was soon exhausted, and it was not economically feasible to transport trees in from farther away, Gray said.
After they were abandoned by the mining companies, the ovens were used as shelters for cowboys and outlaws before being made a Nevada State Monument in 1969. The area has been recognized as a Nevada State Park since 1994.
Horvath says copper is still actively mined in the area, and the nearby Robinson mine is the single-biggest employer for Ely residents. After the last economic bust, Ely lost about 2,000 residents, which leaves its population at about 4,500 with a total of 10,000 residents throughout White Pine County.
As Tourism and Recreation Board director, Horvath is working to show that Ely is a great place both to visit for a weekend, but also to put down roots. He has a goal of bringing 2,000 new residents to town.
“We have the infrastructure for it, we have the jobs for it,” he says. “It is sitting here waiting.”