The development of Winnemucca and surrounding Humboldt County, unlike that of most other settlements in Nevada, was not tied exclusively to the boom-and-bust cycle of the mining industry. The Humboldt River Valley served much of the westward migration to California as a natural path across the Great Basin. The arrival in 1868 of the Central Pacific Railroad, which ran through the valley, enabled the community to avoid complete dependence on mining. Once just a ferry crossing on the banks of the Humboldt River, Winnemucca, named for the great Paiute chief, became the county seat in 1872. The courthouse and the railroad established the settlement as a commercial center.
The construction of other transportation routes through town helped shape its development. The Western Pacific Railroad, which arrived in 1908, ran along the Humboldt River in the northern part of town, bringing commercial activity to Bridge Street. In the early twentieth century U.S. 40, locally known as Winnemucca Boulevard, shifted activity to the center of town between the two railroads. With the completion of I-80 in the 1980s, Winnemucca—approximately halfway between San Francisco and Salt Lake City and halfway between Reno and Elko—became a popular stopping point for truck drivers and tourists.
Although Winnemucca was not a mining town, it did feel the effects of great mining booms, particularly the bonanza of Jim Butler's famous strikes in Tonopah in 1900. After the discovery of silver and gold ore in the nearby hills and canyons, Winnemucca became a supply and shipping center for mining. This activity, along with growth to the north, bolstered commerce and precipitated three decades of strong building activity. Many structures from this period remain in downtown Winnemucca.
The town has prospered again with renewed mining activity in the region beginning in the mid-1980s. Since the last decade, its population has more than doubled, from approximately 3,000 to 8,800 (as of 1998). This growth is visible in development at either end of Winnemucca Boulevard and in new housing subdivisions on the north side of the Humboldt River. Nevertheless, the core remains vibrant, with a wide variety of architectural styles and building types represented in a mixture of modest houses, railroad buildings, Basque hotels, casinos, and brothels.
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