Unlike Battle Mountain and Winnemucca, which were towns in their own right before the arrival of the Central Pacific, Carlin was founded by the railroad as a division point. Set in a small valley, it was the first spot where the Emigrant Trail met the Humboldt River after a long detour. The river made this a logical place for the railroad to build switching and maintenance yards, repair shops, and a large icehouse. The tracks remain, widening to several sidings along the old Main Street before narrowing to two tracks on the edges of town.
Main Street, Carlin's first commercial center, developed across from the railroad yards, complete with hotels, saloons, shops, and a depot, all facing the tracks. By traveling from Main Street and the railroad north to I-80, one can see how the automobile gradually replaced the train as the primary means of passenger transportation, and how this change affected the town's development. Chestnut Street (U.S. 40) now serves as the main street, though its buildings, dating from the early to mid-twentieth century, look neglected and rundown. Just one block north is I-80. New development along Carlin's interstate exits has drawn business away from the old commercial centers.
Carlin has enjoyed some economic prosperity in recent years because of the opening of several gold mines to the north. The influx of new residents can be seen in the subdivision of prefabricated houses at the west end of town and the trailer park at the east end.
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