Elko is one of Nevada's more complex towns. In the 1990s it became one of the fastest-growing places in one of the fastest-growing states in the country, with a population that doubled, to 25,000 people, within a decade. Its history, however, is similar to that of other towns settled along the Humboldt River.
Elko was established in 1868 as a railroad town when the Central Pacific laid out a townsite, with the tracks defining the south end of the grid. Railroad workshops, sheds, railroad workers' housing, and the commercial and residential areas of town developed to the north, while a commercial row quickly rose along the south side of the tracks. As time passed, more structures developed on this side of the tracks so businesses could be near the railroad and take advantage of the traffic it created. These included hotels, brothels, and bars. Mining in the mountains outside Elko brought prosperity to the town as a supply and transportation center in the late nineteenth century. Many cattle ranches were established in the outlying areas, transforming Elko into a cowtown. In 1874 the state established the University of Nevada campus here, but the boom-and-bust cycle of the mining industry soon brought decline to Elko, and the university moved to Reno in 1884. The railroad and the town's role as the seat of Elko County kept the economy alive until the early twentieth century.
The arrival of the Western Pacific in 1907, on tracks about one block south of the Central Pacific, and the opening of U.S. 40 along Idaho Street in the 1920s brought renewed prosperity from tourism and spurred more development in the southern part of town. Growing cattle ranches also fueled Elko's economy, though much of the area's ranching in the early twentieth century concentrated on raising sheep tended by Basques. The WPA guide to the state describes Elko in the 1930s as “anything but provincial,” with “shops selling clothes bearing trademarks of prominent designers, fine tweeds, and even Lalique glass.” As the largest town between Salt Lake City and Reno, and between Boise and Las Vegas, Elko served, and continues to serve, an area as large as Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts combined.
In the past decade, new gold-mining ventures have brought rapid growth; mining now accounts for almost 60 percent of the economy, with gambling and ranching providing the rest. The downtown, with its brick and concrete commercial structures, is holding its own, but sprawl around the I-80 exits and subdivisions on the north side of the highway and to the south threaten to draw away business. Elko has nonetheless managed to maintain its character as a small town with a sophisticated edge. This sophistication is evident in some of the town's prominent historic buildings, as well as in the Western Folklife Center's annual Cowboy Poetry Festival, held since 1985. Old residential neighborhoods have quiet, shady streets with houses in recognizable styles interspersed with small plainer dwellings.
Centered on Idaho Avenue and bordered by 2nd, 13th, Water, and Elm streets, Elko's downtown thrives with a mix of casinos, bars, Basque restaurants, a saddle shop, an espresso bar, and the Western Folklife Center. The northern part of downtown contains Elko's oldest residential neighborhood, with many large homes and churches dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The streetscapes remain largely intact, though the facades of many late nineteenth-century commercial buildings have been covered with metal siding.
Between 1978 and 1983, Elko used federal funds to move its railroad tracks from the center of town to the southern edge of the old grid, alongside the Humboldt River. The city paved the old railroad right-of-way and converted it into a large parking lot between Railroad and Commercial streets. The removal of the tracks and subsequent loss of railroad buildings in the center of town have erased most of Elko's railroad roots. Only a small park with a Western Pacific engine and caboose reminds residents of this part of Elko's past. Although removal of the tracks irrevocably altered Elko's urban fabric, the vast asphalt spaces subsequently created may have helped preserve downtown Elko, as abundant parking has slowed the flight of businesses to strip malls outside of town.
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