The enormous waste piles of the Ruth (Liberty-Eureka) Pit near the town of Ruth are visible from a distance on U.S. 50, heading east toward Ely. This pit, created during the first half of the twentieth century, was the site of one of the most prolific mining operations in Nevada's history. Ely was founded around 1872, but most late nineteenth-century mining activity in the region occurred west and south of Ely in the Hamilton and Ward areas. As the latter towns failed, Ely became the seat of White Pine County in 1887, drawing more people to town. Then, beginning in the first decade of the twentieth century, a copper boom transformed Ely and created the nearby towns of Ruth and McGill.
The town is divided into the distinct areas of Ely and East Ely. The main part of Ely contains the courthouse, city buildings, schools, churches, and early residential neighborhoods arranged around Aultman Street (U.S. 50). The Nevada Consolidated Copper Company (NCCC) laid out East Ely's townsite in 1904. Intended to be the site of the NCCC's smelter, East Ely instead became the base of operations for the Nevada Northern Railroad. The line carried ore from the pit in Ruth to the smelter, which was finally built in McGill, twelve miles north of Ely. Ely's various stages of development have resulted in a patchwork of small grids oriented more or less to the railroad.
Kennecott Copper took over operations in 1933; the long-lived copper boom lasted until the late 1970s. Fortunately for Ely, the cessation of mining operations did not last long. Magma Copper Company entered the scene in the 1990s, followed by BHP Copper North America, to start up a new mine in the area. Until mid-1999Ely was experiencing another economic surge, but with a drop in metal prices, BHP has shutdown operations.
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