Settled just south of Walker Lake in a broad, flat valley, Hawthorne has always been tied economically to the boom-and-bust cycles of mining, politics, and the military. The arrival of the Carson and Colorado Railroad in 1881, which bypassed Yerington to the north, made Hawthorne a service center for nearby mining towns. Two years later Hawthorne gained the designation of Esmeralda County seat from Aurora, a nineteenth-century mining town to the west that had Nearly died out by the 1880s. When boom times hit Tonopah and Goldfield, Hawthorne lost to the selection of Goldfield as the county seat in 1903 but regained its status in 1911, this time in the newly created Mineral County. This cycle of fluctuating county politics and the shutdown of the Carson and Colorado Railroad in 1904 left Hawthorne in a slump. The town got a much needed boost in the late 1920s, when the U.S. Navy relocated its Lake Denmark, New Jersey, ammunition depot there. Since the end of the Cold War, activeties at the depot, now run by the U.S. Army, have slowed, but it is still the major local employer. Nevertheless, Mineral County remains one of the poorest regions of the state.
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