Ely Correspondence – August 2017


1987 Ely Centennial Celebration – Thirty Years Later

Mining is an up and down activity, with the price of minerals controlling the rise and fall of the economy in a mining town. The 1980’s were very typical of the mining boom and bust cycle and had a lasting impact on the future of White Pine County.

The McGill Smelter smokestack perhaps best symbolized the times. Approval for the new 750 foot stack was sought in 1983. The giant stack was supposed to answer environmental concerns. The stack was approved, built and then taken down in a breathtaking implosion in 1993. The copper mine had closed in the mid-1980’s and the removal of smokestack symbolized the end of the great mining era in White Pine.

                                                           Miners pose on a steam shovel at Copper Flat, McGill, circa 1905

Two projects that gave a boost to the community in the early 1980’s were the MX Missile project and the White Pine Power Project. Neither was developed, but the initial funding brought a much needed boost to the local economy. But the closure of the mines in the mid-1980’s was a real hardship to the community, with people leaving to find work and the closure of many businesses.

The people of Ely and White Pine County knew a change was needed, and the idea of making Ely a destination based on tourism promoting the area was beginning to take shape.

Improvements to the area included upgrades to the airport, the establishment of cable television service and the paving of the Cave Lake road and the Sunnyside cutoff, Highway 318.  This would lead to the creation of the Silver State Classic Challenge and the Nevada Open Road Race held each year on Highway 318, which brings people and money to the area.

The area continued to work toward a comeback through the late 1980’s. The Ely Honor Camp was dedicated in 1986. Great Basin National Park was dedicated, ground breaking for the Ely State Prison took place and land was donated by Kennecott Copper for the creation of the Railroad Museum. The Railroad Foundation received state money, and Engine #40 was donated to the Foundation.

                     The White Pine County Courthouse in Ely, built 1908 (Photo by Finetooth; Creative Commons license BY-SA 3.0)

The Celebration of 1987 can be seen as the turning point for the area.  Ely had become the county seat of White Pine County in 1887, after the courthouse in Hamilton, the first county seat, burned down. Ely was ready for a celebration in 1987 and spared no limit to the hard work and ingenuity that was put into creating a spectacular event. Activities included an expanded parade, fashion show, Elk’s Old Time Melodrama, and costume ball.

Mining is still a large force in the area, with over 450 people now employed at the copper mine and many more at other mines in the area. But the economic future is now more secure with the development of tourism as a large part of the economy here. Developing attractions and events that draw people from all over the globe is expanding our economic base.  Our attractions include Great Basin National Park, now 30 years old; the Nevada Northern Railway, celebrating its 30th anniversary; and a variety of special events that draw people from around the world, including the two open road races, celebrating their 30th anniversary this September. The Cave Lake State Park Fire and Ice Snow Sculpture and Bathtub races; Fears, Beers, and Tears mountain bike race; the White Pine Horse Races; the new Race the Train event starting this September; photo shoots of the trains; and lots of golf tournaments all provide entertainment for locals as well as visitors. Celebrating our history and culture through art has become an important part of our economy, with the 24 street murals, sculpture park, Renaissance Village, and the Ely Art Bank all adding to our community.

Thirty years has seen a lot of changes to the area, with tourism becoming an economic driver. Sometimes hard work, imagination, lots of elbow grease, and a determined spirit to succeed really do make a difference.

— Lorraine Clark