Ely -- A Play in Three Acts
By Sunny Martin
With all of the intrigue and characters of a true melodrama, the founding and history of early Ely was like a three-act play covering a span of 40 years -- approximately 1867 to 1907. And, like an actor waiting in the wings for an entrance cue to center stage, so did Ely have to wait to blossom as the star of the show in White Pine County. Unlike the many “boom and bust” gold and silver camps of the surrounding hills, it was not so much mining, but location that made it endure.
At the edge of the very pleasant valley named for Col. Steptoe that was enhanced by and abundance of water, grassy meadows and tall mountains, the enterprising John T. Murry found a spot to his liking on the banks of a sparkling stream we now know as Murry Creek. Here, in the mid- 1860s, he built a small stage station and put in a few crops, mostly grain. Centrally located, and with easy access in all directions, Murry’s Ranch soon became the focal point of activity in the area.
Act 1 - 1867
In November of 1867, an Indian guided the prospectors to gold near Murry Creek; however, the ore was not plentiful and prevalence of copper interfered with the gold and silver milling processes. In 1872 tragedy struck the small camp when neighbors noticed the Murry cabin on fire. Rushing to help, they found Murry inside, dead from a gunshot. However, the mystery of his death was never solved. Tales of the Robinson Mining District reached the East and, in 1878, the Selby Copper Mining & Smelting Co. arrived on the scene and built the first copper smelter at the junction of Robinson and Murry canyons. President of the Selby Company was a man named Smith Ely, and soon the few cabins built near the mill site took on the name of Ely City. Though the smelter itself was not successful, running a mere two years, by November of 1878 enough people had settled at Ely City to have a Post Office established.
Act 2 - Twenty Years Later
In 1885, a disaster struck that had a prime bearing on the future of Ely. Fire! The dread of all mining camps completely demolished the White Pine County Courthouse at Hamilton. As that county seat had been declining for years, the White Pine County Commissioners (spearheaded by William Crane Gallagher, chairman) challenged Hamilton for the honor. Probably a prime reason for wanting the move was that Gallagher owned a ranch near the entrance to Duck Creek Valley, some 70 miles distant, making it a long way to travel by horseback, buggy or stagecoach with the heavy snows of winter making it almost impossible. Anyway, early in 1887 a bill was introduced to the State Legislature to move the county seat to Ely; and, in anticipation, the Canto Mining Co. in April deeded 20 acres for the Ely townsite and even cleared the land. The very next week, W.N. McGill surveyed and staked out several blocks and the lots were promptly sold. Then, on August 1, Ely was finally officially designated as White Pine’s county seat. The momentous occasion and the possibilities of growth were cheered by the some 200 citizens of the town. Yet, Ely was still “waiting in the wings.”
Act 3 - Another Twenty Years Later
Enter the HERO! -- Mark L. Requa! About 1902, Mr. Requa looked over the original D.C. McDonald claims owned by Dave Bartley and Edwin Gray at Ruth (named for McDonald’s little daughter). This man, Requa, large in stature, vision and energy, and son of a Virginia City miner, realized the enormity and potential of the huge copper fields. He acquired the claims, formed the White Pine Copper Co., and set the stage for Ely’s boom. Realizing that a railroad was the key to expansion, Requa headed East, managed to get Eastern capital involved, surveyed and laid out the railroad and the huge copper mill and smelter at McGill. Then, when the first trains arrived at Ely on September 29, 1906 on the new Nevada Northern Railway, Ely finally shined as the star in White Pine County’s 40-year melodrama.
By Kristi Fillman
Ely continued to shine as copper became king. In 1905, Requa pooled his assets and formed the Nevada Consolidated Copper Company. Holdings were an estimated 26 million tons of copper reserves. Ore was taken from huge open pits near Ruth, Nevada, then hauled by rail to the smelter in McGill for processing, then 140 miles up Steptoe Valley to connect with the Southern Pacific at Cobre (39 miles east of Wells).
The Kennecott Copper Corporation purchased Nevada Consolidated in 1958 and continued to extract ore until 1979. After Kennecott closed, hundreds of families moved away from White Pine County. Faced with severe economic depression, the community struggled to develop new industry. Tourism became a major focal point with the Nevada Northern Railway opening as a tourist railroad. The designation of the Great Basin National Park in 1986 also meant more travelers. A maximum security prison was constructed near Ely during this time and continues to be a major employer in the area.
The Ely Renaissance Society has been working tirelessly since the mid-1990s on restoration and beautification projects throughout Ely’s downtown area. In an effort to re-vitalize the town, they have raised money for numerous historic mural projects, sculptures, renovation of a historic 1950s gas station, as well as the renovation of the Geraghty property. The Geraghty’s owned a freight transport and storage business in Ely and a tremendous number of antiques were preserved in houses on their property. Members of the Renaissance Society have been going through all of the items and have set up different themed houses on the property with the items on display inside. Some of the nationalities represented at the site are Greek, Basque and Spanish. There is a platform and stairway from the historic Nevada Northern Railway train line just uphill from the village so train riders can visit this fascinating site. It is like stepping back in time to see how people in another era lived. The Ely Renaissance Society has also developed the Art Bank, a gallery and cultural center with a permanent art collection that depicts the Great Basin area and White Pine county. Local artists' work is also on display and for sale.
Ely boomed again as Magma Nevada Copper Corporation re-opened operations at the old Ruth pits in the early 1990’s. Magma subsequently sold the operation to BHP Billiton, but the whole operation closed again in 1999. Again the community struggled to survive and at this time the new Ely Mural Project was born.
Today, the town is again a-buzz as Quadra Mining again re-opened the mine near Ruth.
“Roadside History of Nevada,” by Richard Moreno.
“Ely Times” local newspaper.
At the junction of highways 6, 50 and 93 in eastern Nevada.
For more information: elynevada.net