This time Ely made an impression. We had been through this Western Nevada town of about 4,000 people before, but Ruth and I never paid much attention to its past or present. This time we did and benefited. We stopped and had lunch in its public park where a lot of schoolchildren were taking a break from academics. Ely’s past included copper mines. Its present has quality of life characteristics.
Ely is one of the few real towns on Highway 50, the so-called loneliest road in America. There are really only 4 of them of consequence: Fallon, Eureka, Austin, and Ely, and Ely is the largest of the 4. Austin is built into the side of a mountain. Ely is far more traditional. It’s a place of murals and mountains.
The most interesting building in Ely is the Hotel Nevada. This is a 6 story hotel with reasonably priced accommodations. The Hotel Nevada was founded during Prohibition, and for many years it was the tallest building in the state. It opened for business in 1929, 2 years before gambling was legalized in Nevada. When it opened, it had 100 rooms, but it has been modernized and now has only 64 rooms. A donkey dressed as a cowboy has graced one of its exterior walls since the 1930s. It’s still there but has been restored more than once.
One of the more interesting towns near Ely is Ruth. Ruth, not my co-creator but a mining town, harks back to Ely’s glory years when it was Nevada’s largest mining center. The mining town called Ruth is not on Highway 50. It was once the scene of the world’s largest copper pit when Kennecott and other copper mines flourished in this area. They have all closed and agriculture and tourism are now the area’s main economic job providers. About the only evidence of Ely’s mining past still around are some beehive shaped charcoal ovens once used in smelting copper. They have not been used since the 1870s but are still a tourist attraction not too far from Ely. For a brief period of time these structures became hiding places for bandits who held up stagecoaches. Another business from the past that still thrives is in the tiny town of McGill 12 miles north of Ely. Its one-time drugstore contains an old-fashioned soda fountain that still gets attention. Ely was once a stop on the short-lived Pony Express, another claim to past glory.
Most of the tourists who find Ely now have come up from Las Vegas to see Great Basin National Park. This requires 244 miles of travel, so a few detours on the way find these tourists driving the Extraterrestrial Highway and visiting Basin and Range National Monument. The Lehman Caves are in Great Basin National Park as are the remains of a bristlecone pine forest up to its tree line. This National Park soars up to 13,060 feet, and one of its more popular lures is an annual Astronomy Festival. Low humidity and minimal light pollution make this destination not too far from Ely an ideal place for star-gazing.