Ely: Mining, Murals, and Trains, Oh My

Downtown public mural in Ely, Nevada – July 2014

Sometimes you just need a break from the hectic retired life. How about a road trip? Vegas? Hawaii? Been there, done that. Since Deb and I like to sample remote destinations, Ely, Nevada, is the place to be. And it fulfills our main requirement by being remote—the nearest metropolis, Las Vegas, is 240 miles distant.

An important second reason for a summer visit to Ely is its 6,437 foot elevation. The average July high temperature is 87.6 degrees, considerably lower than Mesquite’s July average of 100+. Sited in the foothills of the Egan Range Mountains, Ely is a winter playground and summer refuge from the heat.

Located in east central Nevada, Ely began as a stagecoach station along the Pony Express and Central Overland Route. It later developed a ranching and mining-based economy with copper mining predominating. While some mines continue operating, the last mining giant Kennecott Copper Company mine closed in 1978 due to declining copper prices. Ely is the largest city (4,255 population according to the 2010 census) and county seat of White Pine County. In recent decades tourism became the economic mainstay.

Public mural in downtown Ely, Nevada - July 2104

Public mural in downtown Ely, Nevada – July 2104

Your first stop should be the White Pine County Chamber of Commerce at 636 Aultman Street. Wayne Cameron, the friendly and knowledgeable executive director, showered us with detailed information about Ely and White Pine County. A few blocks away is the White Pine Public Museum jam packed with its extensive doll collection, mineral collection, and items from local Native American and western pioneer life.

Downtown Ely public mural with steam locomotive and cowboys, Ely, Nevada - July 2014

Downtown Ely public mural with steam locomotive and cowboys, Ely, Nevada – July 2014

Since the Chamber was in the downtown area, we walked around exploring. One quickly notices the abundance of public art including a sculpture park with a labyrinth and more than 20 colorful murals depicting scenes from Ely history—cowboys, mining and miners, and railroads predominate. We also passed the six story Hotel Nevada, a popular lodging, dining, gambling, and tourist stop. Dating from 1929 it was the tallest man-made structure in the Silver State when it opened.

Steam locomotive at the Nevada Northern Railway, Ely, Nevada - July 2014

Steam locomotive at the Nevada Northern Railway, Ely, Nevada – July 2014

A major attraction is the Nevada Northern Railway Museum (a National Historic Landmark) at 1100 Avenue A. As the Industrial Revolution gained steam, America developed a huge appetite for copper. The metal was a prime component of new electrical devices such as motors, light bulbs, and telephones. Much of the demand was met by mines around Ely. Established in 1906 the Nevada Northern Railroad hauled the ore from isolated mines to the smelter, and refined copper to the rest of the country.

The full service railway complex occupies 56 acres with more than 40 historic buildings, shops, and other structures. You can explore and watch mechanics maintain steam locomotives and various types of railway cars. It’s gritty and dirty, just as a railway yard should be. Deb and I got close up views of mechanics repairing multi-ton steam engines. Walking through the museum lets you experience first-hand the technology necessary to move mountains of copper ore. The Northern Nevada Railway harkens back to an era when Americans built things that last. Visit the museum for a rare up close look at trains and take a train ride. (See the Northern Nevada Railway website for schedule and prices of train rides: http://www.nnry.com/). Adult museum tickets are $6.

Nevada Northern Railway yard, Ely, Nevada - July 2014

Nevada Northern Railway yard, Ely, Nevada – July 2014

We spent the night at the Jailhouse Motel Casino in the downtown area and played a little video poker. Deb won a couple of high hands and walked away a winner. I, of course, continued my lengthy losing streak. This establishment provides diners with the rare opportunity to consume nutrients inside an actual jail cell. We passed on that opportunity, mostly because of my extreme cellophobia (due to my jail cell experiences as a youth).

Visiting Ely, you can almost feel the civic effort to reinvent itself. It has suffered through the typical booms and busts of many Western mining towns. While mining has picked up a bit in recent years, Ely seems determined to become a destination point for tourists. As an example, for a small town, Ely offers a fairly wide variety of culinary delights including two Mexican, a Chinese, and Italian restaurants.

Shoshone woman gathering pinenuts statute in downtown Ely, Nevada - July 2014

Shoshone woman gathering pinenuts statute in downtown Ely, Nevada – July 2014

Classic depot of the Nevada Northern Railway, Ely, Nevada - July 2014

Classic depot of the Nevada Northern Railway, Ely, Nevada – July 2014

Everyone should make the four-hour drive from Mesquite to Ely and experience the throwback to an historic small town pace.

Tom Garrison is now retired and enjoying libertarian life in beautiful St. George, Utah with his wife Deb and two cats. His latest book, Challenge Authority: Memoir of a Baby Boomer (January 2014), is available as an e-book and paperback at all online bookstores. You may contact Tom by emailing him at tomgarrison98@yahoo.com


  1. Thank you so much, Tom, for the great article on Ely and the Nevada Northern Railway! This Labor Day Weekend, the Nevada Northern Railway will be hosting its 4th annual Plein Air Outdoor Arts Festival. We are encouraging all artists, artisans, crafters and vendors to come out and join us — and THERE IS NO CHARGE TO PARTICIPATE. The event kicks off with the Meet the Artists Steam Train on Fri., Aug. 29 at 4:30 p.m. (free to participants and their guests) and continues all weekend. People can come for as long as they can. And, of course, we invite the public to come watch ‘live art’ created before their eyes. The theme is Come to Watch! Come to Paint! Come to Create!

    To stay connected, please LIKE us at http://www.facebook.com/nnry1. Our Saturday night special event trains continue through mid-September. KIDS RIDE FREE, Mondays-Thursdays at 9:30 a.m. and Mondays are generally steam-powered. Our Haunted Ghost Trains in October sell out every year, followed by our award-winning Polar Express rides to the North Pole, Nov/December. We’ve been featured SEVEN times on History’s hit show, “American Restorations.”

    We look forward to seeing you and your readers again at the Nevada Northern Railway. http://www.nnry.com. Thanks, again! – Dany

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