As we end the year, it’s time to commemorate the one-hundredth birthday of yet another community that owes its origins to a railroad. Happy birthday, Elko!
On December 29, 1868, the Central Pacific Railroad founded the town. Starting with construction in 1863, the Central Pacific had slowly but surely crossed the Sierra Nevada and then moved across our state’s northern tier. It began Reno in May and the town of Winnemucca in September. The Central Pacific kept driving east toward the Union Pacific, which was being built west from Nebraska (and trivia buffs might enjoy the reminder that the Nebraska Territory was created the same day as the Nevada Territory—March 2, 1861).
Anyway, by 1868, the Central Pacific was getting closer to the Utah line. While the workers continued eastward, the camp they left behind became a town for freighting for the railroad and nearby miners and ranchers. Supposedly, Elko got its name from the railroad’s superintendent of construction, Charles Crocker. He reportedly liked animal names, so he tacked an O onto Elk, and that was that. The next March, the legislature created Nevada’s newest county in the northeastern part of the state, and named the county for its county seat. Shortly thereafter, a twenty-thousand-dollar courthouse went up at Sixth and Idaho. The town’s first newspaper, the Elko Independent, soon made its debut, and the Presbyterian Church became the first house of worship in the community.
Elko quickly made an imprint on the state. In 1870, less than two years after the county’s founding, one of its ranchers won election as governor. Democrat Lewis Rice Bradley served two terms. He took on the Comstock mining corporations, which helps explain why he lost his bid for a third term. But in the meantime, the legislature approved creation of our first institution of higher learning, called Nevada State College, which opened in Elko in 1874 with six students. It moved to Reno in 1886, but Great Basin College is a key part of our higher education system and the Elko community.
Bradley was the first from Elko to affect the state, but not the last. Politically, his son-in-law Charles Belknap spent more than two decades on the Nevada Supreme Court. His grandson Charles Belknap Henderson became a U.S. senator. An Elko County district attorney, Grant Sawyer, went on to serve two terms as governor. Longtime Elko attorney Jack Robbins was a dominant figure in the state legislature for many years.
Elko also pioneered something Las Vegas and Reno are better known for. Newt Crumley’s Commercial Hotel was the first Nevada resort to hire big-name entertainers. It all began in 1941 with Ted Lewis, an old vaudevillian known for asking, “Is everybody happy?” He earned twelve thousand a week, and so many more have followed. One entertainer never performed in Elko officially but was part of the town: Bing Crosby bought ranches in the area and was named the city’s honorary mayor. One of his policy announcements was that he would close all of Elko’s saloons, but not until everybody was inside.
In recent years, Elko has grown to more than twenty thousand residents. It has been known for the mining boom that has enriched the area and the nearby ranches, as well as events like the Cowboy Poetry Festival and the Elko Basque Festival in honor of that large segment of the community and its surroundings. The Western Folklife Center helps commemorate its past—a past we celebrate, one-hundred-and-fifty years after Elko began.