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White Pine County

White Pine County Courthouse
Courtesy Wikipedia
White Pine County Courthouse

Only five years after Nevada became a state in 1864, White Pine and Elko Counties were born. This year they turn 150.

Mining booms usually spawn a lot of stories about their origins. White Pine was no different. In July 1867, Jack Leathers was asleep in his little house on White Pine Mountain. He heard a noise and found a Native American and ran him off. A few days later, the Indian returned with some silver ore he had found. This led to what Russell Elliott, the longtime Nevada historian, called probably the shortest, most intense mining rush in the history of the West. Within two years, estimates of the area’s population ran as high as 12,000. That’s pushing it. In 1870, its first census, White Pine’s population was nearly 7,200, making it the second largest county in Nevada, behind Storey. Unquestionably, though, a lot of people flocked to the mining district and its main community, Hamilton, named for a mine promoter.

We told you about the founding of Elko a couple of months ago. Elko County’s situation was different—there wasn’t a big mining boom. But a significant population moved into the area in connection with the Central Pacific Railroad and needed some local government.

Hamilton and other mining town residents quickly decided they needed their own county. So did the people around Elko. At the time, both places were in eastern Lander County. Lander had had its own mining boom in Austin. People around Hamilton wanted government closer to home, and began a petition drive. The first proposed name for the new county was Ruby, as in Ruby Valley, north of them. But the mining district was being referred to by the mountain range it was part of: White Pine. In 1869, the legislature created White Pine County and Elko County.

But territories and counties often have fought a reduction in their geographic boundaries or influence. Forty years later, Lincoln County wouldn’t exactly welcome the creation of Clark County out of its southern portion. Lander County was no different when it came to White Pine and Elko being carved out of it. There also was a similar issue: Lander County’s debt. Just as Clark County would have to accept some of Lincoln’s debt, White Pine and Elko Counties would have to pay some of what Lander owed. And White Pine and its county seat of Hamilton soon had their own problems. Soon, the boom went bust. By 1880, the county population had shrunk to just under 2,700. It dropped another thousand in the next decade before the turnaround came, thanks to new copper mines in Ely and nearby company towns like Ruth, Kimberly, and McGill.

Elko County had an easier time at the start. A year after its creation, one of its residents, rancher Lewis Rice Bradley, won Nevada’s governorship. Because it depended on the railroad more than it did on mining in those days, Elko’s population didn’t drop as precipitously as White Pine’s did. The recent success of mining there has sent Elko’s population skyrocketing … while Ely became the base for the Nevada Northern Railway, now housed at a railroad museum in White Pine. Mining, railroads, fights over county division and debt … sounds like Nevada’s places have a lot in common, don’t they?