Silver was discovered in Pony Canyon in May 1862, and the Reese River mining district was organized. The camp of Clifton formed at the mouth of the canyon, and by 1863 boasted a Wells Fargo office, hotels, restaurants, numerous stores and a population of around 500. A post office opened on March 26 of that year. During this time, nearby Austin was experiencing growth of its own, and the two camps became rivals. While Clifton boasted wide streets and level land, Austin was offering free lots to merchants who helped build a road to the Reese River Valley below. By May, Clifton was ahead of Austin by about 50 people and three saloons. Clifton's prosperity would end, however, when the new grade to Austin bypassed the town and Austin was chosen as the Lander County seat. It's post office would only last until February 20 of the next year.

The last activity Clifton would see was in 1880, when it was chosen as the terminus for the Nevada Central Railway. The Nevada Central Railway was completed in 1880 and connected the mines around Austin to the Southern Pacific in Battle Mountain. Since stages and teamsters were overcharged to use the road between Clifton and Austin, a local banker and superintendent of the Manhattan Mine named Alan A. Curtis fought back. He was granted a right of way from the Nevada Central yard to a point in Austin and constructed the narrow gauge Austin City Railway from Clifton to a point just east of the Lander County Courthouse in 1881. The Austin City Railway would operate until 1889, when a reduction in ore forced its closure. The Nevada Central would continue to operate, primarily serving area ranches, until the 1930s.

Today, the most prominent remnants of Clifton are those of the 40-stamp mill built in 1894 by J.G. Phelps Stokes. A roping arena sits at the site of the Nevada Central Railway yard.

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