In November 1867, an Indian led prospectors from Egan Canyon to deposits near Murry Creek, and by March the Robinson Mining District was organized. The first camp in the new district was Mineral City, and for nearly a decade all development was centered there. Along with the gold and silver that the prospectors seeked, copper was found in large quantities and deemed a nuisance. That changed in 1878, when the Selby Copper Mining & Smelting Company arrived and erected the first copper smelter near the confluence of Robinson and Murry canyons. Before long, a small camp initially known as Ely City developed, named for Selby's president, Smith Ely.

Ely maintained a small presence for several years. In 1885, fire struck Hamilton, the White Pine County seat, and devastated that town. As Hamilton was already in decline, the county seat moved to Ely in 1887. In preparation, the Canton Mining Company donated 20 acres for a new Ely townsite, which was platted by W.N. McGill. Before the end of the year, Ely was on its way to becoming a bustling business center. By the end of the decade, Ely had a population of 300, a Wells Fargo office, a newspaper (the White Pine News), and stage lines to Eureka, Cherry Creek, Sunnyside, and Frisco, Utah.

In 1902, Mark Requa arrived and purchased properties at nearby Ruth, forming the White Pine Copper Company. Within a few years, Requa formed the Nevada Consolidated Copper Co. by combining the White Pine Copper Co. with the Boston & Nevada Copper Co. and other holdings. Soon, plans were made for a new railroad connecting the copper mines to the Southern Pacific main line. With these new plans, the real rush to Ely began. On September 29, 1906, a copper spike was driven to signify completion of the new Nevada Northern Railway. A large railyard, with a handsome new depot, was laid out east of town, and the new community of East Ely grew up in response; Ely gained its own depot in 1908. In 1908, construction was completed on a massive new smelter at McGill, bringing production from $2,363 in 1907 to over $2 million in 1908. By the end of the decade, over 2000 people lived in Ely.

After World War I, copper prices fell and the mines closed briefly in the early 1920s, before reopening and producing over $100 million before the end of that decade. In 1933, the Kennecott Copper Corporation acquired full ownership of the Nevada Consolidated Copper Co., which became the Nevada Consolidated Copper Corporation. Ten years later, the Corporation was renamed the Nevada Mines Division of the Kennecott Copper Corporation, and in 1958 the Corporation gained control of virtually all mines in the area. By 1970, over $1 billion had been produced - more than double what was produced on the Comstock Lode!

In 1978, Kennecott closed the mines and Ely's economy declined slightly, before tourism took over as a leading industry in town; Ely is the closest major town to Great Basin National Park, established in 1986, and the Nevada Northern Railway Museum is located in East Ely. From 1996-1999, the mines were reopened by the Broken Hill Proprietary Company, who even used the former Nevada Northern trackage to the Southern Pacific at Shafter. The mines were once again reopened in 2004, this time by Quadra FNX Mining, and are still in operation today under KGHM.

Nevada Northern Railway
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