Before McGill ever developed as a smelter town, it was the location of a ranch started by John Cowger in 1872. In 1886, William Neil McGill acquired full control of the ranch, and along with former Nevada governor Jewett Adams began one of the largest livestock operations in the state. Their strong partnership continued into the 20th century, until Adams died in June 1920, followed by McGill in April 1923, after which their empire fell.

Enter the Steptoe Valley Mining & Smelter Company, who in 1906 began construction of a massive, $10 million smelter to process ore from mines near Ely and Ruth. The McGill Ranch area was chosen because the Cumberland and Ely Mining Company owned an eight-mile tract of land there, which would be used for large tailings ponds. In addition, water was easily accessible, and a pipeline was built to transport water from nearby Duck Creek. The Nevada Northern Railway was constructed to connect the mines and smelter, as well as create a link to the Southern Pacific at Cobre. On September 29, 1906, a copper spike was driven to signify completion of the railroad. The new smelter was placed into operation in May 1908, and began treating 8000 tons of ore each day.

By 1909, 2200 men were employed at the smelter. McGill had quickly developed into a fine company town, with businesses and homes built for workers; most notably along "The Circle," where large homes had been constructed for the Steptoe Company's supervisors. McGill even gained its own newspaper - the Copper Ore - and soon overtook Ely as the largest town in White Pine County. By 1920, almost 3000 people lived in town and the smelter was treating up to 15,000 tons per day.

Meanwhile, as McGill grew as a well-regulated company town, other surrounding communities soon emerged containing saloons, gambling halls, and other forms of entertainment for workers. Smelterville was two miles southwest of McGill, Ragdump two miles north, and Steptoe City ¾ mile northeast. Smelterville and Ragdump disestablished after a few years, but Steptoe City survived as a small suburb where workers lived when housing in town was limited, eventually even gaining a church and population of 150 before going up in flames in 1926.

On July 9, 1922, the nine acre concentrator at McGill was destroyed by fire, with damages exceeding $2 million. Nevertheless, the facility was quickly rebuilt and McGill continued to thrive, even surviving the Great Depression. After 1930, however, the population of McGill slowly started to decline. In 1933, the Kennecott Copper Corporation acquired full control of the copper mines and smelter. By the 1950s, copper ore reserves began to be depleted, and in 1983 the smelter was finally closed and completely dismantled by 1993.

Today, little McGill still maintains a population of around 1000, but many of its residents must commute to Ely or to the Ely State Prison. Several fine buildings dating to the 1920s line 4th Street - the former Lincoln Highway - showing the prosperity of the days when the smelter was at its peak.

Nevada Northern Railway

McGill Junction