Elko got its start in the last week of 1868 as a small community of tents, a beginning shared by many Old West towns along the soon to-be-completed Transcontinental Railroad. By March, 1869, it was the county seat of the newly created county of the same name. The railroad's completion in May helped the town grow as a major freight terminal serving the region's vital mining industry. Nearly 125 years later, Elko was named the country's number one small town in Norman Crampton's book, "The 100 Best Small Towns in America."
At 5,060 feet, Elko enjoys a temperate climate. Encouraged by the high desert's open expanse, cattle ranching soon became as important to the region as mining. It wasn't long before the cattle ranchers, used to having the grazing land to themselves, began butting heads with some new arrivals in the West, Basque immigrants hired for their sheepherding skills. After a few armed conflicts, calmer heads prevailed and decided that compromise over, who got what, would better serve all those involved.
The Basque people hail from the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France; their language is unlike any other in Europe. The Basques gather in Elko annually in July to celebrate their culture at the National Basque Festival. Events include folk dancing, weight lifting, and wood chopping competitions, a talent show, and the Irrintzi (war cry) contest.
You'll get a good overview of Elko's history at the Northeastern Nevada Museum, 1515 Idaho Street, (702) 738-3418. Exhibits on mining and Basque culture are complemented by an art gallery, wildlife displays, and an impressive collection of historic firearms. Near the entrance, stands Elko's oldest structure, an 1860 Pony Express Cabin, relocated from the Ruby Valley.
A stroll around town reveals other historic build ings, including the 1869 Dewar Home, the 1910 County Courthouse, and the 1929 Henderson Bank Building. The Chamber of Commerce can provide walking tour information.
For those looking for one arm bandits and other gaming (this is Nevada after all), there's Stockmen's Casino, Red Lion Casino, and Gold Country Casino. In addition to catering to gamblers, the 120-year-old Commercial Hotel has the distinction of displaying Nevada's largest stuffed polar bear. The legacy and imagery associated with cowboys and buckaroos are brought into focus at the Western Folklife Center, 5th and Railroad streets, (702) 738 7508. Formerly the Pioneer Hotel, constructed in 1912-13 for the impressive sum of $50,000, the center hosts several art and photography exhibits, concerts, and cultural events throughout the year. It sponsors the famed Cowboy Poetry Gathering, in late January. A week of workshops, music, stories, and, yes, poetry, the Gathering is enormously popular. It's not too early to make reservations now, if you plan to attend next year.
Southeast of town, the high desert gives way to the aspen, spruce, and pinon of the Ruby Mountains. Nick named the "Alps of Nevada," the Rubies run through part of the Humboldt National Forest. The peaks are snow covered year-round, standing sentinel over alpine lakes, glacier-carved canyons, and high-mountain wildlife.