Elko was established in 1868 in anticipation of the Central Pacific Railroad's arrival. The rails came through on Christmas Eve that year and served as the east end terminus. The railroad's arrival also provided Elko a year-round connection with the outside world. Charles Crocker, one of the original financiers of the Central Pacific, likely named the town.
Six months after the railroad arrived, development flourished. Elko had two banks, 45 saloons, three hardware stores, eight doctors, eight attorneys and scores of other businesses. In 1875, the Elko Water and Flour Milling Company opened and would soon be responsible for modernizing the town in two important ways. First, the company brought water to Elko's municipal water system via a canal built from the Humboldt River about nine miles away. Second, in the 1890s, the mill generated the town's first electricity using a power-producing system associated with the milling process.
Elko became a critical distribution point for the Central Pacific in northeastern Nevada, and was quickly established as the central business hub for the otherwise desolate Elko County. A sizeable population of Chinese immigrants who worked on the railroad returned to Elko after they finished laying the tracks in 1869.
In October 1983, Union Pacific opened new railroad tracks in Elko as a result of "Project Lifesaver" — an effort that relocated two main line railroad tracks from the heart of downtown. In addition to improving safety, "Project Lifesaver" also transformed the community's transportation network, positioning the city for future growth.
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