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America's Loneliest Town Is Searching for a Match

It's four hours to the nearest airport, three hours to Walmart, and there's no high-speed internet. But this tiny mining town is still determined to join the 21st century.
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Laura Bliss/Madison McVeigh/CityLab

The isolation wasn’t always so profound. Founded in 1878 as a stagecoach stop along the Pony Express, Ely (pronounced “Ee-lee”) boomed in 1908, when copper was discovered in nearby hills. Five years later, the town got an extra shot of economic energy when the route for the Lincoln Highway came through downtown. (On plaques dotting 287 miles of largely unpeopled road, Nevada proudly dubs the Lincoln section of US 50 the “loneliest highway in America.”) Soon it joined with Route 93, bringing workers from across the country and world to the Robinson mine. By the mid-20th century, Ely boasted 6,000 residents and the state’s most productive mine.

Then came 1978, when depressed copper prices forced the pits to close. The smelter soon followed, and the unemployment rate jumped to near 25 percent across White Pine County. Since then, the mine has reopened and closed more times than folks can count, with new owners every time. Currently it’s operated by a Polish company on a bit of a hiring kick. But Ely’s economy remains strapped to the roller-coaster of the mineral markets. The town’s population has dropped by a third. The area’s other major employers are a state prison and a small hospital.