Bright Neon and Faded Dreams on the ‘Loneliest Highway in America’

The Hotel Nevada is the flashiest place in Ely, Nev. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

The Hotel Nevada is the flashiest place in Ely, Nev. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

ELY, Nev. — It’s hard to miss the Hotel Nevada. It has bright, colorful lights, neon and if I’m not mistaken it’s the biggest place in town. It was the tallest building in the entire state when it opened in 1929.

Ely is a former mining town along the Central Overland Route, the mail delivery trail between Salt Lake City and San Francisco first used in 1858. This path across central Nevada, which was later followed by the Pony Express, can trace its origins to a man looking to win a bet.

According to The Overland MailLeRoy R. Hafen’s 1926 authoritative history of mail delivery in the American West:

[A] Utah pioneer, Howard Egan, had explored a direct route from northern California to Salt Lake City which followed very nearly the fortieth parallel, north latitude. In September, 1855, he retraced his steps and won a wager by riding a mule back from Salt Lake City to Sacramento in ten days.

Later, the Central Pacific Railroad, part of the first transcontinental rail link between California and the East, bypassed this route for one through northern Nevada along the Humboldt River.

When the Lincoln Highway came through Nevada, it followed the old Central Overland Route, bringing crosscountry travelers right through Ely. But when the Interstate Highway System was planned, I-80 tracked north along the Humboldt River, leaving Ely isolated on the so-called “Loneliest Highway in America.”

Every town out this way is an oasis since the distance to the next sizable human settlement along the road can be as many as 168 miles away. In this isolation, such a showy establishment like the Hotel Nevada certainly stands out. But for all the glitz and glam in the center of town, the rest of Ely felt like a very lonely place when I drove into town. Continue reading