Elko was settled with the coming of the railroad, which still runs past downtown Elko near the Humboldt River to this day
Though Elko lies along the route of the historic California Trail, it was first inhabited only in 1868, when it was at the east end of the railroad tracks built by Central Pacific Railroad (the portion of the First Transcontinental Railroad built from California to Utah). When the railroad crews moved on, Elko remained, serving as a center for ranching, mining, rail freight and general supplies.
View southwest along the Humboldt River from the 9th Street Footbridge in downtown Elko
Elko is said to have been named by Charles Crocker, a superintendent of the Central Pacific Railroad. He was especially fond of animal names and added the letter "o" to Elk. There is no definitive evidence of this naming history, but it has become the widely accepted version.
In 1925, the Kelly Act (also known as the Airmail Act of 1925) authorized the U.S. Post Office to contract with private airlines for the feeder routes that fed the main transcontinental route. The first commercial airmail flight in the United States was on the 487 mile Airmail Route #5 from Pasco, Washington to what would become Elko Regional Airport on April 6, 1926. The flight was piloted by Leon D. Cuddeback and included a brief stop in Boise, Idaho to pick up more mail.
Elko’s climate is semi-arid (Köppen climate classificationBSk). January is normally the coldest month of the year, with a daily average temperature of 25.1 °F (−3.8 °C), and July the hottest of the year, with a daily average of 70.2 °F (21.2 °C). There are an average of 1.8 days with 100 °F (37.8 °C) highs, 44 days of 90 °F (32.2 °C) highs, 24 days that do not top freezing, 198 nights with freezing lows, and 12 nights with sub-0 °F (−17.8 °C) lows; the growing season here is short, as the average window for freezing temperatures is September 10 through June 9. Annual precipitation averages 9.89 inches (251.2 mm), falling on an average of 81 days, whilst annual snowfall averages 41.5 inches (1.05 m). There are normally 130 sunny days each year. The highest temperature on record is 107 °F or 41.7 °C, most recently on July 4, 1981, and the lowest on record is −43 °F or −41.7 °C on January 21, 1937.
The most rainfall in 24 hours was 4.13 inches (104.9 mm) on August 27, 1970, and the most precipitation in one month 5.71 inches (145.0 mm) – all as snow – in January 1916. The most rainfall in one calendar year was 18.34 inches (465.8 mm) in 1983, and the least 4.35 inches (110.5 mm) in 1919, though from July 1923 to June 1924 only 3.72 inches (94.5 mm). The most snowfall in one month was 69.0 inches (1.75 m) in January 1890, with the most in one season being more than 91.00 inches (2.31 m) from July 1889 to June 1890 (some days being missing) and the least 6.00 inches (0.15 m) from July 1939 to June 1940. The greatest depth of snow on the ground is 24 inches or 0.61 metres on February 5, 1932, though an average winter will see a maximum snow cover of 7 inches or 0.18 metres.
There were 8,505 households out of which 40.6% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 54.8% were married couples living together, 9.8% had a female householder with no husband present, and 29.8% were non-families. 23.5% of all households were made up of individuals and 5.7% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.72 and the average family size was 3.26.
In the city the population was spread out with 31.1% under the age of 18, 9.8% from 18 to 24, 31.2% from 25 to 44, 21.0% from 45 to 64, and 7.6% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 31.5 years. For every 100 females there were 104.6 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 105.3 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $48,656, and the median income for a family was $52,263. Males had a median income of $42,155 versus $26,823 for females. The per capita income for the city was $19,680. About 6.1% of families and 8.2% of the population were below the poverty line, including 8.9% of those under age 18 and 8.4% of those age 65 or over.
Elko's economy is based heavily on gold mining, with ranching and tourism providing additional jobs. The city is considered the capital of Nevada's goldbelt. The state of Nevada produces more gold than all but four countries, most of which is mined near Elko. This has caused the town to have a boom and bust economy consistent with the rises and declines in the price of gold. The town is surrounded by hundreds of abandoned mining camps, and viewing them is a popular local activity. A gold boom in the 1980s that ended in a bust in the late 1990s left the town with large numbers of abandoned homes and left the local governments struggling to survive on reduced tax revenues. With a new gold boom starting in 2009, city officials have been reluctant to hire new employees and have decided to build a reserve in the city budget to prepare for the next bust.
Elko has struggled to bring in other industries, mostly because of its isolation, and the surrounding harsh desert environment. Hunter S. Thompson quipped that in Elko, "The federal government owns 90% of this land, and most of it is useless for anything except weapons testing and poison-gas experiments".
Elko is also the home of the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, and has been for the last 27 years. This festival is held each January and is a week-long celebration of life in the rural West, features poetry, music, stories, gear, film, photography, and food.
Every July, since 1963, Elko is host to the National Basque Festival. In 2013 they were scheduled to celebrate their 50th Anniversary. Humorously referred to as the "Basquo Fiasco," it is a celebration of traditional Basque culture and its ties to the Elko community. The festival includes strongman competitions, handball, a running of the bulls, traditional food and wine, and Basque Dancing.
The annual Elko Motorcycle Jamboree, also known as the "Rumble in the Rubies Motorcycle Rally" is usually held in June.
Elko Hot Hole, a hot spring on the southwest edge of the city
Elko is the home to the Western Folklife Center, which is regional nonprofit organization that works to expand understanding of the everyday traditions of people who live and work in the American West. The Western Folklife Center is located Downtown in the old Pioneer hotel.
The iconic "White King" at the Commercial Casino in downtown Elko
A number of casinos are also located in Elko, including Stockmen's Casino & Hotel, the Commercial Casino, the High Desert Casino, Gold Dust West, the Red Lion Casino, and the Gold County Inn & Casino. The Commercial Casino is notable for having a stuffed 10-foot-tall (3.0 m) polar bear on display. For many years the Red Lion brought gamblers to Elko from many parts of the country through flights on Casino Express. The flights to Elko ended in February 2006.
Elko is also home to legal prostitutes and contains active brothels. Under Nevada law, any county with a population of less than 400,000 is allowed to license brothels if it so chooses.
Several geothermal features are also located in Elko, the largest of which is the Elko Hot Hole. These features were utilized by travelers on the California Trail and subsequently by settlers.
Historically, Elko was the home base of a jet air carrier, Casino Express Airlines, which operated Boeing 737-200 jetliners to many cities in the U.S. on a scheduled charter basis in support of the local casino industry. Casino Express changed its name to Xtra Airways and relocated its headquarters to Boise, Idaho.
Elko Airport terminal
Elko also was previously served by United Airlines with scheduled passenger jet service during the 1970s and early 1980s. According to Official Airline Guide (OAG] flight schedules as well as the airline's system timetables, United operated Boeing 737-200 jetliners into the Elko Regional Airport on a year-round basis with a daily roundtrip routing of San Francisco (SFO)-Reno (RNO)-Elko (EKO)-Ely (ELY)-Salt Lake City (SLC). United eventually discontinued all service to Elko.
Elko was the main setting for Roland Smith's novel Zach's Lie.
Elko is the setting for Spring Creek author Patrick Harris' superhero series The Waterman Chronicles. Popular locations are featured, including the city's museum, downtown district, and surrounding landmarks.
Elko was one of the settings and filming locations of the 2005 film Don't Come Knocking, directed by Wim Wenders, and co-written by Wenders and Sam Shepard. The character Howard Spence (Shepard), a troubled actor in western films, runs off from a film set and visits his mother in Elko.