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Battered Nevada Town Finally Feels a Hint of Shifting Economic Winds

November 30, 1986|WILLIAM TROMBLEY | Times Staff Writer

ELY, Nev. — When the huge Kennecott copper smelter shut down in 1983 and its 750-foot stack no longer belched sulfur dioxide fumes into the clear skies, there was every possibility that this community of 4,500 people in the remote eastern stretches of Nevada might become another mining ghost town.

That still could happen, but energetic local leaders, helped by state and federal officials, are working hard to prevent it.

"There are a lot of hopeful things on the horizon," druggist and civic leader Art Olson said recently. "I just hope we can hold on till they get here."

Among them are plans by the state of Nevada to build a 500-bed maximum-security prison 10 miles north of Ely that would provide about 500 construction jobs and 230 permanent jobs afterward.

And next summer, a new "historical railroad" is scheduled to open, offering steam locomotive rides for tourists.

Large mining companies are also showing renewed interest in exploring for gold around Ely, now that the price has climbed to about $400 an ounce on world markets and the South African supply is in doubt because of that country's political troubles.

In the next few years a national park--Nevada's first--will take shape in the South Snake Mountains, about 60 miles east of Ely.

In addition, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and 13 other utilities are considering building a large, coal-fueled power plant in the area.

"I think we've hit close to bottom, and we're going to start moving the other way," said George L. Carnes, general manager of the Ely Daily Times (circulation 2,350). "But I hesitate to say that because every time I've said it in the past, something else happened to us."

A few days after Carnes spoke, Ely suffered another blow when financial problems forced the closing of the Hotel Nevada, one of the community's four casinos.

Ely's difficulties began in 1978, when Kennecott Minerals Co. closed its huge copper mine in Ruth, a few miles east of Ely, because "costs had accelerated to the point where we were not able to compete in the world market," said Ralph N. Orgill, superintendent of Nevada operations for Kennecott.

From 1978 to 1983 the company continued to operate a smelter in McGill, 11 miles north of Ely, using copper from other mines and building a 750-foot stack to meet new environmental standards by carrying sulfur dioxide fumes higher into the air.

But in 1983, Orgill said, "further deterioration of the copper market meant there was just nothing left to smelt, so we had no alternative but to put the smelter in mothballs and wait for better times."

This meant that a mine and mill that 15 years ago produced 60,000 tons of copper a year and employed 2,000 people to do it fell silent, leaving Orgill and a staff of nine to rattle around in the empty Kennecott buildings.

"We were a one-industry town," druggist Olson said. "Almost overnight, we lost 2,000 jobs and an $18-million payroll."

Kennecott still owns about 54 million tons of unmined ore at Ruth and more than 90 million tons of copper tailings at McGill. But with copper prices at only 60 to 65 cents a pound, Orgill said, it is "unrealistic to even think about reopening."

At about the same time, livestock prices fell, hurting the cattle and sheep ranchers who were a small but steady source of revenue for Ely and surrounding White Pine County.

"Cattle has been a losing proposition for the last four years," said Bob Dickenson, who grazes about 700 cows on a 3,000-acre ranch 30 miles west of Ely.

Prices are low, Dickenson said, because Americans are eating less beef while production costs have risen and more beef is being imported, among other factors.

Like many women in the area, Dickenson's wife, Ellie, has gone back to work, teaching three Basque sheepherder's youngsters in a one-room school and also teaching an English class at the small Ely branch of Northern Nevada Community College.

For a time, as Kennecott was shutting down, oil exploration took up some of the slack. Some good producing areas were found in Railroad Valley, 70 miles south of Ely, but then oil prices tumbled and both exploration and production ceased.

According to U.S. Census figures, the population of White Pine County dropped from 10,150 in 1970 to an estimated 7,888 in July, 1985. About 4,500 people are believed to live in Ely.

In McGill, where the union hall is boarded up and only a few stores remain open, population has fallen from 2,400 to about 800.

"Just about everybody has been blown away who could be blown away," said Kent Harper, editor of the Ely Daily Times.

Schools and businesses have closed. Even the town's three brothels have suffered. One has closed, at least temporarily. A prostitute at the Green Lantern, one of the two still open, complained one recent evening that she had been unable to make enough money the previous week to buy a bus ticket out of town. (Brothels are legal in White Pine County, as they are in most of rural Nevada.)

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