True Grit: Wells
November – December 2019
Tenacious and resilient, this small town faces life at the crossroads.
BY MEGG MUELLER
A person with true grit is often defined as someone who sticks to their goals, despite problems, setbacks, and failures. Having true grit means you are tough and determined…you have a steadfast core. In 2019, we have highlighted towns in Nevada that have that core strength. Not all towns in Nevada have huge shiny tourist draws; many exist along the highways that traverse our state but aside from getting gas or grabbing food to go, they are easily overlooked. Nevada roads go on forever. Small towns appear on the horizon, but are often quickly in the rearview mirror with little more than a passing thought about the town’s existence. And while tourism is the state’s largest industry—and the focus of this magazine—it is not why all towns in Nevada exist. This year, we have honored some of those towns that defy easy description but stand tall in the desert, refusing to give into the sways of economic hardship or the passing of time. These towns bloom in the dirt, and they embody true grit. This issue: Wells.
Mother Nature has tried to have her way with the northeastern town of Wells. Fires and a powerful earthquake have done their best to level the micropolitan burg about 50 miles east of Elko, without success. So too did the winds of change, when the town was all but bypassed by progress, but in the face of it all, Wells has persevered and maintained its charm while keeping a weather eye on the future.
RIVER OF LIFE
The Humboldt River flows for 290 miles through Nevada’s Great Basin region. It begins in Wells, and flows not to the sea, but to the Humboldt Sink past Lovelock. Its headwaters, naturally, attracted the attention of those who came upon the river at the northern tip of the Clover Valley.
The lush valley was utilized by Shoshone, trappers, and wagon trains for hundreds of years before the Central Pacific Railroad put it on the map in 1869. The Humboldt River provided the perfect water stop for the steam locomotives, and by 1871 the town had grown to about 300 people and included a Wells Fargo office, saloon, hotel, and general store.
Massive fires tried to raze the town in 1877, 1881, and 1900. Each time, Wells rebuilt. Because the only work in the area came from the railroad, local ranches, and some nearby mining, Wells never experienced a population boom like so many other Nevada towns.
The town continued to be an important stop for the railroad, however. It was a helper engine station, allowing trains to put on additional locomotives as needed to climb the Pequop Mountains to the east. During the 1940s, however, the steam engine was fading from the railways. Powerful diesel engines took their place and Wells was no longer needed as a helper station. By the 1970s, the railroad was no longer a main economic driver for the town.
As the railroad’s role diminished, the area ranches and mining operations continued to support the town, as did its location as a major transportation route across the state. Wells sits at the junction of U.S. Route 93—running north from Arizona to Canada—and Interstate 80, which traverses the country from California to New Jersey.
ROAD TO OPPORTUNITY
Wells has long capitalized on its opportune location, catering to thousands of travelers each day. Gas stations, truck stops, and restaurants dot the east end of town, beckoning weary drivers. Getting people to stop is fairly easy, but the plan in the early 2000s was to increase reasons to visit in the first place. The buildings in the historic downtown were being spruced up with a walking tour for tourists as the goal. Bringing people away from the highway exits with a place to explore and learn about the town’s history was the future, but alas, Mother Nature hadn’t finished with Wells yet.
On the morning of Feb. 21, 2008, an earthquake hit the town. With a magnitude of 6, it originated just 5 miles from town, and its powerful shaking damaged or destroyed more than 30 buildings. Many were the historic buildings in downtown. It was one more setback, and the town is still recovering from the loss. A new plan is underway for economic stability.
Mindy Carter is president of the Chamber of Commerce, and to her, bringing the community of about 1,300 together is key.
“We have a lot of new plans. We are focusing on business and community development,” she says. “A lot of our efforts are going into making Wells a place you want to come visit and getting people out to events.”
The support of the townspeople is crucial, and Mindy notes that Wells has a lot of diversity in its residents, from young families to retirees. Creating events that include the entire community brings more people to town, gives residents a sense of pride, and enriches the quality of life in Wells. These things all translate into a stronger town.
Since the earthquake and the crumbling of the historic district, Wells has diversified its economic base to include a 160-acre industrial park that offers multiple transportation opportunities at a natural crossroads. The town’s population has fluctuated very little in the last few decades, with ranching, mining support, and the service industry keeping Wells moving forward.
“We are very diverse in how we flourish economically,” Mindy notes. “We have a lot on the horizon. We’ve been working on the older buildings, getting them ready for possible development. We also just started the Main Street Program this year.”
Revitalizing the downtown area will hopefully attract visitors to stay a little longer. The area has always been a recreational hub for anglers, hunters, and outdoor enthusiasts drawn to area lakes and rivers. It’s those folks, and the ones stopping to fill up along the crossroads, that Wells wants to encourage to take a look around.
“It’s a pretty great little town. I think people don’t really give us a chance…they hit the exits, and that’s it,” Mindy explains. “I would like for people to know we have a whole town of things to see in between those two exits. Get off the exit, and drive through town. See what we have to offer.”