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April 28, 2015

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Highway 50 Revisited:

Already isolated, folks in Ely fear loss of air service


Leila Navidi

Downtown Ely seen Sunday, August 7, 2011.

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

The Loneliest Road: Ely

Mike Zigich of Ely crosses Highway 50 in downtown Ely on Sunday, Aug. 7, 2011. Launch slideshow »

The Loneliest Road: Ghost Train of Ely

Train master Adam Nini prepares the 1909 steam powered locomotive for the train ride outside the machine shop at the Nevada Northern Railway Museum in Ely Monday, August 8, 2011. Launch slideshow »
Click to enlarge photo

Twenty-five years ago this summer, Life magazine named U.S. Highway 50, as it crosses Central Nevada, the loneliest road in America. A photo of a straight stretch of empty highway fixed it in the national imagination as a symbol of the state's vast emptiness.

Editor’s note: Twenty-five years ago this summer, Life magazine named U.S. Highway 50, as it crosses Central Nevada, the loneliest road in America. A photo of a straight stretch of empty highway fixed it in the national imagination as a symbol of the state’s vast emptiness. To mark the anniversary of the Life photo, columnist J. Patrick Coolican and photographer Leila Navidi drove the length of U.S. 50 in Nevada to examine issues important in the rural communities along the highway, meet its people and explore loneliness in the hyper-connected age.

ELY — About as far away as anyplace you can possibly be and still be in the United States, but it’s right in the middle of everywhere.

That was the saying of a late friend of Ed Spear, executive director of the White Pine County Tourism & Recreation Board.

It sounds like a joke, like something out of a Christopher Guest movie-parody of a small Nevada town. I’m not even sure what “middle of everywhere” means, but somehow it feels charmingly true in Ely.

Ely ignores the assumption that our smallest communities are not just remote but dull, and, through hard work and vision and collaboration, the town of 4,000 strives for a little greatness.

I see it when Pat Rogers gives us a tour of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, which operates century-old steam locomotives — the “Ghost Train” that a couple dozen people paid $24 each on a recent Monday to ride the Keystone Route toward Ruth, a tiny town, through the old tunnel. The coal fire is just visible inside the black beast, and cinders settle on my notebook. The place has a few paid employees, but is sustained by volunteers.

In town, where an arts-and-crafts fair was being held, the buildings are covered in murals. A bit more than a decade ago, after the copper mine closed, the townspeople got together to do something about the disturbing new blight. They raised money and brought in artists, and Ely is now home to 26 murals, the theme of which is “Where the world met and became one.”

(Perhaps this mural idea could be used to dress up the half-finished Echelon on the Strip.)

One mural is called “United by our Children,” which depicts a big American flag with a multicultural array of children. As Spear explains, we all came here segregated by ethnicity and language, but our children went to the same public schools and we all became Americans.

Ely hosted the International Global Mural Conference.

The middle of everywhere.

Now, though, people in Ely fear they are about to be cut off from the world.

A federal program called Essential Air Service heavily subsidizes the one daily flight out of Ely Airport, and with budget cutting the in-thing these days, the subsidy would seem to be in jeopardy.

Great Lakes Airlines flew 52 passengers from Ely to Las Vegas in June and 64 in July, more than double the totals from last year, when the airline only flew to Denver.

The subsidy amounted to a whopping $3,700 per passenger last year. But Mike Coster, airport director, says that if you add passengers coming into Ely, and the increased passenger counts of recent months, the subsidy is more like $1,197.

Many of the passengers are mine engineers or workers on the new north-south transmission line, which is seen as key to the development of renewable energy in the state.

There’s no bus service to Ely, and it’s as far from a real airport as just about any place in the country, about 240 miles from Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.

The people here help each other, and they have to, as it’s easy to get stranded if your car breaks down, which is why the airport is so important.

“It’s our only link to the outside world,” Mayor Jon Hickman says.

So, should the rest of us subsidize Ely?

This is a classic case where the free market won’t provide something we’ve collectively deemed to be a social good — keeping little towns connected to the rest of the world — so we use our tax dollars to do it.

There are many other examples of this. An interesting parallel is the Rural Electric Administration, a New Deal program that brought thousands of rural communities — literally — out of the dark by providing electric service when it made no financial sense for private utilities to do so. This is just one example of federal largesse for rural communities, which have relied on federal support for roads, flood control, farm subsidies.

A more recent parallel is the transmission line outside Ely that I mentioned earlier, which wouldn’t be happening without federal loan guarantees.

(If you’re keeping score at home, what else has the federal government done in the past century or so that no one else could have done? Beat the Axis and won the Cold War; built the Interstate Highway System; ended racial apartheid in the American South; significantly curbed elderly poverty through Medicare and Social Security; put men on the moon; cleaned up — to some degree — the Great Lakes and a bunch of Superfund sites; and invented the Internet through the Defense Advanced Research Agency.)

The paradox here is that rural Nevada is ground zero for the state’s Tea Party movement, which rests on the principle of more or less dismantling the federal government. Sen. Harry Reid, who is Ely’s only shot at keeping air service and is more responsible than anyone for the transmission line, lost to Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle by more than 40 points in White Pine County.

If I were an ungracious sort, I might say it’s time that Ely drink the tea that it hath brewed.

Next stop: Eureka.

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  1. Ely is experiencing the fallout of their politics. At an average of 2 people/day, they really don't need air service. Let the Free Market Economy rule.

    Ely should chip in with Rachel to buy a courier van and pay the actual costs of the transportation they want.

  2. It seems that subsidizing air service is only treating the symptom and not the problem itself--rural decay. Maybe that money could be used.

  3. Looking at an Associated Press article, the subsidy is $1.8 million a year. The numbers they provide don't seem to actually work out. I come up with a number more like $2.5 million. My point though is that $25 million per day was handed to the airlines with the FAA shutdown. Enough lost revenue in one day to subsidize Ely for almost 14 years. Of course, this was handed to major carriers so I guess it doesn't matter. The issue should be whether any airports large or small should receive subsidies. Or, for that matter, interstate highways. Perhaps we should privatize them and make them all toll roads. Then drivers would "pay the actual costs of the transportation they want".

  4. Why not a "high speed train" to Ely? We could call it the Desert Express. Two passengers a day, that makes sense.

    Private pilots would fly people in there all day long for a lot less money.

    I love Ely, would love to live there, maybe later in my life.

  5. Turrialba,

    Why do you equate a small town such as Ely with "rural decay"?

  6. Well, well, well. Their hating on "Anyone BUTT REID" has taken hold and maybe THEY got their "come uppence."

    I write that with great sorrow in my heart, after having leaving all my life in California, trusting a native Nevadan, M*RM*N, moving to Nevada, White Pine County, and having established many friends and second family there in Ely. There are still people there that I love and we stay in touch and get together whether here in Las Vegas or there. I had invested a small fortune in White Pine County, Ely's local merchants, while building my ranch in Lund.

    But poor Ely is so stuck in politics and mining, that it can't seem to do much of anything else. It has the prison, that is somewhat steady for the locals. Again POLITICS is king, why, because the majority of the people have jobs that are either federal, state, county, or city employment and IF you have such a job, it is because you belong to a certain church and /or are being courted towards being a potential member of a certain church. That is how life is up there.

    Being an OUTSIDER in Ely is the pits and the place is so isolated that it will eventually wear you down towards insanity. Just check out the local haunts there, people will talk and tell you, and the Ely Times newspaper had to eliminate their comments due to the terrible local's carrying on bickering. They got issues. I support the air service as I, my family, friends, and business people use this service often. It sure beats having to make that drive when you don't want to. And again, it is important for life flight, and Homeland Security concerns.

    I appreciate Senator Reid's efforts in keeping it open and available to the public at large, and keeping a blind eye to his dissenters up there in good ol' Ely who sit will sit on the other side of the church when he's there! Hahahahaha!

  7. If it's so important, why don't the citizens of Ely increase their taxes to support the air service. They would only need to increase their taxes $450 per person, per year to provide for this pronounced critical service.

    I likewise don't think the citizens of Ely should have paid for (through Federal taxes) the Las Vegas mob museum.

    This funding teat, AKA the Government in Washington, has run dry.

  8. "If I were an ungracious sort, I might say it's time that Ely drink the tea that it hath brewed."


  9. Maybe if you're afraid of being isolated from the outside world, don't choose to live in a tiny little desert town like Ely.

  10. Interesting comments by Star-Ali. The winter wind must really blow in Lund.

    "the majority of the people have jobs that are either federal, state, county, or city employment" and they went for Angle.

    Angle is a religious super-fundamentalist who wanted to take the Government apart. In her words, "have more business and churches involved" in governing. A democracy is always godless by definition. Religion isn't allowed to intercede in the governing process like it did in old Europe.

    So the State, County and City employees who are steeped in and protected by religion voted overwhelmingly for abbess Angle. That shows they haven't got the common sense that god gave a chicken and their fortunes are due for a downfall. Never cry for an idiot that trips over their own shoe laces.

    A democracy will always be godless and thus, always an enemy to the religious fundamentalist, just as education, science history and rational discourse will also remain enemies of fundamentalism forever.

    It's time to debunk the hokus pokus pontifications of the beliefs of a first century Roman religious cult which will never stand up to reality. They should be made to answer the same severity of questions they put to others.

  11. The small town puritan also likes to believe that their life style is a model because it is much more self reliant, but when the money is cut off from the urban life they despise, they are bewildered and feel unjustly wronged.

    Follow the model of Oatmanites: dress up like a clown, wear a goofy hat, pull a little red covered wagon with a music player inside, beat the chest hung wash-board in sync with the music - and hold out the tin cup to the tourists. Sell Kool-Aid; sell some apples too. Become self reliant and don't rely on the prison and governments for income.

    Need more hints? Visit Oatman, buy a T-Shirt, buy a hat, it's a lot of fun.

  12. "Angle is a religious super-fundamentalist who wanted to take the Government apart. In her words, "have more business and churches involved" in governing."

    SunJon -- it's called Dominionism. All should have a look @ Michelle Goldberg's good and relevant "A Christian Plot for Domination?" @

    The only thing more scary than these politicians is how numerous their supporters are. Let's never forget the consequences of when religious beliefs had the force of law in this country, from the Salem Witch Trials to sodomy laws still being criminally prosecuted even in the last decade.

    "Although the most clear-sighted judges of witches and even the witches themselves were convinced the witches were guilty of witchcraft, no guilt in fact existed. So it is with all guilt." -- Friedrich Nietzsche 1882 "Gay Science"

  13. This story appeared in the paper print edition of The Sun on 8/23/11.

    Patrick Coolican is too polite in describing the people in Ely for what they are: Whiny, hypocritical Republican illiterates.

    Harry Reid is busting his hump to keep these people's commercial air service open, with a massive Federal subsidy which offends Federal taxpayers all across the United States. Why should Harry Reid bother to follow his conscience and help these leeches in Ely? If you stop the average person on the street in Ely, and ask them what they think of Harry Reid, they will tell you his is a piece of [unprintable word].

    These tax-revenue sucking, lazy hypocrites in small towns like Ely and its clones require massive net subsidies from Nevada state tax dollars to keep them enjoying their rural lifestyle. And then they will howl if their $1,197 to $3,700 per passenger Federal airport subsidy ends.

    Neither the State of Nevada nor the Federal government rushed in to prop up Goldfield or Rhyolite or Tonopah when they died as their economies failed. There is no government subsidized passenger train or air service running to them.

    Nevada's overwhelming population base is in Clark County. Nevada's massive revenue generators, the gaming industry and state sales taxes, including those paid by tourists, are overwhelmingly located in Clark County. Yet Nevada Legislative districts have been jerry-mandered to pander to "the Rurals", and the State of Nevada's and Las Vegas' employers' treatment of the poor and the working class in Las Vegas is driven by the skewed "ethics" of these self-centered "conservatives, independents and libertarians" in the Rurals...who constantly have their hands out for huge subsidies while forcing their "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" hypocritical ethics on the rest of Nevada.

    Thanks to the demands of the Rurals, massive amounts of tax income of Clark County cities are "unconstitutionally" taken by the state to pay for the state's subsidies to the Rurals.

    Thanks to the "mining interests" from the Rurals, the most recent session of the Legislature did nothing meaningful to remove the constitutional prohibition on taxing gross mining income, nor did the Legislature do what it could to narrow or eliminate abuses of net mining income tax, which would have allowed parts of the Rurals counties to contribute to the State of Nevada treasury.

    Las Vegas' K-12 schools are grossly underfunded, on a per-student basis, because of massive state subsidies on a per-student basis, to the Rurals' school districts.

    As the national and Nevada economy collapses and the residents of the Rurals and their beloved mining industry contribute NOTHING in terms of net income to the State of Nevada, my view (that of the average economically struggling person in Las Vegas) is "Let Ely, Elko, Caliente and all the other not-self-supporting communities in Northern Nevada die like all the other ghost towns in Nevada."