Though it was never a large community, Caliente, Nevada briefly boomed in the interwar years as a headquarters for the railroad. Much smaller now, the town still lives on the foundation established in those days even as local leadership pursues new economic opportunities.
The valley formed by the junction of Meadow Valley Wash and Clover Creek had attracted ranchers since the 1860s. The town of Caliente was established in 1901, when the Union Pacific Railroad’s new branch line north to Salt Lake City was built through the valley and built a station there. The town was designated a “division point” for the railroad, where crews and engines would be switched out. It also served as a headquarters for maintenance workers and administrative staff. An estimated ninety percent of the jobs in town were with the railroad.
The town reached a population of nearly 5000 by the 1930s. It had an active social life, with an Elks Lodge for the professional men in town, and an Odd Fellows Lodge for the working class, as well as a number of women’s clubs.
The hot springs that gave the town its name attracted additional attention. A large hotel was built to accommodate tourists. The railroad also did its part to make the place more appealing to travelers by constructing an elegant new depot in 1923 to replace a previous utilitarian building that was gutted by a fire. Like a lot of public buildings in the west during that era, the new depot was built to evoke a Spanish past by emulating the missions of California, though the actual Mexican-American population of Southern Nevada was declining in terms of real numbers in those days. In addition to offices and dormitories, the new building had a second floor which was set aside as a hotel.
Though the railroad attracted an ethnically diverse workforce, largely of European immigrants, African-Americans were considered unwelcome, which seems ironic given that the two original American settlers in the valley in the 1860s were escaped slaves. Reformers dubbed Nevada the “Mississippi of the West” because political leaders actively pursued Jim Crow-style segregation. In Caliente and surrounding Lincoln County, the Black population remained quite small, but witnessing the mistreatment of an African-American family friend during his depression-era boyhood in the town helped inspire a man named Ralph Denton to work for change. During his long career as a lawyer, activist, and elected official, Denton championed civil rights and transformed both the Democratic Party and Nevada politics in general.
With the transition to diesel engines, the division point at Caliente was no longer necessary, and operations were moved to Las Vegas in 1948. The population quickly declined, though the railroad would remain an active element of the town’s economy. Local leadership continues to pursue development of a tourist industry related to the area’s natural beauty, though a shortage of hotel space presents a challenge, as does concern about retaining the town’s character. The depot, one of the few such buildings from its era which still stands, would become a city hall, museum and community center and serves as a symbol for the town.
-Tom Prezelski, Resident Historian