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By Doug McMurdo
WELLS, Nevada, Feb 21 (Reuters) - A strong earthquake in northeastern Nevada badly damaged the historic center of a remote town and injured several people at dawn on Thursday, but nearby mining operations were only briefly disrupted.
The 6.0 magnitude quake near the town of Wells damaged an estimated 400-700 homes, the high school and some churches, said Gary Derks, operations officer for the Nevada Division of Emergency Management.
The main street dating from the late 1800s suffered the most as ceilings collapsed, windows broke and bricks fell. Although many of its saloons, markets and banks are no longer used, officials had talked about reviving the area.
"The historic district is pretty much done for," said City Manager Jolene Supp.
About 380 miles (613 km) north of the gambling center of Las Vegas, Wells came to life in the late 19th century as deep, clear springs attracted travelers going west to California.
The Chamber of Commerce touts the town of around 1,600 people as a "perfect setting" for western and road movies.
Sparsely populated northwest Nevada is home to the most prolific gold mining region in the Western hemisphere. Mines quickly resumed their round-the-clock operations even as dozens of aftershocks hit throughout the day.
About 50 miners were underground some 100 miles (160 km) from the epicenter when the quake hit but they evacuated without incident, said Mary Korpi, a spokeswoman for Newmont Mining Corp (NEM.N).
In Wells, one man broke an arm, another had cuts to the head and a third person had trouble breathing, said Kevin McKinney in the Elko County Sheriff’s Department.
All commercial establishments in Wells were closed. The ceiling fell in the only grocery store, leaving a smell of alcohol from broken bottles. Paint spilled across the floor in the hardware store next door.
WHY BE UPSET?
Many residents viewed the damage as just part of life on a rugged frontier of the American West.
"It’s Mother Nature, what good would it do to be upset?" said Mitch Smith, owner of the hardware store. "We’ve already decided to have a ‘half off’ sale on dented cans of paint."
The quake struck at 6:16 a.m. PST (1416 GMT), with a shallow epicenter 6.2 miles (10km) deep.
The area includes Goldstrike, the largest-producing mine of Barrick Gold Corp (ABX.TO). Company spokesman Louis Schack said he had not heard of any effect on operations centered 90-100 miles (144-161 km) west of the epicenter.
A Chevron Corp (CVX.N) spokesman said there was no effect on its 45,000 barrel per day Salt Lake City refinery, about 180 miles (290 km) east of Wells.
Randy Bowers said he was working the overnight bartending shift at Donna’s Ranch, Wells’ 140-year-old brothel, when he felt two powerful jolts and a lighter one. Nevada is the only U.S. state with legal prostitution.
"The building is here but everything else is demolished, everything inside is trashed," Bowers said.
"Stuff didn’t fall off, it flew off," he added, noting there were no customers in the brothel at the time and that the "working girls were in their rooms." (Writing by Adam Tanner; Additional reporting by James Nelson in Salt Lake City, Erwin Seba in Houston and Mary Milliken in Los Angeles; Editing by John O’Callaghan)