Carlin, the oldest town in Elko County, was established as a railroad division point in December 1868 by the Central Pacific Railroad. When the railroad tracks reached the Carlin meadows, always a favorite stopping place for wagon trains along the California Emigrant Trail, construction crews laid out a townsite and built a large roundhouse and shops. Central Pacific officials named the town after William Passmore Carlin, a Union general who served his country with distinction during and after the Civil War.

During the 1870s and early 1880s, Carlin competed with Elko, Palisade, and Winnemucca for the staging and freighting business of the many mining camps north and south of the railroad.  In 1965, the town became the principle shipping point for the nearby Carlin Gold Mine, the second largest gold-producer in the U.S.

Carlin is still a principle division point on the Southern Pacific.  During the period from 1906 until the early 1950s, Carlin was an important icing station in Nevada for refrigerator cars on both the Southern and Western Pacific Railroads (Western Pacific reached Carlin from the east in 1908, but freight and passenger service was not inaugurated over this transcontinental line until 1910).