Charles Kuralt named Ely his “number one vacation destination” and made several trips here annually in his later years, though the gentleman journalist certainly isn’t the only one to laud Ely. Travel and sports magazines like Midwest Living and Canoe Journal regularly honor this little town set conveniently near the middle of nowhere.
Five hundred lakes lie within 20 miles of Ely and this is the most popular gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Though most people are here to explore the outdoors, if the surrounding two million acres of public forest were to suddenly disappear, the unique museums and fantastic amenities would still make this town of 3,724 a wonderful destination.
While modern-day boosters have dubbed Ely the “Canoe Capital of the World,” it was once the “Capital of the Vermilion Range.” Like most other range cities, Ely began as a rough-and-tumble mining town—filled with taverns, casinos, and brothels—in the 1880s and was especially festive in the spring when thousands of lumberjacks poured in to blow the money they had earned over the winter.
When the flamboyant fundamentalist preacher Billy Sunday passed through during the summer of 1900 he quipped: “The only difference between Ely and Hell is that Ely has a railroad into it.”
Between 1888 and 1967, miners hauled over 80 million tons of ore out of the city’s five iron mines. By 1897 the average miner took home $2 a day, and though unions eventually brought safety and justice to the miners, working the pits was never an easy life. Ely sent more men per capita to World War II than any other community in the United States, because for many joining the infantry was preferable to going underground.
Tourism, the principal industry today, began back in the 1910s, and the remote fly-in resorts attracted many gangsters and bootleggers in the 1930s. Today, besides the short-term visitors, Ely’s remoteness attracts many artists and explorers who have added to the city’s already singular character.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition