A History of Ely

Ely, Minnesota, c. 1905. (Image: Zenith City Press)

The village of Florence incorporated in 1888 near the east edge of Shagawa Lake on a site now known as Spaulding. Florence, named for the daughter of the Chandler mine’s Captain Jack Pengilly (the town’s first mayor), was set up as a mining town after the D&IR laid tracks to the area from Tower and opened the Chandler Mine (see page 98). But the community moved after more ore was discovered farther west, and it changed its name as well. “Florence” was already taken, so “Ely” was chosen in honor of mining executive Samuel B. Ely, a big promoter of Vermilion Range ore who lived in Michigan and never actually visited the town that bears his name.

In its first year 177 people lived in the town; seven years later 2,260 residents called Ely home. Many of those drawn to work the area were European immigrants from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Wales, Denmark, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, and Italy. Language barriers caused these groups to keep to their own, establishing neighborhoods drawn along ethnic lines such as Finn Hill, a hillside community near Shagawa Lake.

Mining helped the town grow, but underground mines needed timber to support shafts, railways that carried the ore needed railroad ties, and lumber was needed to build the miners’ homes. This brought the logging industry to the area, with two large mill operations set up by the St. Croix and Swallow Hopkins companies east of Ely in Winton. Logging outfits also set up camp on nearby White Iron and Birch lakes.

Meanwhile, the mining company opened other mines in Ely: The Pioneer (1889), the Zenith (1892), the Savoy (1899), and the Sibley (1899). The Pioneer was by far the most productive, producing 41 million tons or 40 percent of the Vermilion Range’s entire output. Eventually eleven mines would open near Ely.

Tourism also played a large role in the town’s economy, primarily with locals outfitting and guiding visitors on canoe trips and fishing expeditions through the wilderness that surrounds Ely. The Burntside Outing Company opened the Burntside Lodge in 1910 (see page 90). Like Grand Marais (and the Gunflint Trail) in the northeast, today Ely (and the Echo Trail) is considered the western gateway to the B.W.C.A.W.

Today all eleven mines that operated in the Ely area are closed; the Pioneer was the last to operate, closing in 1967. Logging continues in the region, though on a limited scale and only for paper pulp—the major operations virtually disappeared by 1920, when the area’s tree reserves were depleted. Tourism, however, continues to fuel the local economy.


The History of Ely, Minnesota (through 1910)

Following the development of iron mines at Tower and the construction of a railroad to that place, exploration work was rapidly extended eastward along the Vermilion range. The first successful developments were made by a company composed of Martin and W. H. Pattison, R. B. Whitesides and Dr. Conan.

These gentlemen located the famous Pioneer mine in 1887. As a result of this discovery, exploration became very active in that vicinity, and a townsite known as Spaulding was laid out on the shore of Long lake, about two miles northeast of the present city of Ely.

The original townsite of Ely consisted of forty acres, which had been taken as a homestead by Edward. Brown and sold to 707  George C. Greenwood and others, who platted the property as early as 1887. It was named as a compliment to Arthur Ely, a gentleman who was actively interested in promoting the construction of the Duluth & Iron Range railroad and in the development of the mines at Tower. R. B. Whitesides platted the first addition to the townsite, consisting of forty acres now in the heart of the city. An extension of the Duluth & Iron Range railroad from Tower to Ely was begun soon after fhe discovery of ore at the latter place, but it was not opened for traffic until July, 1888. The first grocery store was opened in a small log building by a man named McCormick, who had started business a year or two earlier at Spaulding. A. J. Fenske built the first frame building in the fall of 1887 and opened a hardware and furniture store. The Pioneer hotel was built the same fall by R. B. Whitesides at the corner of Sheridan street and Fourth avenue.

Representatives of the leading professions were early on the scene. Dr. Shipman, the first physician, came in 1888 and was long identified with the place. The first school was opened in January, 1889, in a small frame building on Second avenue, which is now a part of the Central school building. The first teacher was Miss Ella Wilson, who came from Detroit and taught until June, 1890. Soon after she became the bride of A. J. Fenske, and still resides in Ely. The school attendance reached 112 during the first season and an assistant was employed the next year.

The splendid school system of the city is the outgrowth of this humble beginning. The first religious service was conducted by Father Buh, who came from Tower for that purpose, and the Catholic congregation erected the first church. The first Protestant minister was Rev. Mr. Freeman, who arrived in time to hold an Easter service in 1889, and located here permanently, organizing the Presbyterian church. There are now six churches, representing as many different faiths. The first white child born in the place was Samuel Ely Polkinghorn.

The first mine in the Ely district to begin the shipment of ore was the famous Chandler, which sent out its first cargo in August, 1888, and was worked continuously for a score of years, the vein having been exhausted in 1908, when the mine was abandoned. Its total output during that period exceeded 9, 500, – 000 tons. Although it was the first in which merchantable ore was discovered, the Pioneer was the second in this district to begin the shipment of ore. It has been a steady producer and its output at the close of the season of 1908 exceeded 6, 500, 000 tons.

The Zenith mine was opened by Henry M. Bradley, a prominent citizen of Duluth, and began shipping in 1892. It has been steadily worked with the exception of the years 1894, 1895 and 1898, its total output being slightly in excess of 1, 280, 000 tons.

Development of the Savoy mine was started in 1898 by John G. Brown and A. M. Miller, Sr., who soon after disposed of it.

The first shipment was made in 1899, and shipments have continued each season approximating 1, 276, 000 tons.

Beginning in 1899, the Sibley mine has been a continuous shipper with the exception of the season of 1901, and has produced approximately 1, 200, 000 tons of ore. Since 1898 all these mines have been operated by the Oilver Iron Mining Company.

All are operated by means of shafts, and as high as 1, 200 men have been employed in the work at times.

Located at the terminus of the Duluth & Iron Range railroad, Ely is chiefly dependent upon its mineral resources, much of which is still undeveloped. Its population of 5, 000 people embraces several nationalities, but American influences prevail.

There are a number of modern business structures, while the schools and other public edifices represent the most progressive ideas in architecture and the appearance of the homes indicates comfort and contentment. One of the most noteworthy public improvements is the municipal water and light system, which was completed in 1904 at a total expense to the city of $125, 000.

The water supply is obtained from Long lake, upon the shore of which the power house is located. The water is taken at a depth of forty feet through an intake pipe 2, 300 feet in length and ten inches in diameter. There are three and one-fourth miles of water main and thirty-two street hydrants, and the service reaches 250 consumers, those requiring water only for domestic use being furnished at a flat rate of 65 cents per month.

There is a register fire alarm system with fourteen boxes advantageously distributed. A volunteer fire department composed of a chief and thirty men is equipped with one hook and ladder truck and three hose carts complete with 3, 000 feet of first-class hose.

The electric light service includes a day and night current generated at the same power house by engines and generators 709  of the most modern type. There are forty-five street are lights and 550 private consumers are served, this system extending to some of the mining locations beyond the city limits.

Ely is situated in the midst of a great natural park abounding in beautiful lakes, streams, cataracts and other sylvan attractions.

Many of the lakes are studded with beautiful islands and all the waters are stocked with excellent fish. The surrounding woods are the haunts of all kinds of big game known to northern Minnesota and the proximity of the National Forest Reserve, recently established by the United States government near here, which will also be a game preserve, insures the perpetuation of these species in the adjacent country. The moose is still common hereabouts.

Carpenter Hospital.-Notable among the many public edifices which embellish the streets of the city of Ely is the Carpenter Hospital. It is an imposing brick structure, three stories in height and constructed in the most substantial manner and according to modern architectural designs. The interior arrangements are planned with a view to affording convenience, light and ventilation in all parts of the building, and modern conveniences, such as steam heat, electric light and hot water, are provided throughout.

The hospital equipment is thorough and modern. There is a complete laboratory and dispensary in connection with the establishment.

and many difficult and complicated cases are treated here, which few hospitals are equipped for handling. While all classes of ills are treated, especial attention is given to surgery, for which the most complete appliances are provided. The hospital affords accommodations for twenty patients.

The Shipman Hospital is one of the prominent institutions of the city of Ely, occupying a conspicuous place among its architectural features while administering to the physical needs of many of its inhabitants.

The hospital was established by Dr. C. G. Shipman, who was for many years a prominent citizen of Ely. The building is an imposing structure very pleasantly located amidst ample ground, ornamented with shrubbery and flowers. There has recently been a rearrangement of the building, which now has accommodations for twenty patients. There are ample offices and operating rooms and a well-stocked dispensary, while the equipment of the institution includes X-ray machines and other modern instruments of surgery.

This hospital attends to all surgical work and treats other disabilities arising among the employes of a number of corporations doing business in Ely and vicinity. A general hospital practice is carried on and the established reputation of the institution and its able staff of physicians attracts many cases from neighboring towns and distant points.

The First National Bank of Ely is recognized as one of the most reliable banking houses of St. Louis county. Although not incorporated under its present title until April, 1907, the bank has really been in existence for the last twenty years and has always been managed by conservative and capable business men.

The Exchange Bank of Ely was established in 1888 by Joseph Sellwood and 0. D. Kinney. The Bank of Ely was organized as a private bank in 1902 by the firm of Davidson & McRae. In April, 1907, the two concerns were consolidated as the First National Bank. The present organization is capitalized at $50, 000, the deposits exceed $250, 000, while the resources and liabilities approximate $325, 000. The officers of the bank are as follows: Joseph Sellwood, president; R. M. Sellwood, vicepresident; F. L. Cowen, cashier, and L. B. Brockway, assistant cashier. These gentlemen, with Nicholas Cowling and A. J. Fenske, form the board of directors.

The Ely “Miner” was founded in 1895 by Peter Schaefer, who has published it continuously since that date. Mr. Schaefer enjoys the distinction of being the nestor of the journalistic fraternity of the Minnesota ranges. He came to the Vermilion range in 1888.

Since starting the “Miner” in ’95, Mr. Schaefer has become thoroughly identified with the city of Ely and publishes one of the best newspapers in this part of the state. One month after incorporation of the city in 1891 he became the city clerk and filled that office at intervals for a number of years. He is probably the most familiar with the annals of the town of any of its inhabitants. In September, 1907, he was appointed postmaster.


  • Dierckins, Tony. Greetings from the Arrowhead: The North Shore & Canoe Country, A Postcard Perspective of Historic Northeastern Minnesota Zenith City Press, Duluth, Minnesota: 2007.
  • Woodbridge, Dwight and John Pardee, eds. History of Duluth and St. Louis County Past and Present Vols. 1 – 2. C. F. Cooper & Company, Chicago: 1922.
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