ELY — Ely has always been a mining town. It was in the days when 177 people moved from the village of Florence in 1880 after ore was discovered and the community was mined through. It was when those residents named the town after mining executive Samuel B. Ely, a Michigander, who as legend has it, never stepped foot in the Vermilion Range.
And Ely cemented itself as a mining town when the Pioneer Mine — and 41 million tons of ore — opened in 1889. By the time it closed in 1967, 11 mines opened near the city’s limits.
What makes Ely unique from the others situated on the old Vermilion Range and the current Iron Range is that it has always been a tourist town, too. Even before 1978, when Congress established the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, people flocked to the northern edge of Minnesota for its pristine lakes and access to nature largely unbeknownst to the urban jungle of the metro.
Today, as Mayor Chuck Novak looks out over the city he’s led since 2006, Ely’s worlds are colliding in a battle over jobs and a clean environment.
At the heart of the cultural war is a copper-nickel mining project that could inject millions into the local economy and the Boundary Waters — a national treasure of beauty that defines the region, and brings its own economic engine to Ely.
“I represent ground zero for Twin Metals and Save the Boundary Waters,” said Novak, a relentless supporter of mining, but also the man tasked with navigating the turbulent waters.
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