When I moved to Ely in 1977, I wasn’t sure what I was getting into. For $200 a week, I was hired to edit the Ely Miner, a job that had been unfilled since the death five years earlier of the weekly newspaper’s publisher, Fred C. Childers.
After Childers’ death, his wife, Columbia, ran the Miner, whose recipe and history columns were its newsiest features. Columbia was OK with that. What she couldn’t abide were the circulation and advertising inroads that a scrappy upstart broadsheet, the Ely Echo, had made in recent years.
I was too busy living history at the time to read history, so I was generally unaware that in coming to Ely I had immersed myself in two long-running natural-resource dramas: mining, and preservation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA).
Begin, then, this tale of those two dramas and some of the people involved:
First, more on Fred C. Childers, the Ely Miner’s publisher. He was born in Talley, N.D., and had been a resident of Ely for 50 years when he died suddenly at age 57 in 1972.
Fred C. was the son of Fred S. Childers, who was born in Soudan, Minn., about 20 miles from Ely, in 1885 and died in 1956.
As a young man, Fred S. worked in Ely’s mines. Later, he prospected, and his obituary credits him with “discovering the copper-nickel deposits in the Kawishiwi area” — the same deposits that today are the subject of a controversial precious-metals mine proposed by Twin Metals.
Opponents of the prospective Twin Metals mine believe that, if realized in coming years, it will irrevocably threaten the BWCA, Voyageurs National Park and Quetico Provincial Park. And indeed, if the past is prologue — given the type of mining that would be required at the Kawishiwi site, and given the records of similar mines elsewhere — it might.
Yet even if the Twin Metals mine never operates, minerals-extraction proposals near Ely likely will continue forever, so entangled is mining with the city’s history.
Ely’s first mine, for example, the Pioneer — one of five the city would have — began operating in 1889, and by the 1920s, was one of the world’s largest underground mines, extracting iron ore from as deep as 1,700 feet beneath the earth’s surface until it was shuttered in 1967.
Also early last century, Sigurd Olson moved to Ely with his wife, Elizabeth, arriving in February 1923. Olson was a high school biology teacher and summertime boundary waters guide who, in time, would become an influential wilderness advocate and renowned author.
The Cliffs Notes version of BWCA history suggests the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the BWCA Wilderness Act of 1978 encapsulate completely the region’s preservation flash points. But struggles to maintain the region’s wilderness character date at least to the late 1920s, when the Ely Miner, my eventual employer, enthusiastically supported U.S. Forest Service plans to build what are now the Fernberg Road and the Echo Trail.
“The Ely Miner served as the mouthpiece for the city’s pro-development establishment, printing editorials, articles and letters congruent with its agenda,” according to a biography of Olson by David Backus entitled, “A Wilderness Within, the Life of Sigurd F. Olson.”
The roads were needed to fight fires, the Forest Service said, while the newspaper touted their tourism-promotion benefits.
At the time, the Izaak Walton League was the nation’s most powerful pro-wilderness voice, and when Olson became a founding member of the Ikes’ Ely chapter, he solidified his status, and Elizabeth’s, as strangers in their own town.
Fast forward to 1952, the year Fred C. Childers bought the Ely Miner.
By then, Hubert Humphrey was in the U.S. Senate, and he and Olson had become friends. With Olson’s support, Humphrey in 1956 introduced in Congress legislation that eventually would become the Wilderness Act of 1964.
The move, which ensured that mining would not occur in the BWCA, outraged Childers, and he opined in the Ely Miner that Humphrey’s wilderness plan would turn Ely into a “ghost town.”
Humphrey counterpunched, writing to an aide (according to biographer Backus) that, “This fellow Childers is a reactionary editor in Ely. He hates my guts and has been after me for years ... I want to take him on — head on — so let’s give it to him.”
In 1957, Ely residents envisioned a mining resurgence when test drilling by International Nickel Co. along the Kawishiwi River near Ely confirmed what Fred S. Childers apparently had discovered many years before: the presence of large copper-nickel deposits.
International Nickel subsequently applied for a 100-year mining lease on 8,000 acres of land near the boundary waters. But the permit was denied by the U.S. Interior Department, due largely to Olson’s intervention, prompting more intensified attacks on Olson by Childers in the Ely Miner.
When I came to Ely in 1977, five years after Childers’ death, Reserve Mining Co. was the big operator in the area, specializing in extracting iron from taconite. Except for occasional rumors suggesting that Columbia, my boss, held rights to certain precious-metals deposits in the region, talk at the time of copper-nickel mining generally was just that — talk.
Ultimately, I couldn’t make it in Ely on $200 a week, and after a couple of years I left for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Before I did, I published in the Miner a long, lyrical essay by Olson extolling the many wonders of spring. A few readers protested. But Columbia didn’t. She issued only one direct order during my tenure, and that was for Bob Whitten, the Miner’s advertising director, and me to gulp boilermakers with her after the city fathers pulled the Miner’s legal-notices printing contract for the first time in 90 years.
The Miner folded in 1986. Columbia died in 2003.
But the Ely Echo lives on, as do two long-running natural-resource dramas: mining, and preservation of the BWCA.
“For the second time in a year,” a story began on the front page of last week’s Echo, “Gov. Mark Dayton is facing legal action from some of the region’s strongest supporters of copper-nickel mining.”