On a spring day in 1977 I had only recently moved to Ely and was living in a cabin on White Iron Lake. The lake connected through Silver Rapids to Farm and Garden lakes and beyond lay the boundary waters. I owned a canoe, a 14-foot aluminum boat and a vintage 10-horse outboard. I was, I figured, somersaulting in clover.
Ely's population then was about 4,800, down from the 6,200 who inhabited it in 1930, when the town's Italians, Finns and Slovenians, among others, descended 1,600 feet into the Pioneer Mine to shovel iron ore to the surface.
I by contrast had hired on with a genial and occasionally fiery woman named Columbia Childers, publisher of the Miner, one of Ely's two newspapers.
Columbia had topped the Miner's masthead since 1972, when her husband, Fred, died at age 57, tipping over, rumors had it, onto the newspaper's archaic printing press, an ink-stained coda few journalists can claim.
In her introductory get-to-know-ya, Columbia had alerted me that her ulcerative stomach prevented her from enjoying the odd boilermaker, and that her condition could improve or possibly be made worse by my tenure. On a cheerier note she chipped in that the federal government was reimbursing her my $200 weekly salary under a program that doled out cash to economically distressed regions of the country.
"So, we'll see,'' she said.
For a Cliffs Notes version of Ely's political landscape, Columbia directed me to look up "Doc'' Grahak at the town's medical clinic.
A physician, Jack Grahek was born in Ely to Slovenian parents and would serve as the town's mayor for 27 years. Renowned for presiding over six-hour, often-contentious City Council meetings, the mayor was an old-school DFL power broker whose reach extended to Washington, D.C., and beyond.
"What are we going to do about the Echo?'' Doc said, when I walked into his office.
The Echo was the other paper in town, a relative newcomer and occasional rabble-rouser that was a thorn in Doc's side.
"We?'' I said.
I recall those good times because the Biden administration recently canceled leases that jeopardize the copper-nickel mine proposed by Twin Metals near Ely.
Subsequent media attention has focused on the divide that exists in Ely between those who support mining and those who say mines threaten the BWCA and Ely's character and recreational businesses.
Which is true. There is a divide. Kind-of.
But the notion that Ely's townspeople are continually tussling among themselves philosophically or in any other way is overblown, in my view, and a disservice to a unique town Minnesota is lucky to have.
Certainly, brickbats tossed willy-nilly among residents wasn't representative of my time in Ely, which included the far more contentious run-up to and passage of the 1978 BWCA Act.
The broader truth — again, in my view — is that Ely is and always has been both prisoner and beneficiary of its geology and location, a small town at the end of the road whose hard rock, tall pines and pristine waters have, over time, fed and inspired — oftentimes simultaneously — hundreds of thousands of people, some only briefly, others from birth to death.
The result is that Ely today is as it always has been: equal parts complicated and colorful — descriptions that also define many of its residents.
One hundred and fifty years ago, some who lived in Ely were axe-swinging loggers. Others were immigrant miners who knew that despite the dangers, the deep shafts they descended every day were the one shot they had to make it in America.
Nearly alongside development of these extractive businesses, an equal and opposite force began taking shape in and around Ely.
Much of northern Minnesota's forests had been denuded by the early 1900s, so preserving what was left became a priority. The Superior National Forest was established. So, too, roadless areas. And dams were prohibited in the boundary waters, as was logging along shorelines.
Coincident with these, in time, on the other side of the resource ledger came development of a new type of iron ore, taconite, and mines were built in Babbitt, near Ely, and throughout the Iron Range.
This confusion of concerns and priorities has percolated in Ely for generations, joining by interest and oftentimes by necessity different kinds of people with different occupations and sometimes widely varying world views.
When I lived in Ely, on a given day, I might bump into Bill Rom, the retired canoe outfitter and mining opponent; a truck driver who worked at Reserve Mining in Babbitt; a Forest Service ranger; a Department of Natural Resources wildlife manager; the Kainz brothers, who were loggers; or Will Steger, the Arctic explorer; or Elizabeth Olson, wife of the author and ecologist, Sigurd Olson.
I might also see Dave Mech, the wolf researcher; Lynn Rogers, the walk-with-the-bears guy; or Doug Smith or Sam Cook, rivals at the Echo who would become outdoor writers at the Star Tribune and Duluth News Tribune, respectively.
Some of those people, or their kids, still live in Ely.
Other have moved away, and still others, doubtless as interesting as any I knew, for their own reasons have moved to Ely in the years since.
Divisions among them? Sure. As is the case everywhere.
But common to nearly everyone in Ely, and oftentimes trumping any philosophical differences, is the challenge of how to make a living.
With a declining population (now 3,283) and a median annual household income of about $41,000 — compared to, say, Golden Valley's $98,000 — Ely can be a tough place to save for retirement, pay kids' college tuition . . . or just get by.
And Doc Grahek?
As a physician he delivered 2,500 babies during his 40 years of practice. As mayor, he championed a new hospital, a sewage treatment plant, multiple public housing facilities and a dandy airport.
These and other credentials were well-chronicled in an upbeat obituary the Echo published when Doc died in 2001 at age 90.
The Miner, unfortunately, missed that story.
It had folded four years earlier.