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Ely, Minnesota facts for kids

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Location of the city of Elywithin Saint Louis County, Minnesota
Location of the city of Ely
within Saint Louis County, Minnesota
Country United States
State Minnesota
County Saint Louis
 • Total 2.93 sq mi (7.59 km2)
 • Land 2.92 sq mi (7.57 km2)
 • Water 0.01 sq mi (0.02 km2)
1,434 ft (437 m)
 • Total 3,460
 • Estimate 
 • Density 1,148.19/sq mi (443.33/km2)
Time zone UTC-6 (Central (CST))
 • Summer (DST) UTC-5 (CDT)
ZIP codes
Area code(s) 218
FIPS code 27-19142
GNIS feature ID 0661205

Ely ( EE-lee) is a city in Saint Louis County, Minnesota, United States. The population was 3,460 at the 2010 census. It is on the Vermilion Iron Range, and is historically home to several iron ore mines. Ely is best known as a popular entry point for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Quetico Provincial Park, the International Wolf Center, and the North American Bear Center.

Ely's main street is lined with outfitters, outdoor clothing stores, and restaurants. State Highway 1 (MN 1), State Highway 169 (MN 169) and County Road 21 (Central Avenue) are the main routes in Ely. The city is about 16 miles south of the Canada–United States border.


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The Pioneer Mine headframe today

The first Europeans to explore the area were fur traders who made their way into the wilderness in search of furs. But it was the Lake Vermillion gold rush that brought the first large numbers of pioneers to the area in 1865. Although hardly any gold was ever found, it was discovered that the area did contain large deposits of iron ore. Thousands of new immigrants were arriving in America at that time, and many of them came to the area later to be known as the Minnesota Iron Range, looking for work. When the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railway laid tracks extending the rails from Tower to Ely in 1888, Ely began mining operations with the opening of the Chandler Mine, shipping the ore to docks on Lake Superior in Two Harbors and Duluth. That year the miners incorporated the town of Florence, population 177, near the east side of Shagawa Lake on a site now known as Spaulding. The miners named their settlement Florence after the daughter of the Chandler mine’s Captain Jack Pengilly (also the town’s first mayor). But the community moved after ore was discovered farther west, and it changed its name as well. Since it was discovered that the name “Florence” was already used by another village in Minnesota, "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).

The original town site consisted of forty acres. The first grocery store was opened in a small log building by a man named McCormick. A. J. Fenske built the first frame building in the fall of 1887; he also opened a hardware and furniture store. The Pioneer hotel was also built that year at the corner of Sheridan Street and Fourth Avenue. The first school was opened in 1889 in a small frame building on Second Avenue; the school attendance was 112 during the first season. According to a history written in 1910, "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."

Soon other mines were opened in Ely: The Pioneer Mine(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 opened near Ely. In 1967, the Pioneer mine closed. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and now hosts the Ely Arts & Heritage Center.

Originally the mining was an open pit operation, but when the abundant ore was mined out deep shafts were made to start mining underground. With the need for wooden support beams to keep the tunnels from collapsing, along with the need for lumber to meet the needs of the ever-expanding growth in the area, the logging and milling industry grew. 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.


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Sheridan Street, Ely, MN

Ely is served by two community–oriented newspapers, the Ely Echo and the North Country Angler, and a radio station WELY. Ely is host to many community events located in Whiteside Park such as the Blueberry Arts Festival in July, the Harvest Moon Festival in September, and the Winter Festival in February. There is also an Ely-only artist gallery, Art & Soul Gallery.

In May 2012, Ely was threatened by a fast-moving wildfire started by a downed power line on Highway 1. Due to the rapid fire fighting response, including the use of airtankers, the fire was limited to 216 acres (0.338 sq mi; 87 ha) just outside town.

Geography and climate

According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 2.74 square miles (7.10 km2); 2.73 square miles (7.07 km2) is land and 0.01 square miles (0.03 km2) is water.

Ely is located 100 miles (160 km) north of Duluth, 117 miles southeast of International Falls, and 244 miles (393 km) north of Minneapolis – Saint Paul.

On the Köppen climate classification, Ely falls in the warm summer humid continental climate zone (Dfb).

Climate data for Ely, Minnesota
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °F (°C) 49
Average high °F (°C) 14
Average low °F (°C) −9
Record low °F (°C) −44
Precipitation inches (mm) 1.06
Source: The Weather Channel


Historical population
Census Pop.
1890 901
1900 3,717 312.5%
1910 3,572 −3.9%
1920 4,902 37.2%
1930 6,156 25.6%
1940 5,970 −3.0%
1950 5,474 −8.3%
1960 5,438 −0.7%
1970 4,904 −9.8%
1980 4,820 −1.7%
1990 3,968 −17.7%
2000 3,724 −6.1%
2010 3,460 −7.1%
2019 (est.) 3,355 −3.0%
U.S. Decennial Census

2010 census

As of the census of 2010, there were 3,460 people, 1,681 households, and 814 families residing in the city. The population density was 1,267.4 inhabitants per square mile (489.3/km2). There were 2,022 housing units at an average density of 740.7 per square mile (286.0/km2). The racial makeup of the city was 95.9% White, 1.0% African American, 0.8% Native American, 0.7% Asian, 0.1% from other races, and 1.6% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.1% of the population.

There were 1,681 households, of which 19.1% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 37.1% were married couples living together, 8.4% had a female householder with no husband present, 2.9% had a male householder with no wife present, and 51.6% were non-families. 45.3% of all households were made up of individuals, and 19.8% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 1.93 and the average family size was 2.66.

The median age in the city was 45.3 years. 16% of residents were under the age of 18; 13.4% were between the ages of 18 and 24; 20.3% were from 25 to 44; 27.4% were from 45 to 64; and 22.9% were 65 years of age or older. The gender makeup of the city was 49.7% male and 50.3% female.


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Loon at Eagles Nest Lake, Ely, Minnesota

There are many Minnesota wilderness hiking trails in the Ely area. Echo Trail (Saint Louis County Road 116), considered one of the most scenic trails in Minnesota, is a former logging road that runs north and west out of Ely and provides the primary access to the lakes of the western Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). The trail is a 72 miles (116 km) road on asphalt and gravel through the wilderness of the Superior National Forest and Kabetogama State Forest. Numerous trailheads and canoe portages along the trail provide access to the BWCAW. A side trip passes north to the resort village of Crane Lake, a gateway to Voyageurs National Park. Special attractions include views of sharply rolling forest, lakes, wetlands, rivers, and granite crags in one of the most remote areas in the contiguous United States. Recreation opportunities include canoeing, fishing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and primitive camping in the Superior National Forest and Boundary Waters. Wildlife includes bald eagles, ospreys, moose, bears, wolves, and beavers. The area also offers blueberry and other wild berry picking and wildflower viewing.

Trezona Trail offers historic views of the old iron ore mining operations that first brought new immigrants to the area. The trail passes through the Pioneer mining pit with views of the old mine shaft headframe and historic buildings. Hidden Valley trail, one mile east of Ely, passes through paper birch and white pine stands. Kawishiwi Falls Trail offers views of Kawishiwi Falls, a 70 ft. drop. The name Kawishiwi in Ojibwe language means “river full of beaver or muskrat houses”. Native Americans, explorers and voyageurs portaged around the falls. The watershed drains from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and flows 2,000 miles north to Hudson Bay. Bass Lake Trail, a 5.6 mile trail six miles north of Ely, has an interesting history. In 1925 a sluiceway created by logging operations washed out leaving a gorge over 250 feet wide and Bass Lake was lowered 55 feet in 10 hours, reducing it to 1/2 its original size. The trail hosts backpacking campsites.


Burntside Lake BWCAW
Burntside Lake, Ely, Minnesota

Ely is the largest "jumping off" town for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The BWCAW is renowned as a destination for both canoeing and fishing on its many lakes, and is the most visited wilderness in the United States. With extensive outfitting and other services, Ely can credibly be claimed to do the most wilderness canoe outfitting of any town or city in the world.

Long-time Ely resident Sigurd F. Olson was instrumental in creating the BWCAW. Author, environmentalist, and advocate for the protection of wilderness, for more than thirty years he served as a wilderness guide in the lakes and forests of the Quetico-Superior country of northern Minnesota and southwestern Ontario. He worked for the protection of the Boundary Waters, helped draft the Wilderness Act of 1964, and helped establish Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota. He was known honorifically as the Bourgeois — a term the voyageurs of old used for their trusted leaders.

North American Bear Center

Ely is home to the North American Bear Center, an interactive museum and educational facility featuring the American black bear. The North American Bear Center, the only science/nature museum of its kind, is dedicated to helping people learn from the bears themselves about bear behavior, ecology, and their relations with humans. A wall of windows overlooks a 2.5 acre naturally forested enclosure with a pond and waterfalls, which is home to four resident bears. The center also features exhibits, a theater, children's activities, and interpretive nature trails.

International Wolf Center

International Wolf Center Entrance
International Wolf Center

The International Wolf Center is one of the world’s leading organizations dedicated to educating people about wolves. Founded in 1985 by a group of biologists led by Dr. L. David Mech, a world-renowned wolf biologist, the center opened in 1993. The center features gray wolves viewable through large windows that allow visitors to watch the wolves communicate, play, hunt and eat. In addition to the onsite ambassador wolves, the center offers a variety of educational programs at its Ely interpretive facility as well as other locations in northern Minnesota and across North America. Afternoon, weekend and week-long programs include howling trips, radio tracking, snowshoe treks, family activities, dog sledding, videos, presentations, flights over wolf country, demonstrations, and hikes.

Arts & Heritage Center

The Ely Arts & Heritage Center is located in the historic Pioneer Mine complex. It is managed by a non-profit arts organization, Ely Greenstone Public Art. They offer classes, hold exhibits, and festivals.

Dorothy Molter museum

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The Dorothy Molter cabin in Ely

The Dorothy Molter cabin and museum are located in Ely. Known as the "Root Beer Lady", Molter lived for 56 years on Knife Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Various factors combined to give her national prominence and extensive coverage in media, books and documentaries, and over the years tens of thousands of canoeists stopped by to visit and drink her homemade root beer. Molter first visited her future home (The Isle of Pines Resort) on Knife Lake in 1930 and it became her home starting in 1934. Up until the mid/late 1940s, the Isle of Pines resort was typical of many north woods resorts. It was reachable by seaplanes and motorboats, and later by snowmobiles as they came into use. But when her location evolved into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, eventually nearly all motorized transportation was eliminated and residences, buildings, business and the few roads from the wilderness were removed, leaving Molter the only full-time resident in a wilderness area three times the size of Rhode Island. After Molter's death her cabin was dismantled and moved to Ely. Her residence and a second cabin of hers were re-erected, and the Dorothy Molter Museum was formed to preserve her legacy.

Camp Widjiwagan

Joe Seliga in his Ely, Minnesota, workshop

Camp Widjiwagan is a wilderness camp for girls and boys located on Burntside Lake. The camp is nationally recognized for its canoeing and backpacking programs; it also has an environmental education program, the Widjiwagan Outdoor Learning Program. During the summer months they run canoe and backpacking programs offered at several degrees of experience, with more advanced trips for experienced campers. Environmental education programs are held during the fall, winter and spring seasons, with students studying wilderness survival, plant and tree identification, basic hiking skills, animal tracking, the night sky, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. Master builder of wood-and-canvas canoes Joe Seliga lived in Ely and was an instructor at the camp. When Seliga died in 2005, Camp Widjiwagan received his canoe form.

Hegman Lake pictrographs

Pictographs on Hegman Lake (5188001188)
Pictographs on Hegman Lake

The Hegman Lake Pictographs, located within the BWCAW about 15 miles north of Ely, have been described as "perhaps the most visited and photogenic pictograph within the State of Minnesota." Located on a large overlooking rock wall on North Hegman Lake, it is thought that the rock art was most likely created by the Ojibwe Indians. The meaning of the painting is uncertain. It appears to represent the Ojibwe meridian constellations visible in winter during the early evening, and while some anthropologists believe that it may have served as a guide for navigating in the deep woods during the winter hunting season, others see it as a visual representation of the connection between the spiritual and temporal worlds. In the summer the site can only be reached by canoe, but in the winter when the lakes are frozen it can be viewed on foot, or with snowshoes if the snows are deep.

Notable people

  • Jessica Biel – actress, born in Ely
  • Thomas A. Brown (1889–1959) – notoriously corrupt police chief of St. Paul, Minnesota, during both Prohibition and the Public Enemies era. Infamous as a conspirator in multiple felonies committed by the Dillinger Gang and the Barker-Karpis Gang. After successfully evading prosecution, Brown settled in Ely as a liquor store owner.
  • Jim Brandenburg – photographer with National Geographic
  • Jim Klobuchar – journalist, father of U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar
  • Dorothy Louise Molter – the Root Beer Lady
  • Sigurd F. Olson – naturalist and author
  • Joe Seliga – master builder of wood and canvas canoes
  • Will Steger – explorer and author
  • Daren Streblow – comedian
  • Lynn Rogers – black bear expert


  • Ely Memorial High School
  • Vermilion Community College

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