Throughout its rich history, Ely has adapted to ever-changing economic conditions. Settlers and prospectors came to the area during the gold rush but very little gold was found; instead, they discovered an area rich in iron ore. Initially, open pit mines were used to extract the ore, but operations soon went underground to reach large deposits. The need for lumber to serve as the framework for the mines led to an emerging logging industry and a new source of economy. While demand for iron ore surged during the years around World War I, the 1960s and 1970s saw decreased demand and the closure of many mines and logging operations. In 1964, the U.S. Congress passed the Wilderness Act, making the Boundary Waters Canoe Area part of the new National Wilderness Preservation System and creating a new source of economic stability.
The Lake Vermilion Gold Rush brought the first settlers to the Ely area in 1865. Little gold was discovered but large deposits of iron ore were unearthed and proved to be a valuable natural resource. Railroad was laid between Tower and the newly incorporated city of Florence in 1888. After ore was discovered a bit further west, the town moved and changed its name. “Ely” was chosen in honor of Michigan mining executive Samuel B. Ely, who continually supported the Vermilion Range but was never known to visit the namesake town.
Images provided by: The Minnesota Historical Society Ely-Winton Historical Society