Let’s learn from the history of Ely

Ely has had some true characters over the years, including one who came to be known as the Grand Marshal of the BWCA.
John Smrekar was an integral part of the history of the BWCA during the most radical changes over the years.
Back in 1997 Smrekar pointed out the economic damage done by the changes in the rules and laws that govern the million acre area. His point was not to reverse the changes, but to be realistic on what the damages were economically.
His points 18 years ago are still valid today.
In a letter to be read on the Minnesota House floor, Smreak noted, “Official figures from the City of Ely indicate that the 1962 population of Ely was 5,934. It dropped to 3,968 in 1990.”
He goes on to say, “To justify this, one has to look at the empty buildings on Chapman Street with “for sale” and “for rent” signs on them…many businesses in Ely are gift shops and some of them are closed in the winter. Major employers that provide higher paying jobs are a small part of Ely’s economy.”
Smrekar knew firsthand, as do many who have lived through the massive changes, that Ely took a hard hit and has yet to recover, no matter what some would lead the unknowing to believe.
“Some 80 resorts have been purchased by the USFS in the BWCA pursuant to the 1964 and 1978 Wilderness Laws. The resorts have been torn down - some burned, and the land restored to its natural state. Consequently, the businesses are lost. Jobs and accommodations decrease, and instead of having a strong, stable economy, we have an unstable one. There is no comparison of the numbers of people who came to Ely then and now - the count is much less now.
“The resorts that remain are doing well, but the people who patronized the some 80 resorts that were purchased by the USFS are going elsewhere for accommodations of their liking - places that don’t require permits, and where they can use their motors.”
That is still true today. We have lost the high dollar spending visitor and in return have many people who come here with their own canoes, tents, food and supplies. And with the limits on the number of permits, undoubtedly every year people are turned away (and turned off) from coming here.
Smrekar said: “It was never the intent of Congress to keep people out of the BWCA.”
Yet that is what we have today. Groups like the Friends have continually fought to keep people out. We have a million acres with very little use much of the time. Yes, we’ve heard the numbers being used that some 200,000 people use the BWCA each year. If that was true, many of them are invisible.
To compound this we have a near-extinction of the history of the BWCA. Somehow the word “pristine” keeps getting applied to an area that has been anything but pristine.
“The BWCA history reveals a backlog of mining, logging, railroads, prospecting, fur trading - you name it, it was there. People lived there, in resorts, cabins, homes - it is not pristine - precious, yes. The area people played an important part in keeping the area beautiful. They are tolerant, accommodating stewards of the area. They have fought forest fires, planted trees, restocked the lakes, kept the area clean, and will continue the stewardship. This is our home, we live here 365 days a year, and are committed to accept the challenge and responsibility to keep the area precious for everyone to enjoy,” wrote Smrekar.
He was right in 1997 and his words are still true today. By burying, burning and drowning the past, there has been a massive cover-up of this area’s history.
So when we hear people talk about how great the economy in Ely is and how things are better than they’ve ever been, either they don’t comprehend the history or they turn a blind eye to the truth.
We believe the area still holds great promise for the future. But we’re not going to bet the farm on tourism exclusively. It’s going to take an economy that includes mining, that includes logging, that includes office jobs and that is flexible enough to adapt to today’s changing world.
The sooner that happens, the sooner our community returns to putting more kids in the classrooms at ISD 696. And while they’re in class, let’s hope they learn the history of where they live.