Window into Yesterday - Ely’s Bowery District
Central Avenue in Ely circa 1914. Photo courtesy Ely-Winton Historical Society.
by David Kess for the Ely-Winton Historical Society
What is there now gives no hint of the so called Bowery District Ely once had. This Bowery occupied the first two blocks of Central Avenue just north of Ely’s train depot.
In the earliest years of Ely’s history, the railroad was really the only artery to and from Ely since the other means of getting to and from town were only foot and wagon trails. This area got its name undoubtedly by the number of cheap bars and saloons that accommodated new arrivals.
The name Bowery originally referred to a colonial Dutch plantation or farm. In New York City it was the name given to a district in Lower Manhattan with wide boulevards, numerous trees and gardens. That was several hundred years ago and since then it has taken on a more negative connotation.
The Sanborn Insurance Maps of 1900 for Ely shows there were 14 bars/saloons in this two block stretch. By 1907 the number had decreased to 12 - still quite a few for a small area.
All of the surviving buildings there have now gone through several different owners. The first building north of the depot was a bar once called the First and Last Chance. A place for a drink before boarding the train or coming off the train into town. It also had room rentals. It is now Mealey’s outlet store.
The current Surplus Store, a double building, once housed a bar in one half and a restaurant on the other. Other buildings going north no longer exist. Further on are several buildings, one of which was first Crossman’s Buffet and Saloon, later Lampi’s Saloon, and still later Forsman’s Tavern. Now it is one of two that house Piragis’ Outdoors.
Mr. Crossman and his wife became very well known, even today, with their moose team. Pictures of them appear in a number of places, perhaps the most visible being the mural on the east side of the Art and Soul Gallery. The Crossmans were in Ely perhaps only a dozen or so years. They built a substantial home on Harvey Street, across the street from the former Community Center.
On Central Avenue just north of the depot, the first building on the northeast corner of Camp Street and Central Avenue was a boarding house. Who owned it originally is not known but it later became the Oberstar Boarding House. The Oberstar building was torn down when Jim Mealey and Teri Murphy bought it. They rebuilt it much in the original style and it is now part of Mealey’s Gift Shop.
The maps also show some empty spaces that probably once had been business buildings. The smaller building that now houses Mealey’s Sauna and Gift Shop had previously been a fur trading business, then a taxicab office and a second hand store. The bike shop across the street once was occupied by Breen’s Second Hand Shop where many “treasures” could be found.
Where now stands the Chocolate Moose was once a large hotel building. Over the years, a bottle shop and a Maytag store occupied the first floor. It was known as the Shagawa Hotel. Before becoming a hotel, the upstairs had been a popular venue for many community social events. During that time it was called the Turf Hall. It was destroyed by fire about 30 years ago and was eventually replaced by the Chocolate Moose restaurant.
On the opposite corner once stood the three story rather elegant Vail Hotel. In contrast to some of the neighboring hotels, it served the “brass” of the railroad and mining companies. It burned to the ground in a spectacular fire in March of 1905. Sometime later it became Andy Jacobson’s Pure Oil Station, then Phil’s, then Tony’s Conoco and more lately the Your Boat Club recreational vehicles enterprise.
Across Sheridan Street is the ElyWear building, one of the oldest in this area. Before ElyWear it had been the home of the Ely Echo and before that it had been Kochevar’s Clothing and Shoe Shop. Even before that it had been a saloon which had had several owners. Speculation is that the upstairs room were used by ladies of the night.
Crossing Central Avenue, the avenue becomes South Central. The I. W. W. bar, a two story brick building, stands today but reborn as the Northern Grounds Coffee Shop (and upstairs is a wine tasting club).
Further south on that block was Oja’s Bar. That building was replaced by the Kwazy Wabbit bar. A brick building now housing Legacy Toys was once Pete’s Garage, a Dodge and Plymouth dealership and later James Motors.
Prior to that, however, was a large two story log building that had been moved there from the Spaulding Location. The first floor of this two story log building was Cormick’s general store. The second floor served as another hotel. A large picture of this is on the Klun Law Office.
Much very early history has unfolded here. Trains no longer come and go from Ely and the depot remains empty. Three highways lead out of town. Gone is anything resembling a Bowery District.
A picture exhibit of these early structures can be found in the Fine Arts Lobby of the Vermilion College campus. Winter hours for the history museum and historical society office are noon until 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. The office can be reached at 218-365-3226.