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Window into Yesterday - Mr. Mantel’s Motorcar

by David Kess for the Ely-Winton Historical Society

In the early days of scouting for timber and then the early days of mining in Ely, travel to and from Duluth was only by foot trails through the wilderness. Horses and later wagons and carts improved the trails only slightly. The first real road into Ely was the railroad in 1887.

1910 was the year that motorcars came to Ely even though there were only a few short roads around the town.  “Horseless carriages” became an instant attraction to townspeople that year.

By 1910 there were already 88 car manufacturers in the United States. One of them was Sears, Roebuck, and Co. Prices ranged from $325 - $475. Cars first came to Ely in a large wooden crates on railroad cars and these crates were used as garages. Each automobile came with a free ten-day trial with a money back guarantee.

Prominent Elyites such as Dr. Parker, Dr. Ayres, Dr. Lockhart, Captain Trezona, and William McCurdy sought out Chalmers automobiles. But, there still were no decent roads out of town. With no gasoline stations, each car owner purchased gasoline in gallon containers and the gas needed to be filtered through a chamois cloth.

In 1910 Ely entrepreneur Joseph Mantel got the “bug” to have a car for himself, so he took the train to Duluth, bought an E. M. F. vehicle #30 for $1250, and had it shipped back to Ely on a railroad flat car. It was an open car that held five passengers, had brass trim, tiny brakes. no shift, and a handbrake. Since it scared horses, was noisy, and stirred up clouds of dust, an attempt was made to outlaw the vehicle on city streets. Roads existed only to Winton and Burntside Lake.

Several car owners, including Mr. Mantel, started dreaming about a trip to Duluth, although only narrow horse trails and no roads as such existed for some of the way. Knowing what likely lay ahead, they took with them axes, shovels, chains, patching materials, ropes, and extra gasoline. Tires then had no tread and so there were numerous flats. These were patched with fabric patches. Going was much easier once they connected to the Vermilion Trail.

Mr. Mantel had convinced Joe Skala and Anton Kochevar to accompany him. Townspeople thought they were all out of their minds. The trip to Duluth took two days. Then car was on display at the St. Louis Hotel in Duluth for two days. The trip back to Ely went without incident.

Roads were steadily improved and soon became passable.

It must be pointed out how valuable a resource Lee Brownell’s picture collection and writings have been to me and to many others. Beyond his work, we only have back issues of The Ely Miner and several other early newspapers. The newspapers are not indexed and researching them is tedious and time consuming. Dea and Bob Whitten, along with Columbia Childers did compile 100 years of highlights of the Ely Miner in a publication called Marriage, Mining, Mischief, and More. This too has often been helpful. Not to be overlooked is One Hundred Years - Ely Since 1888, published by the Ely Echo. Lee Brownell’s work stands out among them.

A picture display of these early cars is now in the Fine Arts Lobby at Minnesota North - Ely campus. Call 218-365-3226 for hours or to supply additional information about the article.

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