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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Ely’s Bowery District

David Kess
Posted 11/20/23

ELY- 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 …

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Ely’s Bowery District


ELY- 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 only other means of travel were 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 negative connotation.
The Sanborn Insurance Maps of 1900 for Ely show 14 bars and saloons in this two block stretch. By 1907 the number had decreased to twelve—still quite a few for a small area.
All of the surviving buildings have 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. The premises 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. Some other buildings going north no longer exist. Further on are several buildings, one of which began as Crossman’s Buffet and Saloon. Crossman’s later became Lampi’s saloon, and still later Forsman’s Tavern. Now it is one of the two buildings that house Piragis Northwoods Co.
Mr. Crossman and his wife became very well known, even today, with their moose team. Pictures of them appear in several places, perhaps the most visible of which is the mural on the east side of the Art and Soul Gallery. The Crossmans were in Ely only a dozen or so years. They built a substantial home on Harvey St., across the street from the former Community Center.
On Central Ave., just north of the depot, the first building on the northeast corner of Camp St. and Central Ave. 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 Mealey’s Gift Shop.
The maps also show some empty spaces that were probably once business buildings. The smaller building that now houses Mealey’s Sauna and Gift Shop had previously been a fur trading business, a taxicab office, and then 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.
The Chocolate Moose location 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 it was a hotel, the upstairs had been a popular venue for many community social events. At that time, it was called the Turf Hall. It was destroyed by fire about thirty years ago.
On the opposite corner stood the elegant three-story 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 Tony’s Conoco, and more recently, the BoatWorks recreational vehicles enterprise.
Across Sheridan St. 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. Prior to that, it had been a saloon which had had several owners. Speculation is that the upstairs rooms were used by ladies of the night.
Continuing south on Central, the road name changes from North to South Central when crossing the intersection at Sheridan St. The I. W. W. bar was a two-story brick building which still stands today, reborn as the Northern Grounds Coffee Shop.
Further south was Oja’s bar. That building was replaced by the Kwazy Wabbit bar. The brick building now housing Legacy Toys was once Pete’s garage, a Dodge and Plymouth dealership. Prior to that, however, it 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 building.
Much very early history 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 4:00 p.m., Tuesday through Friday. The office can be reached at 218-365-3226.