Hurley and Mercer: A tale of two towns

This is the seventh in a series of eight posts which together comprise an in-depth article concerning a proposed iron ore mine in the Penokee Hills of Northern Wisconsin and the widespread resistance to the project. Two installments of the article are posted weekly.


I’m sitting in the public library in Mercer, Wisconsin perusing a history of Iron County. I’m thinking about Jill Hartlev’s comment about Hurley and its “strip bars.” Although living most of my adult life in the southern part of the state, I’d heard rumors about Hurley and its unsavory reputation. The book I’ve found has a map of Hurley’s downtown “business district” in 1900, 15 years after the beginning of the iron boom.

The map shows Silver Street from 1st to 5th Street. I count 40 saloons, as well as barbers, dentists, drugstores, grocers, jewelers, a post office and shops for shoemakers, cigar-makers and dressmakers. The text says there were actually over 50 saloons in Hurley then, “catering to boisterous lumberjacks and miners.” Taverns accounted for a large share of the city’s tax base, each paying $50 a year for a license.

Hurley, the county seat, is tucked on the north end of Iron County, shoulder to shoulder with Ironwood, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The town’s well-earned image of a wild and lawless place began early on. “Gambling, girls and good times” lured adventure-seekers here as much as did the promise of wealth to be made in the mines. “There are lots of chances here to make money, and you would not have to hunt very long to find places to lose it either,” an unidentified newspaper boasted in 1886.

A newspaper notice from October, 1916 reads: “It has been brought to our attention that women of lascivious behavior … have become inmates of places in the village of Hurley. Resolved by the Town of Vaughn to take such steps as necessary to cause all such women and keepers of places harboring them or permitting their resorting to be prosecuted.”

Apparently, the steps taken were not sufficient. In 1942, state tax agents and the FBI swooped down on Silver Street and cleaned up the “bright light” district, jailing 17 men and 34 women. In 1955, the state took action to close seven Hurley taverns on charges that the businesses were nuisances and “a menace to the morals of the community.” In 1964, state agents and the FBI again raided vice operations in Hurley, alleging that 25 exotic dancers were imported to the city to solicit drinks and prostitution during the deer-hunting season. The Iron County Miner newspaper charged: “The time is long overdue for the decent people of Hurley … to demand that the last remnants of vice and indecency be chased out of our city. We are trying to get industry. No business is going to come to Hurley when we get yellow journalism … by allowing what is down the street to give us a bad name. City officials can no longer look at it as a necessary economic evil.”

Still, in 1989, the Hurley City Council approved nudity in taverns. A resident was quoted as saying: “Hurley without a strip joint is like Rome without a pope.”

I continue to skim through the highlights of 150 years of Hurley history. The account is peppered with reports of fires: at the mine sites, in the lumber mills and in the downtown district. In the summer of 1887, a fire destroys all the buildings on one block of Silver Street; another starts in a theater and quickly spreads to burn down most of the business center; a third fire takes out most of the commercial district of neighboring Ironwood.

In 1906 and 1911, Finnish workers organize socialist union locals in the range. (I wonder if Governor Scott Walker and the Koch brothers have considered that a resurgence of mining in the Northwoods might precipitate a resurgence of good-old Wisconsin socialism?) A 1917 newspaper report proclaims: Miners Strike Across Range! “The workers themselves know that it is the best time to break the iron chain that binds us to the ground.” Their demands include $6 dollars of pay per day for six hours of work, and abolition of the contract system and blacklisting of miners.

In 1939, the Iron County Forest records its first stumpage revenue of $678.78.

In 1946, due to increased traffic and congestion, Hurley city officials erect a four-way stop sign at Silver Street and 2nd Avenue. As far as I can ascertain, there is still no actual stoplight anywhere in Iron County, a county of 574,000 acres or 792 square miles.

The population of Iron County peaked in 1920 at about 10,260 and has been declining steadily ever since. The estimated population for 2014 was 5,916. Hurley’s population is about 1,524. Although Mercer is technically just a town, its population of about 1,430 nearly matches that of Hurley.

Dick Thiede, Iron County mining blogger

Dick Thiede, Iron County resident

Dick Thiede, the blogger and mine opponent, noted that Hurley has been recognized by national media as one of the “kinkiest” cities in the country. He diplomatically characterizes the government of Iron County as “free-form.”

“I don’t want to imply any kind of graft or corruption because there isn’t enough money here to do much,” he explained. “But there is ego and power involved.”

Mercer, in contrast to Hurley, resembles a typical northern Wisconsin tourist town, with an economy and culture centered on lakes and fishing. The one coffee shop in town doubles as a tackle and bait store. There are 300 lakes in Iron County and most of them are located in the southern portion of the county.

Vic Ouimette, Iron Co. Board Member & President, Mercer Chamber of Commerce

Vic Ouimette

Vic Ouimette, the Mercer Chamber leader, told me the average value of a house in Hurley is $40,000, compared to about $220,000 for a house in Mercer. The wealth of lakes has enabled southern Iron County to develop a more healthy economy, Ouimette said. “With the tourist economy, you also bring along second-home owners, and that’s why average value of a home down here is high.”

The area around Hurley lacks the lakefront property, he added “That old mining mentality is there: if we just get the mines back, it will be like it was in the old days, and so they’re still living in the old days. Whereas, down here we didn’t have that, so we’re not looking at going back; we’re looking at going forward.”

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All photos by Tom Boswell©2015. All rights reserved.

Next and Last: The Social License: Will the people issue a permit?


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