To get to Ely, Minnesota, you take 1-35 to Cloquet, pass the Frank Lloyd Wright gas station, hang a right onto Highway 53, follow signs for Embarrass, and pass through the city of Virginia, the self-proclaimed taconite mining capital of the world, and Soudan, whose defunct iron mine is now a state park.
Once you get to Tower, well after 53 turns into 169, you're getting close, but you might as well stop for a burger at the Good OF Days Bar and Grill--unless you can't handle two third-pound beef patties topped with both ham and bacon. Between Tower and Ely, about twenty-five miles, turn the radio dial to 94.5 FM, WELY: End of the Road Radio, a station owned by the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa.
Ely really is the end of the road. It's the last town on 169 before the road winds into the Superior National Forest and then disappears altogether into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Boundary Waters are named for their proximity to the U.S./Canada border, but the divisions in this far-north border town are far more complex.
On Sheridan Street, Ely's main drag, the Cenex sells both of the newspapers published for this 3,500-person city: The Ely Echo and The Timberjay. There is a local sustainable restaurant, Insula, or the Ely Steak House, which serves "Kick Butt" sirloins. For coffee, there's the newly restored Northern Grounds (a former VFW hall), which becomes a wine bar at night. Down the street is Zaverl's, a bar that still serves Pelinkovac ("Plink") for the self-described Yugoslavs whose ancestors came to this remote outpost in the mid-nineteenth century.
But wherever you go, down on the banks of Miners Lake, an eerily space-agey building decorated with the periodic table will keep the lights on. Twin Metals, the company that owns and operates this building, is currently at the center of a bitter, century-long conflict in Ely. The two poles of the dispute are economic development through high-intensity resource use (mining and federal deregulation) and economic development through lower-intensity resource use (canoeing, camping, and wilderness tourism).
Twin Metals is owned by Antofagasta plc, a multinational, multibillion-dollar corporation based in Chile. (Fun fact: The mining company also owns the house in Washington, D.C., where Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, live as $15,000 per month tenants.) In a community that can be resentful of newcomers, Twin Metals has tried to ingratiate itself, investing in food pantries, the Ely school district, and "acquisition, exploration, technical, environmental, and other project development activities," according to a press release.
James Devine, the field operations coordinator, is an Ely native, which means something in a place where outsiders joke about exhuming their grandparents and reburying them here to achieve local status. But a multinational, multibillion-dollar corporation doesn't give away money without expecting a return on its investment.
Until recently, the return Twin Metals expected was a $2.8-billion underground copper-nickel mine it planned to develop in the Rainy River watershed, inside the Superior National Forest and outside the Boundary Waters. The goal was to extract one of the world's largest deposits of...