How Samuel Ely raised the bar as Ely’s namesake

East of Ely by David Krikorian

In 1857, the first Northern Michigan iron mine was built near Marquette around a pig iron smelter named the “Pioneer Furnace.” Rather than naming the mine after some old European city, one of the mine’s founders insisted that it be named by a local council of native Ojibwe. This was a little unusual for the Industrial Age in the U.S. at the time, but the mine chairman had been raised in Iroquois country, a region where people had respect for the tribe’s democratic way of life.
The chairman’s name was Samuel Partridge Ely, Number 1160 in the succession of Ely family descendants that arrived from England in 1636; a family that was key to establishing the settlements of Hartford and Norwalk, Connecticut. Samuel Ely was the man the City of Ely is named after, who exists today as a one-line footnote in the town’s history. Much of the information I gleaned on him this week comes from mining documents, his obituary, historic mining accounts and a vast genealogical and historical record titled, “Records of the Descendants of Nathaniel Ely: The Emigrant.”
Sam Ely’s family branch had settled in Rochester, New York by the early 1800s where they ran a flourishing flour mill. A close Ely Family associate, American anthropologist and railroad lawyer, Louis Henry Morgan, pioneered a movement instrumental in correcting attitudes about Native American culture. This association influenced Sam and his two brothers, Heman and George long before they would become developers of mines and railroads. There was also some controversy stemming from a local native named Ely Parker, who was suspected of conspiring with Joseph Brant against the US during the War of 1812, whose actions indirectly cast a shadow on Morgan and the Ely family, although there were no records of how Parker came to named “Ely.”
Sam and his brothers also had an uncle named, Heman, who authored the Ely family historical record. Another captain of industry, Heman founded the City of Elyria, Ohio, alongside other iron mining, railroad and milling ventures, and as required of all industrialists of the age, he became a philanthropist promoting libraries, schools and was a founder of Oberlin College.
In the 1850s Samuel Ely moved to Marquette, Michigan with brother George to take charge of the eldest brother Heman’s (who was in bad health) railroad and mining companies. Sam became mayor of Marquette and was a key benefactor of the renowned town library. Sam also established a second Upper Peninsula mine operation at Ishpeming, insisting the mine be named after the Ojibwe name for “high place,” also a name for heaven.
Sam Ely oversaw the construction of the railroads running to Duluth, the Iron Range and on to Tower and Ely and back to the ore docks being assembled near Two Harbors. The notion that Sam never set foot in Ely may actually be incorrect. Still, the City’s founders must have contacted him at the very least, and then Ely must have agreed.
Sam went on to open railroads and mines out west and in as far away as Cuba. And he is arguably a possible namesake for early Twentieth Century mines of Ely, Nevada. He died in Paris, France in 1900 at age seventy-five.
As I learned more about Samuel Ely, an image formed of a capitalist equal in stature to all those who championed the Industrial Age in this country. There’s no doubt that he committed all the usual deeds of such a person, good and bad, but I cannot shake the image of his hand weaving the Iron Range into the developing modern world. And I can appreciate that despite his wealth and position, how he never lost respect for the original inhabitants of this land.
For anyone who may be interested, the Ely’s of England came from an island in the fenland of Cambridge, known as the Isle of Eels. Oliver Cromwell also came from the island. Think about this the next time you chuck back an eelpout (burbot) into your ice house hole.