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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

All Hail Hurley and the Hell They Avoided

This Rat was nosing around northern Wisconsin recently, discovering, among other things, that one of Wisconsin's border rivers -- the Montreal, that is, the river no one gets right in a quiz about border rivers -- has two branches. 

Wow, huh? 

Well, there's more. In tracking the branches of the Montreal, you travel to Hurley, Wisconsin, in northern Iron County hard against the Michigan border and its twin city, Ironwood.

Past Glory
Hurley lets you know, early and often, that is is a mining town.  Or WAS a mining town.  It's clear by the names of the businesses and streets, the public art and historic markers, that this burg clings to its iron mining past like a rusty nail to a magnet.  It's clear by the pro-mining yard signs that they continue to cling to mining as its future.

There's something sad about that. Area residents are no doubt sad and angry that their chance for another iron mine, and the jobs and activity that comes with it, was snatched from their grasp like a pick axe wrenched from their hand by a cranky straw boss.  Rat overheard none of this, but  it is known they blame environmentalists and Indians and one state Senator who blocked legislation that would have allowed the mine to operate without any meaningful environmental standards.

That mine would not have been their granddad's mine. 

Rat's sadness about all this runs in a couple of directions.  Rat is sad for the good folks of Hurley who were led down a primrose path by a mining company that knew from the beginning a mine in that area would not work unless they could be utterly careless with water and tailings and paying local governments for the damage they'd cause.  Rat is sad for the fact that it is obvious that the good folks of Hurley need some new kind of economic activity.  There are way too many bars per capita in that town -- not a good measure of community health.

Hurley's Hurdles
We then advise them, "Protect your resources and make money through tourism!"  But you sense a "been there done that" attitude about tourism in the town, and perhaps a self-fulfilling prophesy even:  "Tourism didn't really work before, so let's not try very hard at it," they think.  And because they don't try very hard, it's not a very appealing place, and its charms are hard to find.  So tourists don't come, and they say, "See, tourism doesn't really work here." And there's your vicious cycle.

This Rat did his best to spend a few special grains and nuts to do my share for the local economy.  But the occasional "quiet sport" tourist is notorious for not spending much money -- kayaks don't use gas, we bring our Clif Bars from downstate, and we drink modestly. (Okay, not my friends.)  One barkeep, in sizing up the tourism potential, told me that snowmobilers "don't even drink no more."  That's probably a good thing, but it hints at the limited imagination that appears to permeate the town about what it could be. 

I went back to the Montreal River to find Peterson Falls, a sweet little cascade of the East Branch.  It's poorly marked, and its very unofficial feel made it deliciously primitive.  But Iron County boasts 18 waterfalls.  What could they do to  make Iron County Wisconsin's "waterfall destination?"  Would that be the catalyst to put in the map -- the draw that triggers the new restaurant, that inspires the new convenience store, which in turn convinces some retirees to settle there, which puts money into a developer's pocket who then feeds the local lumber mart and Friday fish fry joint? 

Hurley could at least try.  They would be in total charge of their own fate, and maybe begin to imagine a new future. 

Meanwhile, go to Peterson Falls while in Hurley,  and while you're at it, find the confluence of the two branches of the river.  Nothing breathtaking or spectacular, but very satisfying.  That river has seen change and upheaval over the millenia.  So will Hurley. 

1 comment:

  1. Rat: Your piece on eco-tourism here is just what the dr. ordered. Take me to that time spent in the old hotel, b&bs, family gatherings in glorious old resort days enjoying the Wisconsin hospitality among friends. My son-in-law lives in Iron County and talks about his great outdoor adventures quite often. It's so worth going up to "Lake Country" to explore the trails, the peace and quiet of the great northwoods.
    Why can't forward thinking Wisconsinites envision a "light rail" that affords city people of Chicago, Milwaukee or Madison a circular route similar to the 1800's when 8 trains a day dropped people at the old Hotels on the shore of Devil's Lake and the Dells on the way to Mpls?
    What about creating a light rail shuttle for urban dwellers who seek escape from their work-weary existence to experience the North Country for Day Trippers or Weekenders?
    The Wisconsin Tourism magazine show events all summer filled with fun things to do in many quaint places all along the way.
    Rat, keep your attitude adjusted to the future. There is hope for a new economy on the horizon because people don't want it to stay the way it is! All aboard, we're going forward!