Joe and I are blessed to have many wonderful neighbors. One of them, Mike Nelson, said to me “You should do a story about my hometown, Kelly Lake!” So I began to gather articles and books about the town located between Keewatin and Hibbing.
Kelly Lake was NOT a mining location. In the 1880s, a little settlement began on the shore of the lake as a logging outpost. Huge white pines, being cut down in the nearby forests, were floated onto the lake for storage during winters. Come spring, a logging railroad would transport the logs to the Mississippi River for a trip to the lumber mills.
The name of the lake may have come from a member of Swan River Logging Company survey crew, a Mr. Kelly, who always looked for the best high land around swamps to lay down railroad ties. He “found” the lake and it was soon referred to as “Kelly’s Lake.”
Soon, with the pines gone and the lumber companies moving on, a new railroad would take over the line. James J. Hill’s Great Northern would meet the fast-growing demands of the ever expanding iron ore mines that needed to move their product to the shores of Lake Superior and the freighters which would carry the raw ore to the steel mills.
When I was growing up, my parents had several friends who lived in Kelly Lake. My strongest memory is that those people all had marvelous gardens.
Could it be that the soot, which could rain down on the gardens thanks to the massive train yards nearby, was good fertilizer? That’s an answer a master gardener might have to answer, but I have learned through my reading that Kelly Lake and the railroads grew up together, just like good soil and a good garden. And the several generations of children who grew up in Kelly Lake never forgot their roots.
The following article is primarily based on information taken from the following sources:
1. The booklet “Kelly Lake Centennial Celebration-July 13,14,15, 2007—How the Great Northern Railway Affected the Small Town of Kelly Lake, Minnesota” by June Jackson Kelly. Also, Anita Wippler Serrano, a member of the Centennial Reunion Committee, wrote part of the booklet’s introduction.
2. The book “Kelly Lake to Allouez” by Robert Porter and Douglass Addison, Sr. published in 2009.
3. Thanks to Erica Larson Zubich at the Hibbing Historical Society for finding the photos and newspaper articles.
4. A special thanks to the Kelly Lake Community Club
~Mary Palcich Keyes
In 1907, Kelly Lake turned from a settlement of transient workers into a community of permanent families.
The Great Northern Railroad started building cottages for employee families. Electrical power was supplied to the railroad and the town. A large boarding house was built for the single working men.
The United States Postal service initiated a separate post office for Kelly Lake with Mrs. Agnes (Frank) Karl as the first postmistress. That first post office was located in the front porch of her home.
Kelly Lake became a part of the economic picture of the mines because of its position on the Great Northern line to the Allouez ore docks near Superior, Wis. In 1894, the Mahoning Mine, located just 4 miles from Kelly Lake, shipped its first load of ore through Kelly Lake down to Superior.
The Hibbing newspaper in November 1907 states that “quite a city has been built at Kelly Lake within the last year.”
Soon established as an important part of the Great Northern Railway Empire, Kelly Lake’s existence is well-documented in the railroad records. The railroad yard and “roundhouse” grew and thrived on ore shipments.
Eventually Kelly Lake’s railroad yards included a six-stall engine house, a coal station, a storehouse, a water tank, a repair track and repair shops. There were 28 road crews, each had five men working 15-hour and 59-minute shifts, seven days a week during the shipping season. The long days were necessary to deliver to the mines the empty ore cars and return with full cars.
Kelly Lake crews were responsible for mine runs east and west of Kelly Lake. The full cars would be hooked together into long trains and hauled to Allouez. Kelly Lake developed such a large railroad yard in order to handle all of those cars.
It was not, strictly speaking, a mining town. Its importance was its rails.
“Everyone worked on the railroad,” many Kelly Lakers would say when reminiscing about their town. People were proud of their skills and the livelihood they could provide for their families.
By the 1920s, many people lived well because the railroad paid good wages — up to $25 a day for an engineer on the “long haul” round trip to Allouez. The bustling rail yard kept many employed with longer trains being pulled by powerful steam locomotives. What were thought to be large locomotives were replaced with even larger ones in order to keep the ore moving.
The Kelly Lake railroad yards were enlarged to accommodate the opening of the Stevenson Mine and the continuing growth of the Mahoning mine. According to Joseph W. Thompson in his 1956 study “An Economic History of the Mesabi Division of the Great Northern Railway Company,” in 1912 “there were eight long main tracks in the Kelly Lake yards. Each track was long enough to receive a full train of 115 cars. Four of these eight tracks were for empty cars and four for the loaded trains being made up for further movement. Altogether the total length of track in the Kelly Lake yards amounted to over 20 miles.”
The long lines of ore cars switching back and forth, interspersed with the whistles and bells of incoming and outgoing heavily loaded ore cars, composed a “summer symphony” across the lake from the town. Residents did not complain because these sounds represented life and livelihood.
If the soot and cinders on a windy day would prevent people from hanging wash outside, the wash was postponed. The presence of the railroad dominated the village, and the villagers were happy to have it- noise, soot and all.
The first elementary school was built in Kelly Lake in 1910. The population of Kelly Lake grew so much that a new school was needed.
In a 1927 article in the Hibbing Daily Tribune, a report was given of a school board meeting and the angry Kelly Lake parents who believed they had voted for a new school but none was being built. A member of the school board asked how long the town of Kelly Lake might expect to exist. A Mr. Mason from Kelly Lake replied, “Well, sir, if you can tell me how soon they can mine out the Mahoning Mine, then I can answer your question.”
It was pointed out that, in all probability, Kelly Lake would be the LAST location to disappear as the railway in Kelly Lake would have to haul the last load after it was mined and loaded into ore cars!
It was a fine-looking school that was built, with a stone foundation and a broad set of stairs leading up to the front door. In 1929, the school’s enrollment was 138. Children attended here through the eighth grade, then were bussed into Hibbing. The local school also filled the need for a community center for gatherings.