Feb 12 2011
Note: A proposal to resume iron ore mining in Wisconsin, after a lag of four decades, means we’re likely to hear more than usual about Iron and Ashland counties during the next few years. Gogebic Taconite wants to spend $1 billion on open-pit mining on 22,000 acres of the Penokee Range, between Upson and Mellon. This is the first part of a series about what defines the heritage and tourism of the area.
You can call Hurley small, but don’t peg it as sleepy. As long as the snow flies, this is the time of year for Hurley to thrive because of winter sports, especially Iron County’s 500 miles of snowmobile trails, which draw a predominantly male crowd that tends to linger longer than a weekend.
Some of these visitors do their best to uphold Hurley’s longstanding status as a hell-on-wheels town, one that pretty much ignored Prohibition in the 1920s.
The locals say Hurley was home to around 130 places to buy and drink alcohol during that era. Many were along Silver Street, disguised as candy stores and soda fountains. Some stills operated in underground tunnels. Customers included Al Capone and other gangsters.
“We think they’ve all been filled in,” says Dawn Gresham, of the escape hatch tunnels. She operates a Hurley bar, but more about that later. “Some say we should clear out those blocks, but no – what if we’d find somebody down there, after all these years?”
About 25 bars remain in Hurley, and that includes five or six strip joints, which by city ordinance are confined to Silver Street’s Lower Block, next to the Montreal River.
How do these businesses survive in a city whose population doesn’t hit 2,000? All have a 2 a.m. bar time. Most don’t bother with websites. Some earn a reputation, for better or worse, by specializing. For example:
Mac’s Bar, 216 Silver St., opens at 6 a.m., mainly to serve coffee to the locals. Most other places begin pouring taps and cocktails at 5 p.m.
Iron Horse, 322 Silver St., hosts a weekly meat raffle on Thursdays. It starts at 5 p.m. and lasts until the meat is gone.
Don’t confuse the Iron Horse with the Iron Nugget, 404 Silver St., whose décor includes mining artifacts, murals, enlarged photos of miners and a detailed wall map of where the area’s mines were located.
“We brought in a lot of hardworking single miners and loggers,” the Iron Nugget’s Gary Pelkola says, to explain the roots of his city’s play-it-loose legacy. It was hard labor and a dangerous life, so when payday arrived, workers were eager to spend money and unwind.
Mines closed but the freewheeling remains because of tourism, snowshoeing and skiing to deer hunting and ATVing.
Spider’s, 219 Silver St., attracts a younger crowd because of the type of bands booked. Sports fans also settle in, because one TV screen almost covers a wall.
The green and gold exterior of the Beer Barrel, 212 Silver St., also draws sports lovers. Add a dance floor and live music on weekends.
Inside Nora’s Red Carpet Lounge, 118 Silver St., is a stage big enough to put on skits, which occasionally happens.
Teezerz, 109 Second Ave. North, calls itself the smallest bar in town, with room for no more than 30, but it’s not pegged as sedate.
The Bank Club, 220 Silver St., serves drinks and burgers in a historic bank building and caters to a quieter-than-average crowd.
Freddie’s, 411 Silver St., is known for its Friday fish fry and old-time saloon motif. Larry’s Good Time Saloon, 414 Silver St., serves breakfast after the bars close. On tap at the Branding Iron Steakhouse, 214 Silver St., are margaritas. Motorcyclists feel at home at Krash Inn, 405 Silver St.
Gators Basement Bar, 29 Silver St., offers karaoke and simulated sumo wrestling (two people put on padded outfits and bounce into each other until somebody falls down). Look for the glass peephole in the wall, above an opening for firearms, to ward off unwelcome guests during Prohibition. Four wall murals were sketched and painted long ago by a drifter.
Upstairs is Dawn’s Never Inn, the former Santini Hotel whose swinging mahogany doors, hand-carved back bar and leaded glass remain. An old player piano still churns out 1940s music, but that requires a lot of foot pedal pumping. Also in the bar’s odd assortment of collectibles: antique liquor signs to a four-foot-tall moose made with recycled aluminum.
Dawn’s is at the top of the Lower Block and its “gentlemen’s clubs,” which makes for interesting conversation.
“A lot of guys get to the front door, open it and realize we’re not what they’re looking for,” says Dawn Gresham, who opened the place with husband Stan (a dentist) in 2007. “Others come inside to wait for their buddies.”
For more about Hurley: hurleywi.com, 866-340-4334.
Next week: Stops in the area that have nothing to do with alcohol.
What distinguishes one Hurley strip joint from another? That’s the kind of thing you don’t find out through the chamber of commerce, but the Internet offers clues.
Cheap drinks might make a difference. Order a 32-ounce pitcher of Bloody Marys for $3 at Dave’s Downtown Lounge, 10 Silver St., which also shares an address with the exotic dancing at Club Carnival. That includes a pickle spear.
Pay $7, and you get the works: skewered shrimp, a beef stick, green olives, pickled mushrooms, cocktail onions, pepperoncini, a pickled egg and beer chaser.
“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.