It Wasn’t Heavenly
The silver-haired gent looked up from his restaurant meal, spotted my faded Packers sweatshirt, and smiled.
“You from Wisconsin?”
“Oh, up north. I’m from Ironwood.” The elderly diner’s face took on a sheepish look. “We were right next door to Hurley.”
Some people claim Hurley is the town that put the “sin” in Wisconsin. Others quote a saying that goes back at least 60 years. “There’s Hurley, Haywood, and Hell, and Hurley’s the worst of the three.”
That’s the way I remember the saying. Others disagree. A few continue to argue about it. They quote a slightly different version: “The three worst places on earth are Hurley, Hayward, and Hell, and Hurley’s the toughest of the three.”
That, to me, doesn’t make a lot of sense. Obviously, Hell is not on earth. A few wordsmiths argue that the saying doesn’t refer to the biblical Hell at all, but to the Michigan city of that name. The trouble with that idea is that Hell, Michigan, is in the lower peninsula, nowhere near Hurley and Hayward, and it never was known as a center of bad behavior.
One blogger recently wrote a post arguing that the order of things in the saying really was “Hayward, Hurley, and Hell. . .” because in the old days Hayward came before Hurley on the passenger train run to the far north. That amateur historian claims the saying was based on a railroad conductor’s announcement of the next stops. That thought is interesting, but it’s a real stretch. Neither one of the Hells in question was on that railroad line.
No matter how the “real” saying goes, associating Hurley with Hell was a reasonable thing to do. The town was notorious for providing illegal gambling, booze, and prostitutes to loggers and miners. After the big trees were cut and the valuable ore dug out, enterprising Hurley business owners continued to furnish their primary products to anybody who wanted to buy.
Hurley is just 90 miles north of my hometown, straight up Highway 51. Stories of illicit activities in Hurley abounded. Silver Street, the main thoroughfare, was said to be lined by two-story wood-frame buildings. Each featured a saloon in the front, a gambling parlor in the rear, and a brothel operation upstairs. Some served food, but that was incidental. Acquaintances described all sorts of exotic activities they had seen in Hurley, summed up by “they get you anything you want.”
I assumed the stories were basically true. They aroused my curiosity about the place. I remained curious for a long time, because many years passed before I visited Hurley. During most of my youth, my family didn’t have a car, so we couldn’t do a lot of visiting anywhere. And if we could have traveled, Mom certainly would have vetoed any plan involving a trip to Hurley.
Frequent news stories about events in Hurley contributed to my curiosity. State agents regularly raided Silver Street establishments and made numerous arrests. A few days after we read detailed descriptions of the evil acts the state police discovered, smaller news articles reported the results. Typically, local magistrates found most of the accused not guilty, and the others only slightly guilty. The slightly guilty got small fines and went back to work.
For a while in the 1940s and 50s, the good citizens of Hurley made determined public relations efforts to clean up the city’s image. The most famous attempt was a program launched by the mayor; he encouraged residents to paint all the buildings in the city white. They really did that. The new puritanical color scheme had little effect on opinions about the place. City officials took to sending out news releases comparing the number of churches in Hurley to the number of saloons. The churches led by a slight margin. That tactic failed utterly to convince anyone that Hurley was heavenly.
Hurley still conjured up images of a little sin city in 1978 some 30 years after I first started hearing and reading about it. That’s when I finally made my one and only visit to Silver Street.
Ironwood, which is separated from Hurley only by the Wisconsin-Michigan border, was home to the headquarters of the Ottawa National Forest. We in the U.S. Forest Service wanted to consolidate ranger districts in the forest to trim administrative costs. We expected trouble because any Upper Peninsula proposal to cut jobs always ran into opposition. I was sent from the regional office in Milwaukee to work on the plan with our people in Ironwood. “Ah,” I thought, “finally I’ll get to see Hurley.”
I booked a motel room at the far end of Silver Street. It was nearly dinner time after I got checked in the day before my meetings in Ironwood, so I stopped for advice at the motel desk. The clerk recommended a fast food place. I said I wanted to eat in one of the old Silver Street establishments to see what it looked like.
“You’re a little late,” the clerk said. “The last one burned down two weeks ago.”