A copy of Lewis C. Reimann’s book, Hurley­­––Still No Angel, is pictured.

By Larry Chabot

If you walk west out of Ironwood and cross the state-line bridge into Wisconsin, you’re on historic Silver Street in Hurley, toughest town on the Iron Range. At its peak during Prohibition (1920-1933), Hurley was home to an estimated 130 illegal bars, many disguised as legitimate store fronts selling candy and fountain treats. Taverns, strip joints, and brothels did a thriving business serving miners, lumberjacks, tourists and others seeking a good time in a wide-open town.

Roy Vandercook, a Michigan state police chief then, complained that “Hurley is against law and order, and it is the one thing responsible for a great share of the lawlessness in upper Michigan. Hurley is the rottenest town I have ever heard of.” The town not only ignored Prohibition, but was aggressive in scoffing at the law. One official testified that he had seen more than one Prohibition agent “kicked out of Hurley taverns with their uniforms cut to pieces.” The reputation of Hurley and Iron County lured crime kingpins like Al Capone and his brothers, even John Dillinger. (Note: Capone’s brother Ralph died in Hurley in 1974.)

“Hurley was known as the hell-hole of the range,” noted the Depression-era federal publication Michigan: A Guide to the Wolverine State, in a colorful jab at its neighbor. “Even Seney, at its worst and liveliest, could not compete with the sin, suffering, and saloons that gave Hurley a reputation unrivaled from Detroit to Duluth.” It’s no wonder that nearby Ironwood blamed much of its crime problem on Hurley.

Roundup on Silver Street

Law enforcement couldn’t ignore the situation any longer. It was time to strike. Three days after Christmas 1920, barely one year into Prohibition, federal agents launched a full-scale raid on the little town of 3,200 people. On December 29, readers of the Marquette Daily Mining Journal were confronted with a full-page, banner headline describing the attack:

“Hurley tonight was quieter and ‘drier’ than it has been for many weeks following the ‘invasion’ today of federal prohibition enforcement agents of Chicago, who raided 38 saloons and arrested 57 men. The 48 prohibition enforcement agents swooped down on Hurley at 9:30 a.m. today [December 28]. By 12:30 p.m., 38 saloon keepers or bartenders and 19 patrons had been taken into custody, and liquor of all descriptions, which filled two bob-sleds, had been seized.”

It was a peaceful invasion: there was no resistance, no shots fired, and no one was hurt. Later that day, the 57 prisoners were ushered under guard into two special railroad coaches destined for jail in Ashland, Wisconsin, where they would be arraigned before U.S. Commissioner Walter Cate. Sadly for the feds, the raiders sweep hardly made a dent. The Mining Journal reported that “Hurley is laughing over the raid. Less than an hour after federal agents left for Ashland with the prisoners, moonshine liquor was sold in Hurley. Tonight, it was said, anyone who knew the ropes could buy liquor by the quart or case.” Life went on in Hurley, same as before.

But the town-bashing wasn’t over. An October killing of a Hurley bootlegger in a convoy of smugglers bringing booze from Milwaukee to Hurley was still hot news. In Lansing, Michigan Gov. Albert Sleeper was hearing a request from Wisconsin authorities to extradite federal agents to Hurley for a murder trial. Two of the men arrested in the December 28 raid had also been nabbed during the October skirmish.

The Lansing hearing re-opened a can of worms, as Hurley was bashed by state and federal agents. Michigan police chief Roy Vandercook claimed first-hand knowledge of the evils of Hurley, calling it a “rotten town” and “booze headquarters of the upper country.”

Several federal men regaled the hearing with tales of trying to enforce Prohibition on the Michigan-Wisconsin border, including the description of agents being tossed through tavern doors. One agent was accused of taking bribes from tavern keepers for tipping them off about raids, even partying with them and tending bar now and then while wearing his federal badge.

Behind every door

There was resistance against forcing agents to stand trial in Hurley because state officials felt it would be like “letting them go to hell.” Iron County’s district attorney predicted he wouldn’t find jurors from Hurley who would ever vote to convict liquor law violators. Another witness, describing one block in Hurley, said that “every door on one side of the street leads to a saloon and all but two doors on the opposite side of the street.” Legal forces in neighboring Ironwood were quoted saying “if Hurley was cleaned up, it would solve Ironwood’s criminal problems.” Hurley’s Silver Street is only five blocks long, and begins a few feet from the border with Ironwood.

Long before Prohibition, Hurley’s reputation was known far and wide. The town was platted in 1882 and by 1886 the New York Times was already slinging mud. As Matthew Liesch recorded in his book Ironwood, Hurley, and the Gogebic Range, the hamlet was home to taverns and sporting houses with the typical structure having a bar on the first floor, gambling below, and a brothel above. Liesch quotes the Times: “The State line is now fairly alive with stockades and slave pens [brothels] from where there is no escape for the women who enter…The proprietors of the houses…move from Michigan to Wisconsin, or vice versa, as necessity arises.”

In later years, reporters and roving scribes honored the legends. When a 2011 Esquire Magazine article featured Hurley’s Silver Street on its lists of “Best Bars in America,” there were 25 bars left and half a dozen strip joints. The Esquire writer was pleased to pay less than $5 for two beers in one joint of the more than a dozen he patronized. He was intrigued to find a bar with a “meat raffle” where a wheel spin won prizes like pasties, hamburgers and prime rib. The writer won 10 pounds of steak, which he swapped for beer.

Long after Prohibition ended, logging petered out, and the last iron mines closed, Hurley still drew residents and visitors, including Michigan youths who crossed the border to take advantage of Wisconsin’s lower drinking age. Despite the proximity of other Wisconsin border towns to Michigan, none had Hurley’s draw or reputation.

Among the town’s colorful histories is Lewis Reiman’s 1954 book Hurley: Still No Angel, with its entertaining stories and a list of the 63 bars and taverns. He called it a “history of the infamous Hell-hole of the Iron Range, where lumberjacks and miners once gathered in the roughest, toughest saloons, gambling houses and brothels in the Midwest.” The book has long been out-of-print, but worth the search.

Hurley has had its share of good news. Against unbelievable odds, the 1948 high school basketball team (the Midgets) won the Wisconsin state, all-class basketball championship by nipping LaCrosse Logan 37-36 in the finale. A few years later, Hurley graduate Florian Helinski quarterbacked the University of Indiana football team to a stunning upset of nationally-ranked Michigan; he played 59 minutes, ran for one touchdown, passed for another, intercepted three passes, and did all the punting. And a fictional version of Hurley was the basis of novelist Edna Ferber’s novel Come and Get It; she stayed in a Hurley hotel while researching her book.

Like so many towns which overcome wild reputations from long ago, modern-day Hurley is an attractive, respectable northwoods town. You should go there some time.


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