Railways of the Keweenaw

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When European mining began in the 1840s in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, there were two primary modes of transportation for getting to the Keweenaw: by foot or by ship. Most early copper prospectors came to the Upper Peninsula in the summer once the ice on Lake Superior had broken up. Many winter travelers arrived by snowshoe. As mining companies established themselves, there was a need for more reliable transportation for both potential employees and the good and services needed to operate the mines. Railroads were the answer: trains could run year round; carry heavy loads; and allowed for easier access between the mine locations that were quickly forming along the copper lode. [Include picture of geographic copper lode with towns or mines.] As more and more workers came to the area, the mining companies were able to increase productivity both above and below ground. Technological changes that occurred on the surface and underground, also contributed to the increased productivity. Companies installed rail within the mines which helped to move rock more efficiently. Rail lines on the surface linked processing areas, like stamp mills and smelters. Mining companies also connected with private railroad lines, such as the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Rail Road, to move goods and workers to and from the Keweenaw. This created a wide network of steam locomotives that moved cars across the Keweenaw at all hours of the day and night. With these trains came required maintenance and the skilled labor to do it. Mining companies constructed roundhouses: semi-circular shaped buildings that could hold one or more train engines. While it was possible to make emergency repairs on the track, the roundhouse allowed for full maintenance and servicing. The steam engine would drive onto a turntable which would redirect the engine into and out of the roundhouse. Roundhouses varied in size depending on the needs of the company. The two largest mining companies in the Keweenaw had drastically different sized roundhouses. Quincy Mining Company had three engine bays in its roundhouse whereas Calumet and Hecla had 15. Rail men rode with the trains to ensure everything ran smoothly. They worked in all weather conditions and seasons, including the winter. The Keweenaw routinely receives over 300 inches, or 25 feet of snow, annually. Many trains used engines with snowplows to help clear the tracks; the Russell Snow Plow in Calumet is a prime example. Even so, extra manpower was often needed to shovel out areas that even the snowplow could not get through. There are still hints of the once expansive rail system that sprawled across this landscape. Many of the steam locomotives were sold for scrap as the mines closed, though a few of them can be seen today sitting near old mine sites. You may spot rail cars left on tracks now surrounded by new growth forests. Rock cars, once used to haul rock from below ground, have been abandoned near shaft houses. In the summer you can ride the historic steam-powered train at the Houghton County Historical Society Museum in Lake Linden. Former rail beds are used year round for biking and snowmobiling. The sounds of steam engines may be long gone from the Keweenaw, but their impact on the area is still evident across the landscape.

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4 minutes, 2 seconds

Learn how the railways of the Keweenaw have changed over time.


Produced by: Jenni Burr

Written by: Aerran Riley

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Last updated: June 26, 2022

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