Railroads of the Copper Country (C&H)

ore cars heading from a C&H rockhouse down to it’s mill on Torch Lake

The Keweenaw waterway and interconnected Torch Lake provided readily available transportation for most goods and people leaving and entering the Copper Country. While an advantage to lakeside communities such as Lake Linden, Houghton and Dollar Bay, the mines were not so lucky. The copper bearing lodes from which the mines fed were miles further inland – high up in the highlands and mountains along the Keweenaw’s spine. Getting supplies to these mines as well as getting copper down from the mines to lakeside mills required railroads – and lots of them.

Before the coming of the DSS&A or the Copper Range, mine companies built their own short line railroads running from from their mines to the mills along Torch Lake, Portage Lake, and Lake Superior. First these were modest affairs and most weren’t technically railroads at all. Some mines like the Franklin, Quicny and C&H relied on gravity balanced tramways that ran down steep hills along the waterways. These were double tracked, with ore cars on both tracks connected together with ropes. As gravity pulled loaded cars down the tramway towards the mill, the connected rope pulled the empty cars back up to the top of the hill to be loaded again.

the C&H smelter, the final destination of the C&H railroad

But as mines grew, their production increased, and the distance from mines to mills increased, ore cars pulled by powered locomotives became all the rage. Soon short line railroads were running between mines and mills at Quincy (the Quincy & Torch Lake), Allouez, Atlantic (the Atlantic and Lake Superior), Isle Royale, Mohawk (the Mohawk & Traverse Bay), and C&H (the Hecla & Torch Lake) just to name a few.

But as the major railroads began operations, these short lines were mostly abandoned or absorbed by these new entities. Mines began to contract their ore hauling out to firms such as the Mineral Range, Copper Range, or Keweenaw Central. One of these short lines, however, underwent the opposite transformation. As C&H grew and gobbled up more and more smaller companies along the range, the old Hecla & Torch Lake grew as well. By 1923 the company cancelled all its contracts with other railroads, and begin hauling all ore and supplies to and from all of its mines using a new and improved H&TC Railroad, re-named the Calumet & Hecla Railroad.

The C&H railroads main line ran down from the Conglomerate lode mines in Calumet to a stretch of C&H industrial complexes along Torch Lake. These included the stamp mill and reclamation plant at Lake Linden, as well as the Smelter and coal docks a mile south at Hubbell. As C&H opened new mines and acquired others, the line was extended to service them as well. New lines were built to Osceola, Centennial, Laurium and the Red Jacket shaft.

As C&H expanded northward with the Ahmeek, Kingston, and Gratiot Mines the railroad needed to expand with it. For this the company bought up the old Traprock Valley Railroad which ran from Lake Linden along the Traprock Valley up towards Copper City in the north. This almost doubled the railroads length, and allowed material to be transported from these northern mines without the need to travel across other railroad’s tracks. The success of the Ahmeek mine and the increased ore needing stamping prompted the addition of a line extending from the Traprock Valley junction south to the Ahmeek mill at Tamarack Mills. In the end the C&H line was dynamic, ever changing to meet the needs of the company. Lines were added to service new mine sites while others were abandoned as the mines they serviced closed. The map shown above is to give a general idea of what the line looked liked generally, but from one moment in time to the next it was never the same.

the C&H railroad, crossing a large trestle somewhere along the old Traprock Valley line to Copper City.

The Calumet and Hecla Railroad was built almost exclusively for freight and ore transportation and did not carry passengers. While other lines such as the DSS&A and the Copper Range carried passengers, most of those were either leaving or coming to the area from far away. Most of the passenger service in the Copper Country was transported by one of the states first interurban railroads: The Houghton Country Traction Company. More on that tomorrow.

Read More on the Railroads of the Copper Country Series:
DSS&A RR | Copper Range RR | C&H RR | HCTC | Keweenaw Central RR

8 comments

  1. Thanks Joe, my main hobby is the old Wisconsin & Michigan railroad ( The Iron Range ) they went under in 1938. This summer I rode the trail from Hancock to Calumet back to Hancock via the old road beds a great ride. Just as a side note in 1908 the cost of a mile of track was $33,220.00 in moderately rolling country. In the mid 1930′s the price was$78,075.00 per mile. In 1995 estimated cost to rehabilitate 1 mile of track $248,085.00 My hard hat off to the men that built railroads in the copper country.

  2. Jim, from what I can find E&LS has 3 Baldwin diesel locomotives that used to belong to C&H. The engines are C&H numbers 201, 202, and 204. I believe the 202 was running as late as 2005? E&LS was a big Baldwin fan but they haven’t been made in almost 60 years, so it’s hard to get parts anymore.

  3. The switch engine setting on the E&LS dead line, once belonged to the C&H? I ask because it has C&H under the cab window.

  4. I may not have been real clear either, to big of a hurry, but 1923 is when C&H merged with the Ahmeek, Kearsarge, Allouez, Centennial and Osceola mines. Mineral Range charged so much for hauling those mines rock, that even before the merger they were looking at a different railroad. C&H completed the Trap Rock Valley line in 1925. # bridges existed on the line, over the Street car tracks just north of M26, M26 itself and the trestle into te Ahmeek Mill

  5. Gordy…
    Thanks for the additional info on the Traprock Valley RR and the Ahmeek mill wye. For the original right-of-ways on those lines I was using old navigation charts, which showed the middle line (after crossing the Hungarian) stop about a 1/4 of a mile along. This made it all a little confusing.

    And thanks for correcting the photo, when I get some time I’ll switch it out with one that is more appropriate. Much appreciated!

  6. I had to find the book with the info, but The Trap Rock Valley RR was probably the name given by C&H while it was built, it was completed in 1925. The C&H original railroad was still called the Hecla & Torch Lake at the time, but they did operate them as one railroad.

    One other point, the difference between C&H and the other railroads, the other railroads are called common carriers, they carry commerce for anyone. C&H was not a common carrier, it was built for the mining companies use only. Although, towards the end when every penny counted, I have seen photos of them hauling pulpwood out of Ahmeek/Copper City to hand over to the Soo Line or Copper Range.

  7. There were three tracks over the Hungarian Falls Gorge, the lower of the three was the C&H and one leg of the wye did come out on the bridge, that leg was the original track, the north leg was added later on (1920′s). The C&H line continued for another mile?, where it ended at the Tamarack Mill I believe.
    If you wander the two other grades, you will find the upper track actually crossed over the middle grade on the south side of the gorge and eventually they come together a 1/4 mile away. The top grade eventually made its way up to Laurium, in the end it followed the C&H grade. traced this on the Terrserver photos.
    The Traprock Valley line was C&H’s line when they constructed it in the 1920′s if I remember it right, it did’t have trestles or bridges other than over M26.
    Somewhere I have seen a photo of the Hungarian Creek flooding and in the background, you can see the bridge crossing over the other track along with the bridges over the gorge.

    The one photo of the C&H train on the trestle is actually a Hancock and Calumet train.

  8. There is some confusion about the spur to the Ahmeek Mill that I have included on this map. This mill was served by means of an elevated trestle which crossed from the high ridge across the highway. From aerial images and my experience along that ridge, I know that there are three separate rail lines along that ridge, not just two. (the best proof comes from the fact that there are three distinct trestle ruins crossing the Hungarian creek nearby) I know that one was the Copper Range, and one was the Mineral Range (DSS&A). That leaves the third line – a wye – that directly feeds the mill. Only one railroad remains, and thats C&H. Knowing that C&H bought the Ahmeek mine, it stands to reason that they used the mill. So this line was either added by C&H or was already there (as part of the Traprock Valley perhaps?) But of course, all this is speculation. Hopefully someone out there has something more concrete to back me up.

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