Mystery at Mandan

One of the perks of creating a web site devoted to Copper Country history is that people often come to you with their Copper Country History questions. Lets just start off by saying that I am in no way a Copper Country history expert – there are many other people with far more knowledge (some of it first hand!) about this area then I. Those people have spent countless hours researching the area, pouring over countless pages of documents and manuscripts in the archives and local libraries. I tend to go about things a little differently – relying on finding what bits and pieces of information I can on-line and then attempting to connect that dots. When that doesn’t work, I then turn to my very knowledgeable readers (some of which are experts) to pick up the slack. (hint, hint)

Recently I had received a question about the Mandan area – more specifically an inquiry about the locations of the mine and connecting rail spur. While I have been to the Mandan area many times, I myself had never found the mine site. As a result, I had to try to find an answer to the question from whatever clues I could discover on the internet. The information so far…

Here’s an arial image of the area in question (see the big version HERE), with a few items of interest marked. The town of Mandan sits near the upper part of the photo. The clearly evident main line of the Keweenaw Central sits at the bottom. Connecting the two is what appears to be the grade for a short railroad spur to the town – complete with a Wye at the point it connects up with the main line. Near the town are two areas that look like could be old mine sites, one right across the road from the town and one further to the east. I was sent a similar map as this from the reader, and was asked specifically if that was indeed a short railroad spur and if those spots that look like mine sites are indeed mine site. First I’ll tackle that spur.

Arieal images are a great way to find old railroad grades – their clean lines and swooping curves shake off all natural probability and scream man-made. This particular clean definitely looks like it could be a railroad grade, but I worried about the elevation change and whether or not it was too steep. From Topo maps the elevation change from the main line and the town is about 80 feet – which would put it at a 3% grade. That seems possible.

The Keweenaw Central Depot at Mandan

The key piece of evidence here has to do with a Mining Gazette Article from 1907 (which can be found HERE). This article I have referenced before, as it details proposed route changes to the KC mainline. Of course the important word here is “proposed” – I don’t know if the changes were ever made. The excerpt relating to the Mandan spur is this:

An extension of the line from mandan junction to the medora shaft is now under way and it is hoped to have it completed before many more weeks will have passed. This extension will remove the necessity of hauling supplies from the present terminal of the Keweenaw Central line about one-half mile to the mining location known as Mandan. Passengers will likewise be able to ride up to the location without making the long walk, which in winter is none too pleasant.

This seems to suggest at the very least a grade was laid from the KC main line up to the town of Mandan in 1907. According to this source 1907 happens to also be the year when the town of Mandan was expanded, in order to accommodate workers needed at the nearby Medora Shaft – the same shaft also mentioned in the article. The shaft proved to be a failure, but not for another 2 years. Those two years should have been more than enough time to finish that spur.

Now for the mine locations. Thanks to the previous information, we know there was at least two mines around the town of Mandan. Besides the original Mandan Mine (1864-1866) there was also some later development nearby at the Medora Shaft mentioned in the article (1907-1909). Assuming that the two areas seen on the aerial image are in fact mine locations (which in all probability probably aren’t), we can assume that one is the Mandan shaft and the other belongs to the Medora. The question becomes which one is which.

For that I turn to an old map of the Keweenaw, showing mine properties in and around the Mandan location (seen above, thanks to the Upper Peninsula Digitization Center, this map can be found HERE). The Mandan property sits in the middle of the image, just under the small lake. This piece of property is bordered on the west by the Resolute holdings and to the east by the Medora holdings. If those possible mine locations on the aerial image are matched to the properties they sit on, the area to the north of Mandan would be the Mandan Shaft and the area to the east would be the Medora Shaft.

Of course things are never that easy. Besides the fact that I assume quite a bit here, there’s also the fact that the KC spur that we identified doesn’t go to the Medora shaft. Yet the newspaper article clearly states that the line would serve the Medora Shaft. This would seem to suggest that the mine to the north was the Medora and the shaft to the east was the Mandan. Of course that contradicts the mine property map. Its all very confusing.

There’s one last possible explanation. The Copper Handbook (Page 716, which can be viewed HERE) states that the Keweenaw Copper Company owned the Mandan properties, along with the nearby Medora and Resolute holdings. The company would probably not honor the traditional property lines between these mines since they owned them all. The name “Medora” was most likely arbitrary and not specifically linked to a specific property.

So in the end I can’t be sure about where the Mandan Mine is located, just that its some where around the town of Mandan. Without getting on the ground (snow hasn’t melted yet) I can’t be sure. So unless some of my more knowledgeable readers can offer some more info, this is the best I can do.

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  1. This article is pretty darn coincidental!! On Friday, I was looking over aerial images and trying to figure out the end of the KCRR line and then how the line made it “up” to Mandan. I had drawn the exact same conclusions that Mandan was reached via the spur. The reason I was looking it over is that I am always looking for new routes to explore while on snowmobile or ATV. This route is now on my list for May!

    I have also always wondered what route the line took to head down to Lac LaBelle and have ASSUMED that some of the line followed the current highway. Talk about a steep grade! If the trains could make that grade, they certainly could make the 3% grade from the main line into Mandan. Although, I do recognize that in all likelihood the trains would have been loaded coming DOWN the hill into LLB and relatively empty when returning.

    I love this site!!

  2. Following the line into Mandan is going to be tough, its mostly a high speed logging road now, I was on it last year, really tough to follow now, about the only portion that you can find is where it split off the main line, the rest is pretty much covered by the road. So any old right of way is gone.
    The line down into Lac LaBelle branches off the mainline just to the east of the road down the hill into Lac LaBelle> you won’t be riding that, its really overgrown. You maybe able to pick it up from the road. When I was looking at the aerial maps, parts of it are logging roads. I walked a portion of it many many years ago from the Lac LaBelle end, but being by myself and the fear of running into big furry creatures, I decided for the better to not walk to far. Yes that was one dandy grade, plus the sharp curve at the far end.

  3. I do know there are building foundations directly across the highway from Mandan, along wth a road up the little hill.
    The possible railroad spur on your map is the railroad spur to Mandan, but looking at the small map you have there, I can see the railroad line did go right through Mandan across the highway then came back across the highway at the mine site to the right of Mandan. A map of Keweenaw mine sites I have showed the Medora Mines as being the rock piles to the right of Mandan, but nothing listed across US41. A little reading in Clarence Monettes book said the Mandan Mine was west of the town of Mandan, little mining was done though, trouble with water. They had a shaft 24 foot deep with an adit 800 ft long, 500 open top or ditch and 300 underground.

  4. Steve –

    That same article I quoted in the post also mentions the grading of an extension along the the KC towards the Empire Mine – which sits on the other side of Lake Medora. I’m not sure if the grade was ever done, but I’m sure its way overgrown by now. I rode down the KC from Deleware but stopped short of reaching Mandan. I cut to the north just before that lake seen in my map. It takes you up along a high ridge overlooking a hidden lake in the woods – its a great place to ride if you bet back there. Some really nice views.

    Gordy –

    I’ll take your word for it since I haven’t been there myself. The shallow depth of the Mandan shaft would most likely mean a very small poor rock pile – one that most likely would be covered up by now with dirt and vegetation. I’d worry about walking right ontop (and into) the thing if I went looking for it. I’ll have to check out those foundations to the north though-does sound interesting.

  5. Another point in favor of the rail spur is that they had to turn the train around somehow. I doubt that they would send a train 3 miles down a dead end line, just to have to back the thing up to the Lac La Belle junction. The spur to Mandan would offer the perfect spot the do this, utilizing the Wye at the spurs base.

  6. Mike-

    I’m pretty sure the “high ridge” you are referring to is actually part of the snowmobile trail during the winter. If we are talking about the same spot, it does offer some amazing views!

    By the way, without actually voicing the railroad thought process as you did in your comment above regarding the Wye, my limited knowledge of trains told me that this Wye and spur was completely logical. Not only that, I would have to go back to my Monette book about the KCRR to try and see when the tracks to Lac La Belle were abandoned. Thanks for the great articles and interesting banter!

  7. March 1918 is when the Lac LaBelle branch was authorized for abandonment, pretty much the rest of the railroad hadstopped running in this same time frame. The last run to the Phoenix area occured during road building of US41, this was in 1932.
    There was no place to turn around at Lac Labelle Jct, it was just a junction switch, there may have been somewhere on the Lac Labelle line. The wye was right where the Mandan line tied in the mainline. Map heading to you in email

  8. Mike, also for info, I have some maps of Keweenaw Mines, the Empire Exploration was on the south side of US41 just to the east of Lake Medora. Looks like they were looking at the same vein as the Medora Shafts.

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