The Copper Range Railroad began its journey to the Keweenaw from the small town of McKeever, at an intersection with the Chicago Minneapolis & St. Paul Railroad known as Range Junction. From there the line headed first northward towards Lake Mine before turning to the northeast to follow alongside the peninsula’s rocky spine. For the next 30 miles the line encountered relatively little resistance, making its way through level terrain and hardwood forests all the way to Houghton. The route was nearly flawless, save for a trio of streams encountered along the route at the five mile mark. While innocuous enough by themselves these small streams created a rather daunting obstacle for the railroad – manifesting itself as a trio of 100 foot deep gorges right along the railroad’s path. The streams were all branches of the same river – the Firesteel – and the gorges in which they flowed would spawn the construction of three impressive crossings known as Bridge 2, 3, and 4. Bridges more commonly known as the Firesteel Trestles. Bridges that continue to stand still today.
A hundred years since the Copper Range first laid its rails northward from McKeever, the abandoned right-of-way is now used as an ATV trail, more commonly known as the Bill Nichols Trail, named after a Copper Range agent. As the trains would have done while the railroad was operating, the ATV trail continues to utilize the Firesteel Trestles to cross the trio of gorges in which the river runs. The three trestles lie miles form the nearest road or trail, deep within the wilderness of the Baraga State Forest. In fact the only way to reach them is by heading down the old right-of-way, a journey of over a mile and a half. The three bridges lie one after the other, only a few hundred feet apart. The first two span the West Branch of the Firesteel, while the third traverses the East Branch. From the air – as seen in the image above – the three trestles are quite impressive. They’re even more impressive the closer to the ground you get.
After a journey of over a mile down the old Copper Range route, you finally are presented with a clue to the old trestles existence with this rather modest signage along the trail. Another sign labels the approaching bridges as the Firesteel Trestles, but provides very little as to the exact nature of their grandeur.
Even when you’re right on top of them, the old trestles are nothing to write home about. The old ties and rails that would have covered the top of the bridge have been replaced by wood decking and a good sized safety rail along both ends. When the bridge would have carried rail traffic, that deck nor the railings would have been here.
Once out on top of the bridge there is no great grand vista to appreciate, nor any clue as to the heights on which you currently stand. Only trees seem to surround you, with only the distant bluff of a mountain peeking above the tree line to give any sense of the surrounding topography. That is until you peer over the railing and take a look down…
Now you’re looking straight down into the valley floor – nearly a hundred feet below. You can just barely make out the steel piers of the bridge itself, tucked out of sight just under the bridge.
Further down the bridge’s 500 foot length you can see finally the river itself – in this case the West Branch – flowing gently below you. The river was brown with sediment, and a great deal of debris had been deposited further downstream on the other side of the trestle. No doubt remnants from the annual spring run off that must have flooded the valley below. But as impressive as this view may have been, it was no good at giving us a true sense of the trestle’s size and scope. For that we had to drop off the bridge and take a look back at it from the vantage point of the neighboring approach embankment.
Now that’s more like it. Though capped by its modern rail and wood decking, the old trestle’s more industrious background is still abundantly clear. This is a rather standard viaduct design, utilizing deck girders and steel support piers placed uniformly along the bridge’s length. Anchoring other ends are concrete piers and abutments, which were for a time during the bridge’s history made of wood.
To get a better sense of scale, here’s another shot of the bridge but this time from a vantage point down at the valley floor. Check out fellow explorer Dave over to the right side of the frame in the red jacket to get an idea of exactly how big these bridges are.
Moving on past Bridge No.2 (Firesteel Trestle No.1), we quickly come to its brother – Bridge No.3 – only a hundred or so feet down the line. (you can make out No.2 in the background of the photo above). Like the first bridge, this one is rather unremarkable along its top. Once again we take a look over the edge to learn a greater appreciation of what we were walking across…
The river here is much smaller then the one found next door at Bridge No.2, and in fact this particular stream is technically a tributary to the West Branch of the Firesteel. But considering it dug a gorge as deep as the West Branch itself, you could probably consider it the river’s middle branch.
From the neighboring ridge, this bridge looks very similar to the first. Supposedly this bridge is the longest of the three, even though it only features three steel support piers while the first one we visited had five. Perhaps the approaches are longer here.
Past the second bridge is still a third, Bridge No.4. Looking back from the deck of this bridge you can see exactly how close each of the three Firesteel Trestles really are.
This particular model crosses the East Branch of the river, which meanders its way through a rather wide and more shallow gorge.
With the three trestles now explored from their tops, it was time to head down below and take a closer look at how they were put together. For that we return back to the first trestle (Bridge No.2) and began the steep climb down into the valley floor.
To Be Continued…