Copper Range RailroadRails and Roads

A Copper Range Crossing

Taking a trip up Lake Linden Hill a traveler will find themselves passing under a squat viaduct crossing the highway, a crossing which once carried the C&H Railroad across the road on its way northward towards the Ahmeek Mine. The crossing is perhaps the region’s youngest, its current incarnation having been erected at the twilight of C&H’s life in the late 1960s. It was originally built long before that as part of a ten-mile branch line connecting the Ahmeek Mine to its mill in Tamarack City, a mine and mill previously served by the Mineral Range Railroad. When C&H took over the Ahmeek Mine it severed its contract with the rival railroad and built its own rail line to bring rock down to the mill. Yet by the time this line was built, this section of M26 had already been crossed by another railroad: the Copper Range.


By the time the C&H line was first erected, the region north-west of Lake Linden was already a tangle of rail lines. To the south of the state highway was C&H’s original mine to mill line, the old Hecla & Torch Lake Railroad. To the north was the interurban line, which took an unique route through a narrow gorge  bordering the road. Crossing both of these lines was the Copper Range Line, making its way north to Calumet. The Copper Range Line crossed the highway as well, though at grade at a point slightly up the hill from where the C&H line would eventually cross. Today the only hint of that old crossing seems to be a dirt road on the south side of the highway on which the rail line once ran. Yet if you look a little harder, in the tangle of trees and brush that border the highway,there’s yet another old remnant of the Copper Range crossing  to be found.

As you fight your way through the dense foliage just past the road’s shoulder you find yourself standing at the edge of a bulky concrete pedestal perched at the edge of a narrow gorge. We recognized the piece of infrastructure almost immediately, we were looking at the abutment for an old railroad bridge that once crossed the gorge before us.

The bridge deck itself was long gone, either removed for scrap or simply destroyed by neglect and the passage of time. Sitting down at the base of the abutment were a few large timbers graced with iron plates on either end, oversized railroad ties that most likely were once perched atop the bridge’s superstructure. It was at least a sign that we were on the right tract and the concrete abutment we discovered was exactly that.

Near the bottom of the gorge we find another impressive piece of concrete, this one soaring a good dozen feet above our heads. This was one of the trestle’s piers, which would have supported the bridge itself perched on its top. Just to the right of the pier a narrow stream had cut its way through the gorge, running right up along the pier’s base. The stream itself was only about two feet wide, hardly an obstacle worth such a massive trestle above it.

That stream can just barely be glimpsed as the base of the pier in the photo above. Several dozen feet up we could make out a large notch in the pier’s top, most likely marking the location of the bridge’s superstructure.

Across the river we find a third and final concrete pedestal. This one – like the first – was partially buried in the steep hillside. Up top a short section of the bridge can be seen, or at least the concrete approach perched atop the pier.

As we clawed our way up the opposite end of the gorge we pause to take a closer look at that last pier and its concrete topper. The notch on the right would have accepted the end of the bridge’s superstructure, moving from here over to that tall central pier seen earlier before landing at the opposite shore’s abutment. The entire bridge was incredibly short, spanning no more then a couple hundred feet if even that. The piers and abutments were almost close enough to jump between… almost.

The bridge’s short stature was an oddity. A bridge such as this – even a short one – was a major investment for a railroad. Not only did it cost money to build and instal, it also cost money to maintain. It would have been far cheaper to simply fill the narrow gorge in with poor rock, and lay the rails on top. A concrete culvert at the fill’s base could have handled the diminutive stream, and there would be little to no extended maintenance costs to have to absorb. It’s a good think it didn’t though, considering the same gorge is used by the Interurban to run its branch line down the hill to Lake Linden. Yet while the trestle would seem to have been built to provide egress for the interurban below it, I’m unsure as to what line actually entered this gorge first. Both lines were built around the same time, and I can’t seem to find any definite evidence that once predated the other.

In the end the trestle was built, and would be in use for several decades. In addition to its Copper Range duties, the trestle would have also carried the short-live Keweenaw Central tourist line for a spell as well.  After that it would never see a train car again, and would be dismantled and removed along with the rest of the Copper Range line in the 1970s.

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  1. From what I can find, both lines were completed close to the same time. Streetcars were running down the hill to Lake Linden on Dec 1st, 1902. Copper Range’s line to Calumet was completed by the end of 1902. I was looking at the 1938 aerial photos, the original street car line down the hill actually went to the south of the Copper Range depot which was to the south of what is now M26. It then turned back to the north crossed M26 and the gorge and connected back where the newer track came out of the gorge. I am guessing here, either the line was moved when the Copper Range was built so they would not have a street car crossing on its mainline to Calumet or it was changed when M26 had its alignment changed where the big curve at the top of the hill is. You would have had 2 street car road crossings on M26 plus the crossing of the Copper Range in a very short distance.

  2. The early 1900s was the start of the “concrete era” in the Copper Country. Looks like this was one of the earliest examples. Concrete was a quicker and cheaper construction method. The poor rock was readily available for aggregate and other than finishers the laborers needed were fewer, and commanded less wages than stone masons. As to why the heavy construction there rather than a simple culvert and fill, they had to figure in the maximum flow of the creek. You have to look at it during heavy rains or snow melt. What might work 364 days a year might be the site of a washout on that other 1 day. A clogged culvert caused the Q&TL’s only fatal accident. A walk up the KC roadbed to the mythical land of Crestview has several examples of culverts and fills which have clogged after years of abandonment – sooner or later one will top over and wash out.

  3. Mike,
    Thanks for the find, very cool! I always wondered about that rail/road crossing with the streetcar, multiple railroads and the highway there at Lake Linden. The USGS topos have a huge publishing time gap in them that makes it hard to track the evolution in any detail, thankfully there is all the stuff in the NOAA historic collection that does a pretty accurate job around Torch Lake.

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