HCTCRails and Roads

A Trolley Ride (p1)

Though not the largest in the state the 32 miles of track that make up the Houghton Country Traction Company electric railway manage to travel across a great swath of the peninsula,  making its way through several dozen towns, cities, mines, and rural areas in the process. The line is a hybrid system,both street car and interurban railway. In sections it runs along public streets and shares the road with people, cars, and horses. In other areas it runs along private track lined by fencing and completely insulated from the world around it. Yet for all these dualities, the line is homogenous in one important regard – you could get on a car anywhere along its length and travel to almost any other part of the great Copper Empire.

Today I’d thought we’d experience that journey ourselves, though not so much in the physical world as in the virtual one. We begin a journey  through both space and time, traveling along all 32 miles of the old interurban’s route as it exists today. Along the way we’ll stop to take in some of the sights and compare how those sights have changed over the last century. We will explore fading remnants of the old line in its abandoned right-of-ways, repurposed structures, and long forgotten infrastructure. And along the way we’ll learn a bit more about the HCTC and the great Copper Empire in which it resided.

We began our tour not at its heart in Red Jacket but in its southern terminus –  East Houghton.

The East Houghton terminus was not original to the line, as the southern terminus was originally further to the west at the end of Houghton’s main thoroughfare. Yet a great deal of Houghton’s population remained out of reach of this shortened line, and worse yet the growing number of students at the Michigan College of Mines were left stranded nearly a mile away. Thus in 1901 the line was extended a mile eastward to serve this previously neglected populace. Unfortunately the most direct route – along College Ave – was not an option for this new line. This was due to the fact that College Ave was home to Houghton’s most elite residents, a class of people that had little use for public transportation and did not want to see cars pass in front of their monstrous homes all day long. The line was thus forced to travel a less obvious route a block further up the hill, winding its way along the narrow back alley of Jasper Street.

The East Houghton terminus lies along Houghton Ave, near the present day site of Michigan Tech’s library building.  Our plans today are to catch the car to Lake Linden, which according to the schedule arrives every 15 minutes past the hour. It is now 8:15 in the morning and almost on cue our car lumbers down the track and coasts to a stop. We are at the terminus of the Houghton/Calumet line, and the car is marked as such by the placards at the front and back of the car. We board as the motorman prepares the car for the return trip, lowering the trolley pole he drove in with and raising the opposite one. He then switches to the opposite vestibule and we are on our way.

Photo courtesy Superiorland Library Cooperative, Andrew C. Curto Collection

As the train begins its route, the conductor passes by and collets our fare. Since we are headed to Lake Linden, he provides us with a transfer ticket like the one seen above, marking on it our transfer from Lake Linden Junction to Hill Switch – the first stop along the Lake Linden line. Fares are calculated by zone, with the entire line divided up into a dozen fare zones. Conductors collect fares for each zone they are presently in, collecting each time a new fare zone is reached. Our trip to Lake Linden will take us through a minimum four zones (I wasn’t able to find out exactly where the zones were located so I have to guess), so our cost at 5 cents a zone is about 20 cents.

After running along Houghton Ave for a short time the car turns onto Jasper. Unlike the wide avenue of Houghton, this road is rather narrow and for a great deal of its length is nothing more then a back alley cutting through East Houghton’s less influential residential areas. This particular trip takes us through some unfortunate flooding, caused by the breach of an old dam up the hill. Amazingly the car is able to make it through.

After ten minutes we arrive to downtown Houghton and our first stop of the day – at the front doors of the Douglass House.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection

The Douglass House was Houghton’s premier hotel (the large building on the left), and as such was the most obvious spot for the streetcar to make a stop. This was also just up the street from Houghton’s main railroad depot and ferry dock and as such was an important transportation crossroad. It was now 8:30 in the morning, and the city was just beginning its day. A group of passengers stand nearby awaiting the street car’s arrival.

As we approached the stop our motorman turns the controller box to the off position and the car begins to coast to a stop. As the stop is reached the motorman will then activate the car’s air brakes by pulling the brake level towards him. The conductor steps off the train as the group of people began to pile onto the car. When everyone is aboard and the coast is clear the conductor steps back onto the car and signals the motorman to continue along.

Photo courtesy Superiorland Library Cooperative, Andrew C. Curto Collection

At the end of Houghton’s main thoroughfare the car comes to its first switch, as the line splits into two before crossing the bridge. On a line that accommodates two-way traffic these areas of double tracks are necessary in order to allow crossing cars to pass safely. Double tracks are treated essentially as sidings, and when approached a car has to either stay on the main track or switch to the siding. Here at the bridge the northbound traffic takes the right-hand track, and south bound traffic takes the other.

Unlike the switches found along steam railroads – where the points are changed mechanically through a trackside lever – street railways switches are activated electronically. As the car passes over the switch the the power from the trolley is transferred to the switch, activating it and changing the points. Thus if the motorman wished not to change the points, he would simply turn off power to the car and allow it to coast through the switch and head in whatever direction the switch was set for. If he wanted it to change, he’d keep the power on as he rolled over the switch.

Photo courtesy Superiorland Library Cooperative, Andrew C. Curto Collection

Our car now moves onto the narrow confines of the Portage Lake Bridge. This is the second bridge the streetcar has passed over, a modern metal replacement to an earlier and smaller wooden version previously occupying this spot. That first bridge was only wide enough to allow a single track for the streetcars to traverse, but this new wider bridge seen allowed a  second parallel track to be laid. Passage was incredibly tight, however, as can be seen in the old photo above. Just like along public streets the electric railway had to negotiate franchise rights for the bridge, essentially paying a yearly fee for the privilege. Steam trains would also cross this very same bridge, though on a lower level.

From here our streetcar makes a turn westward and heads up the hill towards the next city on our route – Hancock.

While the interurban may have its beginnings across the canal in East Houghton, the Houghton County Traction Company’s home has always been the booming city of Hancock. It is here the company’s largest pieces of infrastructure are located, including its main power plant and car barn. Contrary to what is seen today, the turn of the century found Hancock to be the dominant city in the Portage region, eclipsing Houghton’s population almost two-fold. This quickly becomes apparent as we coast into our next stop at the front door of the city’s sprawling commercial district.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection

On timetables this stop was labeled as the “Bank Corner”. It’s an apt – if not pedestrian – moniker, as this corner sports no less then three financial institutions. The First National Bank Building sits at the corner, while across the street is the Superior National Bank office. Behind and to the right of the photographer sits yet a third bank, the offices of the Detroit and Northern Savings and Loan. In addition to the banks this corner also featured one of the region’s largest department stores – Gartner’s, Hancock’s largest and most prestigious hotel – Hotel Scott, and the region’s premiere theater – the Kerridge. In the evenings this was the busiest corner in all the city, and every 15 minutes a streetcar would stop here.

Photo courtesy Superiorland Library Cooperative, Andrew C. Curto Collection

Along the majority of Hancock’s commercial thoroughfare the streetcar line is serviced by two parallel tracks.  In the photo above we can see two cars using this double track to pass each other, the streetcar on the right heading to Houghton while the other is a local car. While most of the HCTC’s cars were the heavier interurban type seen on the right, the railway also employed a few trolley style cars like the local car seen on the left. These cars were shorter, wider, lighter, and sat closer to the ground for easier loading and unloading. We will take a closer look at those cars later in the series.

At this point our ride has lasted a grand total of 15 minutes, and we’ve travelled just over two miles. Our average speed has been just over 8 mph.

After Quincy Street the streetcar turns up the hill, following the same route as the neighboring Mineral Range Railroad along Railroad Street. It is a steep grade, near 9%, and the train makes no stops along it until reach the apex of the climb at a spot known as Sullivan’s Curve. Why it was called Sullivan’s corner I do not know, although I would guess at some point the corner was home to a business or residence with the name Sullivan attached. Today the spot is marked by the extreme right corner at the corner of US41 and Ethel Street, home of the Tire Shop.

As the car continues up the hill past the Sullivan’s Curve stop we find ourselves passing by a large wood framed building adorned with a spiderweb’s worth of tracks branching out from several doors gracing its front facade. This was the main car ban for the street railway  and the next stop on our trip. It was now 8:40 in the morning.

To Be Continued…

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  1. Question: Is there documentation on the brakes? You mention the air brakes work by using compressed air to push brake pads against the wheels. Today, there’s a fail-safe system in which air pressure is required to push the brakes away from the wheels; this way, a leak in the line means the brakes apply automatically. I believe the patent for this technology predates this trolley system, but I can believe that trolleys didn’t adopt it as readily as mainline railroads.

    1. Jacob.. You are correct, and I was incorrect in my description. When the handle is pulled by the motorman it releases air from the system, which pulls the brake shoes away from the wheels – opposite of what I had described. I will make the correction.

  2. Jacob-
    You’re describing Westinghouse air brakes & triple valves. The air pressure in the brake line keeps the brakes from applying, and are run more or less continuously to keep the brakes off. The triple valve also keeps air in the brake reservior so that if the brake line is broken, there is enough air (for a while) to apply the brakes.

    IIRC, when I last road the streetcars in Memphis, the brakes would be applied as the car came to a stop, then the compressor would start, recharging the reservior. This is not so much of a problem, since we’re talking about a single car, not a string of cars.


    1. Brian… Thanks for the further info, your description is correct. The air pressure keeps the brake shoes off the wheels, and releasing pressure from the system allows the shoes to snap back onto the wheels. When the car is stopped the compressor has to restart and refill the reservoir.

  3. Neat idea for a series, Mike. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine taking genuine public transit in the Keweenaw — it would have been fascinating to see it in operation.

  4. Back in the early 70s, I worked at Detroit & Northern and remember taking a lunchtime break and heading for Gartner’s.

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