A Trolley Ride (p8) – The Substation

With our journey along the Lake Linden Branch finished, our return trip back up the hill to Laurium took another half hour. It was slightly before 10 am by the time we arrived at the top of the hill and Lake Linden Junction. If we were to return to Houghton we would transfer here to a south bound car on the mainline, but we are instead headed to the line’s northern terminus at Mohawk. So we stay on our Lake Linden car and continue onward towards Laurium. Just a short distance past the junction the street car line enters the small community of Florida, and takes a turn past a small complex of buildings that make up the street railway’s northern base of operations.

When the rail line was extended northward from Boston it outgrew the transmission capacities of the DC current that powered the cars. Only AC power could be efficiently transmitted such distances, but that power could not be used by the cars directly. Thus the AC power would first have to be converted into the DC power used by the cars, a process carried out in the railway’s substation. That substation was located here, in Florida.


While the brick substation may have been the reason for this complex’s existence, it wasn’t the only structure built here. Joining the substation was a second car barn, a long and narrow structure used to store the car’s along this northern end of the route at the end of the night. Later a small warehouse was added to the mix, a building that would be expanded over the years as the need arose.

Photo courtesy Superiorland Library Cooperative, Andrew C. Curto Collection

Here’s the car barn as it once looked.  This wood-framed pitched roof structure stretched over 160 feet long, its spacious open interior occupied by a trio of tracks laid in the floor.  Each of those tracks could hold four cars, making the capacity of the entire barn 12. These cars were primarily used along the Lake Linden and Mohawk branches of the line, and thus their storage here was far more convenient then locating them a dozen miles away in Hancock. In addition to the car garage, the building also featured an office, boiler room, and storage room for sand used by the street cars for traction.

The car barn would serve the railway for its entire life, abandoned along with the rest of the line at its close during the Depression. For a time the building was host to a curling rink (its role as seen in the image above), but would be torn down soon after that. While the car barn may be gone, the rest of the buildings at the old site do happen to remain.

Sitting right up alongside the street is this odd garage, a structure that at first glance could be mistaken as the old railway’s car barn. Sanborn maps mark this structure as a simple warehouse, though the presence of all those garage door openings makes one wonder exactly what would be stored in there. The building unfortunately sits too close to the road for it to have been connected to the rail line at its front door. Also the doors are too small to have provided ample egress for a street car. It sure looks like a car barn however. In actuality this building is two buildings in one, the older of the two sitting off to the left. The left building was built around 1915, its right half added sometime in the 1920s.

You can glimpse the older half of the building’s early origins by the pair of ghost windows still barely noticeable along its northern facade (I enhanced them in the photo for illustrative purposes). On the opposite end and the newer addition the window openings are simpler and smaller without the added architectural flair – a symptom of a leaner time for the company.

The warehouse may be the most noticable structure found here but the star of the show sits further back form the road at the back end of the property – all but hidden until you are right up on it. That would be the old substation itself.

The original substation was first built in 1902, along with the Calumet extension of the rail line. Inside were two major components. The first was a series of large transformers, which took high voltage power delivered by the main power plant and stepped it down in voltage. The second was a rotary converter, a machine which then converted that low-voltage AC power to a 600 volt DC current utilized by the street cars. Outside the iron-framed building was faced with brick, its front facade dominated by a large central doorway. That doorway allowed egress for machinery to be brought in and out of the building. As usual for building of its time, there’s also a nice array of windows to allow the maximum amount of light into the building and to help keep it cool.

Along the top of the building we find an interesting plaque.  The plaque is inscribed with the year 1913 along with an odd geometric symbol. The date refers to a major expansion and renovation of the building done half way through its life. The expansion was  necessary to accommodate the installation of updated equipment including new larger transformers and a more powerful rotary converter.  The odd symbol is the logo of the Stone and Webster company, an engineering services firm which had been the primary investor in the railway since its inception and by the time this plaque was installed in 1913 had taken complete control of the company.

Out back lies further evidence of the building’s past as a substation. These three small openings seen on the upper left would have provided egress for the trio of  three phase electric lines entering the building to hook up with the transformers inside. The black outline around those openings was most likely the ghost of the wooden platform those lines were once attached to. You can also notice on this facade a slight change in both brick and mortar color – evidence of the expansion the building underwent in 1913.

After the street railway was abolished, the site transferred to the line’s parent company – the Houghton County Electric Light Company, more recently known as UPPCO. The wood-framed car barn would deteriorate and require demolishing. The substation would continue to be used as such, stepping down high-voltage power to the type easily utilized by the surrounding neighborhood. When UPPCO moved the substation out of the village, the equipment was removed and the structure used for storage. The large empty lot once occupied by the car barn (seen to the right in the image above) would become home to piles of power poles awaiting use around the region.

Today even the electric company has since vacated the complex. It now serves as the new home to Laurium’s fire department, both the transformer house and the old warehouses serving as garage space for the fire fighting equipment.

A century ago our trolley car would have passed by this complex without so much as a stutter, our first stop not scheduled until we arrived into Laurium’s downtown. As we pass the substation we make a left turn onto Lake Linden Avenue and began our journey into the heart of the Red Jacket metropolis.

To Be Continued…

Discuss…

  1. Please re-take a look at your text regarding trolley poles. In several posts you refer to the poles being cranked down or up when the car was put into service or reversed. Most electric cars (and the photos posted show these were similar) had spring loaded poles that held the trolley wheel or sliding shoes at the end of the pole up against the wire. To remove the pole from the wire the operator simply pulled down on a conveniently attached rope and hooked the pole under a bracket on the roof to hold it down. Raising the pole was hust the opposite, making sure to allign the contact surface with the wire. Some cars had spring-loaded retrievers set to automatically pull the poles down if the pole dewired to protect the span wires and overhead, but there was never any real “cranking” except maybe occasionally to rewind the retriever spring. Normally the retriever operated on the prinipal like a window blind: a smooth pull to let the rope out, or a quick tug to pull it back in.

  2. Thanks for the correct Les. I couldn’t find anything definitive on the mechanism except for the use of the Trolley Rope to pull them down. From various images of cars there seemed to be a small “knob” under where the rope came down from the pole. I assumed that the rope wrapped around the knob and a crank inside the cab turned it. But now I know better and I’ll have to make the changes.

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