HCTCRails and Roads

The Houghton County Street Railway (p2)

At its height, the great Copper Empire was home to nearly a hundred thousand people. Most of those people lived within a narrow 30 mile tract of land between the Portage to the south and the Allouez Gap near the Keweenaw County line. Along this region operated more then two dozen mines, mills and smelters employing a workforce of over 18,000 workers. The landscape was also home to over 20 cities, towns, and mining locations that housed those workers and their families – some of them modern metropolises in term of size and population. Hancock was home to 8000, Houghton another five, while the greater Calumet area was home to 23,000 on its own. If there was any area of the country that demanded a quick, reliable, and efficient mass transportation system – the Copper Country was it. Thankfully the Houghton County Traction Company was on the job.

At its peak the Houghton Country Traction Company (HCTC) featured 32 miles of track connecting the Copper Country’s most populous cities and towns. The railway featured six lines divided between a dozen fare zones. The main line (shaded in black) connected the region’s two main metropolitan centers  – Hancock/Houghton to the south and Calumet /Laurium to the north. Each of those regions also featured their own local lines (shaded in yellow). Radiating out from that main line were a total of three branch lines; one traveling north to Mohawk (the green line), another to Wolverine (the blue line), and a third making its way down the hill to the mill towns of Lake Linden and Hubbell (the red line).

Though the system didn’t even include Red Jacket until its second year, the final configuration essentially made Red Jacket the focal point for the whole system. That was the starting point for not only the main line but also all three branch lines. The four lines staggered their cars systematically, with the Houghton bound cars leaving every half hour, Lake Linden bound cars leaving 45 minutes after the hour, Wolverine bound cars leaving ten minutes after the hour, and Mohawk bound cars leaving ten minutes to the hour. Thus from the Red Jacket terminus one could catch a trolley car to any point across the system once every hour.

Though the main line and branch lines were physically connected (and in many cases shared the same physical track), street cars never left their assigned line. A Lake Linden car would never travel to Houghton, and a main line car would never head to Mohawk or Wolverine. This meant that if you wanted to travel across the entire length of the system – from Houghton to Mohawk – you had to switch lines, a process known as transferring. This was accomplished primarily through one of two switch points found along the system (marked by long white pill shapes in the map above), places where the various lines converged. These occurred in Florida Location at a stop known as Lake Linden Junction, and in Albion at the Albion Station. Cars were staggered to insure that branch lines cars would stop at switch points soon after main line car has passed through, limiting wait times at the switch point.

Cars ran every half hour on the main line and every hour on the branch lines while local cars ran every quarter hour. This meant along the main line you could catch a car every 15 minutes, or every half hour on the branch lines. Service began at East Houghton at the bright and early time of 5:30 AM, and lasted until the last cars left Mohawk and Lake Linden at 11:30 PM. The last car would arrive Houghton’s terminus at 15 minutes after midnight.

By 1908 the railway operated a total of 23 passenger cars, with only 14 normally in operation along the system at one time. A total of five cars were tasked to service the main line between Houghton and Calumet, while the Mohawk and Lake Linden lines operated two cars each. A single car operated between Calumet and Wolverine. Both major metropolitan areas also had an addition two cars tasked for local service. Cars ran in a continuous loop along their designated lines, traveling from one terminus to the other and back again. Along the main line one entire loop – from terminus and back again – took two and a half hours (an hour and 15 minutes each way). On the Lake Linden branch it took an hour and a half, while on the Mohawk Line it took an hour and twenty minutes. The Wolverine line was the shortest, with its loop only taking 40 minutes.

While it may seem simple enough today, the idea of setting up a system that ran reliably to such an exact standard (every fifteen minutes for the main line) required a great deal of planning and meticulous execution. This is especially true when considering that the majority of the street car line was operated along a single track. This meant that to allow for a pair of trains to pass each on a single line they must be timed to pass each other along one of the line’s limited number of turn-outs and sidings. With some lines traversed by up to seven cars at a time, this became a ballet of trains and rails orchestrated to an almost machine like precision.

Photo courtesy Superiorland Library Cooperative, Andrew C. Curto Collection

A good part of that ballet was set in motion at the beginning of the day, when the system and its 14 cars were staged for the system’s start early in the morning. Though the first cars didn’t leave their stations until 5:30 in the morning, the railway would have been already operating for hours before as cars were moved from the railway’s pair of car barns to their starting points scattered across the system. Along the main line cars were staged at each terminus, while the branch lines had their cars staged at the switch points – Albion and Lake Linden Junctions. Thus when the railway started operations in the morning four cars were waiting at Red Jacket (one of them being the Wolverine car), two in East Houghton, two at Albion Junction and another two at Lake Linden Junction. There were no cars staged at any of the branch lines’ terminuses, riders in those towns would have to wait for the first car to arrive from Red Jacket.

Thus at six in the morning the image above would be the scene early travelers would encounter as they boarded their cars, at least as it would look in Red Jacket. These two cars are staged at the end of the line along Sixth Street at Scott, both ready to go when their time arrived. Several other cars would be waiting like this at the Red Jacket train station as well as the far end of the line in East Houghton.

Photo courtesy Superiorland Library Cooperative, Andrew C. Curto Collection

Each car was operated by two men, a motorman and a conductor. Of the over 100 workers the street railway employed over two thirds of them worked on the cars themselves.  While the car was physically driven by the motorman (the man on the left above) the car was the responsibility of the Conductor (the man on the right above). In addition to collecting  fares from passengers the conductor was also charged with insuring those passengers arrived to their destinations safely and on schedule. Using a bell system within the car, the conductor instructed the motorman when it was safe to start the car, alerted him to possible hazards, and helped navigate the switches and transfer points. While each individual car may run continously throughout the day, its motorman and conductor were switched various times during the course of the day.

The conductor would also assist the motorman in preparing the car for work in the morning, stored overnight in the car barn. The first order of business would be to power the car, which required one of its trolley poles to be raised up to meet the overhead line. At night the poles are drawn down from the line, to insure that there’s no electricity running through the system. This is done by pulling a rope inside the control cab, a rope connected to the trolley pole directly called a Trolley Rope. The pole would then lock under a hook for stowage. To raise the pole the motorman would tug on the rope hard to release the hook, the spring in the pole pulling it back up to the wire. The trolley cars utilized by the HCTC were double ended, which meant there were duplicate control booths and trolley poles on both ends of the train. Cars were driven with the trailing (rear) trolley pole in contact with the overhead line, thus the trolley pole opposite the direction of travel is raised.

After this is done the motorman will then turn on the master switch, usually located along the roofline of the control booth. This will essentially turn the car on, bringing power down from the overhead line into the car’s internal electrical system. The same power that is used to drive the car was also used to power its internal lights, heaters, and headlights. It was also used to power the air compressor of the air-brake system, which the motorman would activate first thing to bring the pressure in the system up to the desired level. Being first thing in the morning the motorman would also turn on the interior lights and the headlamp.

Once the air brakes were set, it was time to bring the car out of the garage.

A trolley car is driven in one of the car’s two control booths, also known as vestibules. Inside can be found three main controls, the controller, the air brake, and the hand brake. The controller controls the speed and direction of the car, while the air brake slows and stops the car at stations. The hand brake can be used in emergencies, or when the air brake is unavailable, but is generally used to hold the car when its power is turned off. Also found within the vestibule are various switches to turn on the car lights, head lights, and charge the air-brake system. Peddles on the floor operate the car’s horn and its sand box, so motorman can spill sand on the track for better traction in slick conditions or on grades.

After the power to the car is turned on, the motorman must then insert his “key” into the controller box. This device controls the amount of power sent to the car’s drive motors. Inserting the key completes the circuit, and allows the car’s motors to be operated. The key is also used to put the car into forward or reverse. With the rear trolley pole already raised the motorman would only operate in the forward position. Driving in reverse without changing poles could result in damage to the trolley pole or the overhead line. With the key in place the motorman would then turn his attention to the controller lever to start the car on its journey.

With the system on and the proper direction set it was now time for the motorman to send power to the motors and start the car on its journey. Unfortunately it isn’t quite this simple, as you cannot just send the power from the overhead line directly to the motors. Doing so would create an incredible amount of torque causing wheel slip or worse could cause damage to the motor itself. Have have to gradually increase the amount of power sent to the motors slowly and incrementally. This is the job of the controller box.

Inside the controller box are several separate circuits of incrementally decreasing resistance. From the off position the motorman turns the controller level clockwise, moving through a series of stops known as “notches”. Each notch corresponds to one circuit, and by moving the arm clockwise the motorman is changing which circuit is feeding the motors. At first the circuits have a large amount of resistance, which absorbs a good portion of the power coming from the overhead line leaving just a small amount for the motors. As the motorman moves through the notches he moves from circuit to circuit, decreasing the level of  resistance and increasing the power delivered to the motors until he reaches the first of two run notches – marked “series” on the controller. At this point power is run to the motors along a circuit with no resistance, and the car is now at speed. The motorman stops turning the controller lever and the car is allowed to run freely.

While full power is now being delivered to the motors, the car has not yet reached its full speed. At this point the motors for all the wheels are connected in series, which lowers the power each motor effectively can use. Typically this is only half the car’s maximum speed, around 20 mph depending on the car and motor. To deliver the maximum amount of power to the motors possible and drive the car at its maximum possible speed, the motorman must move the controller further clockwise through another series of notches until landing upon a second run notch – this one marked as “parallel”. Here the motors are all connected together along a parallel circuit, which delivers twice as much power to each motor. Here the car reaches its maximum speed – about 40 mph depending on the type of motors and car. Just like what has to be done to bring the car up to speed in the “series” setting, the motorman has to once again turn the controller lever through a series of intermediate notches to slowly transfer the power – at various loads of resistance – into the new parallel circuit.

Photo courtesy Superiorland Library Cooperative, Andrew C. Curto Collection

Driving a streetcar was a two handed operation, with one hand on the controller and the other on the air brake lever. In city environments along public roads the motorman operates the car in the “series” position, at half speed for safety. Outside city limits and along private right of ways the motorman will move the controller up to the “parallel” position, to gain the best possible speed. At no times can the controller lever be left at an intermediary notch position, as doing so can burn out the circuits or even cause a fire. The motorman must alway move the controller deliberately through the notches until landing on the “series” or “parallel” notches.

Yet even when on a run notch, the motorman must continue to hold his hand on the controller lever while at the same time holding the brake lever. This is to allow the motorman to quickly and safely stop the car if the need should arise. To do so he must always first shut off the motor, which involves quickly turning the controller lever completely counterclockwise to its off position. Only then can he apply the air brakes, since applying brakes with the motor still running would only burn out the motor or damage the brake system. To apply the brakes the motorman pulls the air-brake level towards him until the car began to slow and holds it in that position until the car stops. To start the car back up he first brings the air level brake back into the off position and then began to turn the controller lever to once again bring the car up to speed. However a seasoned motorman familiar with his car and his route will learn how to use the brake as little as possible, knowing exactly when to shut off the car’s motor so it will smoothly glide to a stop on its own without the need to apply the brake. Braking can cause the car to slow too abruptly, causing passengers unnecessary alarm and possible throwing them about the cabin.

Photo courtesy Superiorland Library Cooperative, Andrew C. Curto Collection

To ride the interurban line was at the time an incredible and novel experience for most of the Copper Country’s residents. In a time when inter-city transport could get no better then by horse, the arrival of these streetcars suddenly brought the entire region to the literal doorsteps of a great swath of the public. Suddenly people of any means, rich or poor, could experience everything the region’s rising metropolises had to offer. Someone in Houghton could take in the latest dramatic offerings at the Calumet Theater; a mining family from remote Mohawk could window shop the newest fashions at Gartner’s or Vertin’s; newly arrived immigrants in Calumet could view the great Houghton Douglass Falls near Lake Linden.  Best yet workers could live almost anywhere, and find work at almost any mine without having to move their families. They could also gather together for meetings quickly and easily. The Copper Empire had suddenly become a much smaller and manageable place to live.


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  1. Hello Mike.

    This is one of your best series yet. A part of the copper country that has little written about. I don’t even remember a Clarence J. Monette book on the subject. I love the graphics. Very easy to understand.

  2. Chris – Monette’s book is called Houghton County’s Streetcars and Electric Park. It’s number fifty-five in his series. Also, MTU professor Bill Sproule authored Copper Country Streetcars in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of Rail series. And Wilbert Maki did a book on the Ho Co Traction Co titled Reminiscences of the Streetcar: 1900-1932.

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