Copper Range RailroadRails and Roads

Bridging the Gap (p1)

The rugged spine of the Keweenaw drops precariously and quickly from its heights atop the Calumet Plateau down to the deep and dark waters of Torch Lake some several hundred feet below. Along the way the landscape is broken in two by the passage of the Keweenaw Fault, a deep fissure separating the hard copper-bearing lava flows of the west from the soft sandstones deposits to the east. As rainwaters from the west drain eastward towards Torch Lake they tumbled over this break, finding themselves atop soft and permeable material that were eroded away quickly by the turbulent waters. This resulted in an amazing collection of deep and narrow gorges spread up and down the steep hillside along Torch Lake, gouges in the earth lined by towering rock walls and sheer cliff faces.  The largest, longest and most impressive of them all carves its way through the landscape just west of Tamarack City – a gorge home to the Hungarian Creek.

The Hungarian Gorge showcases some of the most incredible and awe-inspiring topography to be found along the peninsula.  Sheer rock cliffs, rugged hillsides, cascading waterfalls, and sprawling scenic vistas are only a few of the highlights offered by a walk along its rim. Best yet, almost all of its beauty sits within publicly open lands and is easily accessible thanks both a neighboring road and a public ATV trail cutting across its path. In fact this ATV trail does more then just cut across the impressive sized gorge – it literally crosses over top of it.

Yet even before the great gorge is crossed the ATV trail in question passes by a few rather remarkable items, curious  encounters that alert even the most casual of travelers that they were approaching a rather unique and highly uncommon stretch of trail. The most noticeable of which is this large concrete pedestal perched alongside.

In fact the large concrete pedestal is one of two that straddle the trail, sitting roughly criss cross from each other. A half century ago these pedestals once supported an overhead trestle, carrying the Hancock & Calumet railroad overhead. After passing under the phantom bridge a trail rider next finds themselves approaching a wide wooden causeway – a structure seen just down the way in the photo above.

The wide wood causeway was lined on either end by high railings with a rubber map laid out down its center.  A casual observer may conclude the causeway crossed a small creek or river below, but a quick look over those railings reveals that the crossing was perched high atop a deep gorge dropping over a hundred feet below.

Such a fact is even more incredible when the crossing is viewed from the narrow riverbed at the bottom of the gorge. The causeway can be seen high above, supported by a series of monstrous concrete pillars soaring up above the trees. While such a deep and rugged natural barrier would warrant such an impressive piece of civil engineering to cross, it all seemed a bit overkill for a simple ATV trail. Yet this is no ordinary ATV trail, as decades before its route was traversed by a slightly larger and more industrial form of transportation – the railway.

Here’s that same bridge back in its prime, complete with a train running along its top. The railway in question is the Copper Range, an operation that had its start at the turn of the 20th century. As the line blazed its route northward towards Calumet, it found its route blocked by the deep bowels of the Hungarian Gorge. A trestle would be required to cross it, and Copper Range erected one supported by a dense array of iron trusses sprawled across the narrow gap. Later that early structure would be replaced by a far simpler design, one supported by just a trio of concrete piers.

The new bridge would serve the Copper Range line for half a century, before the entire line was abandoned and its tracks removed. At that time the old railroad bridge was also removed, leaving just the concrete piers standing topless and orphaned within the gorge. When the old right-of-way was converted into an ATV trail it quickly became apparent that a new bridge would have to be built to carry it across the gap. This time the bridge was designed to support not heavy trains, but instead lighter ATV traffic.

Far down in the gorge’s dark recesses can be found not only the towering piers supporting the those newer bridges, but also a scattering of concrete pedestals which once supported the iron truss-work original laid out at the concrete pier’s feet.

Dozens of these concrete pedestals line the gorge, laid out in pairs up and down the steep walls. While the two in the river itself are rather tall and robust – no doubt to protect them during high-water events – the rest are far shorter and less obvious. Those bent iron bolts sticking up from the pedestals’ tops once tied down the iron structure above.

There’s nothing diminutive about those replacement piers however, their massive bulks reaching high up into the trees. No only did these monstrosities have to be strong to support the bridge, but they also had to hold up to the deluge of water rushing down the gorge during spring runoff or other high-water events.

The Copper Range rail crossing was an impressive piece of infrastructure, one necessary considering the deep and narrow walls of the gorge. Yet it wasn’t the only such crossing to be made over the Hungarian’s path. Before the arrival of the Copper Range another railroad had already left its mark – a legacy that can still be seen today scattered just a few hundred feet from the old Copper Range crossing.

To Be Continued…


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