A Ride on the Keweenaw Central Railroad

The late 1960s was a time of great change for the Copper Country. After nearly a century of rule the great Copper Empire was drawing its last breaths, its last surviving mines finally succumbing to the realities of the time. Gone too were the great railroads that once served those mines, with only the Copper Range still limping along kept afloat mainly by the lumber business. Suddenly a region found itself without the industry that had sustained it for so long, and as people left and stores closed those remaining residents scrambled to find something else to replace it. At the top of the list was tourism, an industry not requiring a great deal of infrastructure or investment to cater to. While the great scenic beauty and rich history of the peninsula was quite the draw on its own, a group of local investors headed by train enthusiast Clint Jones looked to create a must-see attraction which would bring even more curious sight-seers to the region. That must see attraction would be a ride on an authentic Copper Empire steam train – an experience not readily available for most in an era powered largely by diesel.

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The steam engine in question would be this iron beast, a 98 ton 2-8-0 built by the American Locomotive Company in 1907. Known as the #29, this machine was one of the main workhorses for the Copper Range Railroad, which operated the steam powered machine for nearly half a century. The engine would be retired in 1953, but unlike most of its brethren would not get sold or scrapped as a result. Instead the old gal was stored away in the Copper Range’s Houghton roundhouse, perfectly preserved for the next 15 years. In 1967 it was removed from its dark cocoon and brought up to Calumet to start its second life – powering the Keweenaw Central Tourist Railroad.

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Though sharing the name of the railroad which once served the peninsula’s northernmost regions, the tourist railroad was confined to just a six mile length of track connecting Calumet and Lake Linden. This track originally belonged to the Copper Range, who had abandoned it soon after closing up its mining operations. The Keweenaw Central would buy the trackage rights up for itself in 1967, renaming it the Copper Country route. The route started at the old Copper Range freight depot on the north end of Calumet, traveling past the Centennial Mine and through Calumet Junction before turning south along the slopes of St. Louis Hill. The route’s southern terminus was a lumber siding just outside of Lake Linden. From here the train would be turned around and head back up the hill to return to its starting point.

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The Keweenaw Central proved rather popular among both tourists and locals alike. Plans were made for the lines expansion, including the purchase of another dozen miles of track along the the Copper Range’s Calumet to Copper City route and the addition of two more engines to the roster including  a second steam powered monster even larger then the #28. Unfortunately fate would have other plans, as the Copper Range Railroad’s fight for survival would come to an end in 1971 and its entire route – including the portion utilized by the tourist line – was officially abandoned. With no line to run on, the Keweenaw Central had to abandon its operations as well.

Though long gone today, the Keweenaw Central continues to resonate in the hearts and minds of those that were once lucky to be a part of the old tourist line or to ride it themselves. While I arrived to the scene far too late to ride it myself (it was closed for over half a decade before I was even born), fellow Copper Country Explore Paul Meier had been so fortunate. Lucky for the rest of us, he even took along his trusty camera to document the experience. Thanks to his generosity, I can share those photos and the unique experience it documents right here on CCE.

We begin our tour rightly enough at the beginning – the old Copper Range yards in Calumet.

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This first photo is not Paul’s however, but is instead one found in the archives. This is the main ticket office of the line, where would-be riders would get their excursion tickets. Typically there were three such excursions each day, one at 11, another at 1:30 and one last ride at 3:30. By the look of the sign above, we’ve made it to the site just in time for the 11 am excursion. Which also happens to be the time Paul Meier rode the train himself, over half a century ago.

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Here we see the hero of our story – the #29 – steaming up for its first run of the day. In the background can be seen the line’s later addition – the C&NW #175. That engine can still be seen today, rotting away just outside the Quincy Smelting Works in Ripley. It was there – in an old railroad shed which has since collapsed – that all of the Keweenaw Central’s equipment was stored after the lines abandonment. While the No.29 would later be recovered for use as a museum piece out east, the #175 was not so lucky.

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On a normal run the #29 would haul one or two of these – passenger cars known as coaches. Along with the #29, the tourist line also picked up from the Copper Range one of its coaches. Known as Coach No.60 this 52 foot long car was built in 1903 and could carry up to 62 passengers.

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Of course no train excursion could be complete without a caboose to take up the rear. This was the Keweenaw Central’s caboose, a piece of equipment most likely picked up from the Copper Range along with the rest of its equipment. With this piece bringing up the rear, the excursion train was complete and ready for its run.

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After leaving and Calumet and crossing the highway, the train would make a short stop at Calumet Junction where the engine would fill up on water. As the name implies the junction served as a intersection between several separate branch lines – one heading out to Calumet, one heading south to Laurium, a third heading north towards Copper City, and a fourth heading down the hill towards Lake Linden. Our journey will take us down that fourth path.

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Here we spy Clint Jones filling the locomotive’s tender up with water, via one of the few still standing water towers still to be found along the Copper Range. This tower was fed via a neighboring man-made reservoir which still sits along the old rail route still today.

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According the Paul this is the junction’s train order station, still standing during his excursion but not today. While the tender was being tended to riders could disembark to check out the surroundings – as these people are no doubt doing.

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Another old relic in view is the Centennial Mine, whose No.2 surface plant can be glimpsed in the distance. In the beginning of the tourist line the soaring rock house would have also been seen in this picture, though by this trip it had been torn down for scrap. All that remains is its concrete base.

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Tender filled and sight-seeing accomplished we get back on the train to restart out journey. Unlike most of the riders, we get a first class experience within the cab of the stem engine itself. Here we look out through one of the cab’s forward looking windows – enjoying a view much like one experienced by the train engineer himself.

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As we ride along the edge of St. Louis Hill the trees open up from time to time to bring us magnificent views out across the valley such as this one – framed by the remains of an old farm and overgrown field.

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After more then a few scenic views of the valley we are treated to something even more spectacular – a look down into the deep reaches of the Hammell Gorge and the little twinkle of a stream at its base. This same gorge is home to the famous Douglass-Houghton Falls, which drops this same creak down into the gorge’s confines about a mile to the north of here.

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Here’s another view of the trestle in question, this time looking up from the creek instead of down into it. Built in 1911 the trestle stretches over 300 feet in length supported by a collection of steel girders rising up out of the valley floor. After the line’s abandonment the bridge was removed, leaving just a pair of concrete abutments in its place. In this shot – courtesy the Upper Peninsula Regional Digitization Center – the #29 itself can be seen sitting atop the crossing.

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After crossing the gorge the train arrives at its southern terminus, marked by the small diesel locomotive glimpsed down at the far end of the track.

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That diesel engine in question is this little guy, a piece of machinery known more commonly as a switcher. Its job is not to haul trains of cars, but instead to put those trains together by moving and rearranging them. This particular switch was a Whitcomb, previously used on the Milwaukee Road. At the tourist line, this guy’s purpose was to help turn the train around for its return run up the hill.

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To accomplish this, the #29 has to first decouple itself from its passenger cars. It then leaves the main line and heads out onto a neighboring siding.

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Once off the main track that diesel switcher comes into play, hooking itself up to the passenger cars and pulling them past the switch to the siding and further up the main line. With the cars now out of the way, the #29 backs itself off the siding and back onto the main line – now sitting behind the passenger cars instead of in front of them.

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Here we see the finished product, once again from the vantage point of the locomotive’s cab. From here the train starts its return trip, though this time in reverse. While the engine could simply head back up hill in reverse with the passenger cars behind it, this left open the greater possibility of derailment. There was also the 1.8% grade of the return trip to take in account, a hefty job a train is more suited to tackle pulling its freight instead of pushing it.

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Now running in reverse, the #29 makes the long climb back up the hill pulling its passenger cars behind it.

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For a second time we cross the Hammell Trestle, this time taking a look down the bridge’s length instead of down into the gorge.

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In the cab is the engineer hard at work, in this case Mr. Clint Jones himself. As hard as it may be to drive a train normally, I would guess its even hard to drive it in reverse as Mr. Jones is doing.

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We end our journey back to where we began – at the old Copper Range freight yard in Calumet. Total time of our trip, just over an hour. Total length, about 13 miles. Along they way we’ve seen some ruins of the Copper Empire, some great views out across the Traprock Vally, an exhilarating crossing of the Hammell Trestle, and some close up views of a working railroad in action. All in all a journey well worth the price of admission.

Too bad you can’t take a ride for yourself anymore.

Special Thanks to Paul Meier for providing his wonderful photos for this post. Thanks Paul!

 

Discuss…

  1. Very interesting articles and pictures, thank you! My grandfather was Jack Foster a local historian from Calumet. He actually had a museum in his basement. I grew up hearing and learning all about the locomotives and copper mining history. In fact when he was a teenager he was a fireman on the Torch Lake. My great uncle Alton was an engineer on her.She was a very lucky locomotive . The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn Michigan got her in the early seventies. She is beautiful now. If I knew how to put a picture of her on here I would. She runs passengers around the village and it is a blast to hear her whistles and steam. My son and I go every year to ride on her. They have two there, so she does get a rest. Today was opening day there, and she was started up, saw her on the news! Anyways really enjoyed your pictures and articles!

  2. My main memories are of the smoke coming in the windows and my mom talking about the steam engines they put in service during the war. I don’t know if I’m remembering cinders coming in too or just her talking about them. I really was quite taken with the steep drop of the trestle.

  3. Such a great story! Thankfully that wonderful man had the foresight to take pictures. Steam trains have always been my favorite type of train, including old diesel switcher engines, so I enjoyed this story and its accompanying pictures very much. :) What a great experience for everyone who rode that wonderful engine #29!

  4. Does anyone know exactly where in Lake Linden this ended? Did it cross M-26 on the hill or stop right before it?

    • Benji,
      The ride stopped at a lumber spur on above Lake Linden. They did not cross M-26. This was a location where they could park the little diesel to aid in swapping ends of the train. While it would have been nice to run all the way down into Lake Linden or beyond, but the situation didn’t work out that way. For a pure railfan, it would have been really great to run all the way down to the bridge, do a run around at the wye, and go back up. But that really wasn’t practical. One thing to consider is the average tourist has an attention span of about an hour, so the trip was about right. Longer TOURIST runs have only been successful in Colorado. Such a run as I just described would have worked for a bunch of people who really loved trains and the Copper Counrty.

  5. Thanks Paul. Looking at the picture where you can see the highway in the background, would there have been a trestle just before the highway? If it ran on the Copper Range tracks I think there was/is a small gorge just before M-26 but I can’t tell from the picture.

    • That would be correct Benji, that’s the trestle the train came out and stopped on. Then they backed up and switched the engine to the other end and headed back to Calumet.

  6. Cancel part of that, don’t know where my brain is this morning. There was a trestle just off M26, the cement abutments are still there, I think they have a pile of sand or stone on the one right along the edge of the road behind the guard rail now.

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