CCE has been exploring the Copper Country for ten years now, documenting along the way the ruins and remnants of the region’s great Copper Empire. Those ruins we find today have been shaped by the passage of time – formed by decades of abandonment, weather, and the indifference of man. In some cases that time has been short, while in others a century of time has passed since their conception. Yet no matter the length of time, its passage always shapes and molds the world we find on our travels. It’s the immortality of history, a force that never rests in its continuous march towards the future. While constant, its effects aren’t always so apparent in the short term. Change takes time, and in our day to day travels that change is hardly noticeable. Wait a decade – like the decade of time CCE has been on the air – and suddenly those changes are much more obvious.
Ten years ago one of CCE’s first explorations was along the old right-of-way of the Quincy and Torch Lake Railroad, a narrow gauge short line road connecting the Quincy Mine at Hancock to its mill at Torch Lake. By the time we had come along, the line had been abandoned for more then a half century. At the time of its abandonment the line, its locomotives, its rolling stock, and its buildings were simply left in place where they were last used. From that point on time took over, and in the ensuing decades buildings collapsed, locomotives were shipped out, rails removed, and rock cars were scrapped. As a result things weren’t so pretty for our grand entrance in 2006.
Our first views of the line were of its old railroad house, a stone structure sitting right alongside aptly named Roundhouse Road. While things looked fine from this angle, a closer view revealed a structure that had definitely felt the passage of a half century of time.
While its walls were relatively intact, its roof had collapsed long ago leaving behind just an empty shell of a building. A scattering of debris was just barely visible inside, largely enveloped by the lush jungle of foliage now residing inside. With its rail doors wide open, we headed inside to take what would become CCE’s first panoramic image posted on the site (click on the image below for a larger view).
Things weren’t looking good for the old locomotive house. Without a roof, the forest now growing inside would only further deteriorate the building’s foundation and its stone walls. Another decade of weather and man’s indifference would would no doubt take its toll, leaving most likely only a pile of rubble for future explorers to discover.
One of those future explorers would be CCE, as we just recently returned to the site this spring to see how things have progressed. Turns out in the decade of time since that original visit things had definitely changed for the old railroad, though not in the way we had first imagined.
The differences showed up almost immediately as we walked up Roundhouse Road. For starters there was far less foliage hanging out around the old roundhouse. Then there was the small iron stack sticking up from the building’s roof. That’s right – its roof.
Turns out its wasn’t a decade of man’s indifference that took its toll on the old roundhouse, but the exact opposite. Here man had actually cared about the old ruin, using what would have normally been a destructive passage of time to return the roundhouse to its former glory instead. In place of that pile of rubble we anticipated we would find a decade ago was a fully intact structure complete with roof, windows, and even new railroad doors.
Yet that wasn’t all.
In addition to the new roof, windows, and railroad doors, a new set of tracks also now graces the building’s front facade. In the past these tracks would have led out to a turntable located in front of the building. Today it brings us to something a bit different…
An actual steam locomotive. This iron monstrosity was one of the Q&TL’s original engines, known as the Quincy and Torch Lake No.6. It was a locomotive that until the 1970s had resided within the very same roundhouse found next door. It was then removed and shipped out to New Jersey for restoration. That restoration never happened, so the old engine was brought back to its home to finally undergo the restoration it was promised decades ago. We featured this engine here on CCE before, back when it was still sporting its coat of orange primer. Since our most recent visit the old engine was pushed back into the roundhouse – returning to the home it vacated a half century ago. There it will serve as a central exhibit for a future Copper Country railroad museum located within the restored building.
Besides the old locomotive, this view also brings to view yet another relic from the past we were sure a decade ago would have vanished from the landscape by now – the old water tower.
Back when we last visited this iconic piece of Copper Country history it was standing but heavily camouflaged by the surrounding brush and trees. Today things are a bit more clearer.
Thanks to a recent brush removal, the old water tower now stands in full view un-compromised by the foliage around it. While it makes for a more stable structure, I’m not sure it is as photogenic as it once was when it was buried in the trees.
That foliage removal extends rather far around the old roundhouse, heading down along the old right-of-way as it makes its way along the hill top. In the distance you can now make out a second railroad grade, one that originally served the water tower seen earlier. The one ahead of us, however, heads eastward towards the line’s main yards where its collection of rock cars were once stored.
Before getting there, however, we first crossed over a relatively new addition to the landscape – the Quincy and Torch Lake inclined railway. These tracks support a cog-wheel train car, used by the Quincy Hoist Association to bring tourists down the hill to the mine’s entrance in Hancock. This is the one of the only things not to have changed in the last ten years of time – due mostly to it having continuously been in use during that whole time.
What has changed is the view along those tracks, especially looking back up the hill to the No.2 surface plant. Today only the top of the hoist house can be glimpsed sticking up above the tree line.
A decade ago those trees were a bit smaller, resulting in a slightly different picture. Of course back then the old No.2 boiler stack was also still standing – an industrial obelisk which has since been removed from the landscape.
Moving past the inclined railway we continue along the old Q&TL right of way, now under the shade of the encroaching forest. That underbrush clearing that had been done around the old trail to the west was not continued past the incline, and thus we finally found ourselves heading down familiar territory largely left untouched during the last decade.
After passing through the tunnel of undisturbed trees we come to our destination – the rail yards. Here were once several parallel lines of tracks, used to stage rock cars and form rock trains. Today its largely overgrown, yet some remnants do remain. One of those is this stone lined pit along the trail – a structure that once housed a railroad scale.
Further down the line the trees open up and a grand vista out across the Portage Valley suddenly comes into view. This is the Pewabic Cut, a narrow valley that was once home to the Pewabic Mine’s incline railroad connecting its mine shafts to its mill down along the Portage. Later the gorge become home to a large timber trestle, carrying the Quincy’s own railroad across the gap on its way to the its mill. Later Quincy would end up dumping large amounts of poor rock into the gorge, partially filling it and burying the old wood trestle in the process. Today the trestle has been converted into a large flat piece of man made ground extending between the gorge’s rims.
While impressive the real interest atop the old trestle is what sat just alongside the trail…
Taking in the wonderful view for themselves was a line of about a dozen old rock cars. Half shrouded in the trees, these wood framed cars stand along a still intact spur line of rails joined together in a long train. Most likely these cars were left here after the mine closed, ready to be used whenever the mine would reopen. Only that never happened and the cars were instead forgotten.
Forgotten but not ignored. Though relatively intact, the passage of time had taken its toll. Local fraternities had used their rotting surfaces as advertisements, some had burned to the ground, while others had been torn apart by vandals (to see them all, click on the image above). Even so it was an impressive sight to see all of them in a row half buried in the woods. Unfortunately it was not to last.
Today those woods lie empty – the rock cars which once occupied them absent from view. Most odd is the fact that there is no evidence that these cars ever existed at all – no blackened debris or no scattered pieces of iron to be found anywhere. It was if the cars simply rolled away on their own.
A closer look reveals that not even that was possible, since the rails end shortly after the tree line. What was once an iconic ruin whose high perch made it visible all the way across the valley had simply disappeared into thin air.
Turns out it wasn’t nature that had erased these cars from the landscape – it was man.
Here’s what’s left of those cars – sitting still in a line though now alongside the Q&TL locomotive in front of the roundhouse. After an additional decade of abandonment since our initial visit, those old rock cars had deteriorated even further (helped by a few being lit on fire intentionally). They were so far gone that it was decided to save what could be saved, which largely meant just the iron trucks (the wheels) on which the cars once sat. So here they are, moved here near the roundhouse for safekeeping.
A decade ago CCE found the landscape here to be much different then it is today. While normally a decade of time would find the ruins and remnants of the Copper Empire to be in worse shape, for the most part the Quincy and Torch Lake railroad has been blessed with the opposite. While some things – like those rock cars – have indeed left us, other things – like the roundhouse and locomotive seen above- are now solidly here to stay thanks to preservation efforts. Its all a part of time’s inevitable passing, the driving force that has shaped the Copper Country since its inception. Luckily this time CCE was around to document its progress.