The Falls River is an aptly named ribbon of water which tumbles and cascades its way to Keweenaw Bay from the rugged foothills of the Huron Mountains. There are dozens of waterfalls along the route including four named falls – Powerhouse Falls, Lower Falls, Middle Falls, and Upper Falls. Of those named falls three all exist within a half mile stretch of the river near its mouth, nestled within a picturesque canyon running alongside the western outskirts of L’Anse. While impressive, its not the falls that brought our attention to this section of the tumbling river but instead the pair of high railroad trestles that cross overhead.
Today those trestles are part of the Canadian National Railway, though for most of their life the railway was known as the Soo Line. Sitting near the end of the line, these two bridges carry the railroad’s main line heading out towards Baraga and a spur line serving the old Celotex Ceiling Tile Plant. Unlike most other railroads to be found in the Copper Country, both lines continue to see trains about two times a week. Because of that thre trestles are in great shape – easily the region’s most intact.
Both trestles can be glimpsed from neighboring US41, which also crosses the same gorge and river. Unlike the more picturesque railroad crossings, however, the highway bridge is nothing more then a simple concrete cantilever set atop equally boring concrete abutments. However, the existence of that highway does allow for some easy viewing of the more picturesque trestles, thanks to a handy dirt pull-off conveniently located right up alongside the railroad’s spur line.
From there a short walk down the line brings the first trestle into view. The shining polished surface of the rails proclaims this line to be still in operation, an odd appearance we are not accustomed to seeing on our journeys. Today the line serves a neighboring ceiling tile plant, but originally was built to service the old Marshall Butters Sawmill around 1912 – a complex later owned and operated for several decades by the Ford Motor Company.
Standing atop one of the trestle’s concrete abutments we peer over the edge to find some of the cascading water the Falls River is famous for. The bridge looks old for sure, its iron rusted and the concrete stained and cracked. But the bright rails and freshly creosote-treated ties tell a different story. While a bit vertigo inducing, the view does little in giving us a good overview of the bridge. So we take a nearby trail into the woods and down to the gorge’s bottom for a better look.
That view didn’t disappoint, though not just for the improved look at the trestle. Turns out the trail was there for a reason, as this area is home to the before mentioned Middle Falls – one of three named falls that share the gorge with the trestles. Downstream from here lie the Lower Falls, while up past the railroad bridge and just out of view are the Upper Falls. We’ll end up visiting those upper falls later, but first a closer look at that trestle.
The design is pretty simple, consisting of a box girder with the rails running along top. While the bridge itself is rather quaint and small, its abutments are something else entirely. They are truly massive towers of concrete – dwarfing the river at its base.
In the end, however, the spur line trestle is a bit underwhelming in both style and character. Especially when compared to its older and bigger brother to be found just upstream.
The mainline crossing is far older then its sibling, having been first built in 1903 for the old Marquette, Houghton and Ontonagon Railroad – the company which was originally responsible for the line. That first bridge was a large wooden structure that choked up most of the gorge’s breadth. It would quickly prove inadequate in serving the expanding line’s needs – and thus a new more permanent iron structure was put up in its place a decade later. That new bridge is the same bridge seen above, a bridge that has been in use for a full century.
The new bridge’s most impressive feature is its unique abutments – built not out of concrete but of sandstone instead. This sandstone most likely came from the old sandstone quarries found just up the road. We’ve seen this type of abutment before, most notably at the old Hungarian Gorge Hancock & Calumet crossing. It’s a beautiful design choice, one that continues to shine even through a century’s worth of wear and tear.
The beauty of this particular trestle continues from there, as we take a walk down to the river to get a better view once again. Unlike most trestles we’ve seen before, this one features an open truss-work for its girders. Unlike its sibling downstream the bridge doesn’t cross the gap in one jump, instead relying on a central pillar resting in the middle of the river.
Here’s a closer look at that central pillar – which also unlike most other such pillars seen on trestles consists of a single two-dimension truss. It almost looks like an afterthought, as if the bridge was built and the designers found out it wasn’t quite strong enough.
This bridge has been updated, however. That can be clearly seen along its abutments, whose sandstone walls are joined by a thick concrete core sandwiched between them. This was most likely a result of a 1929 update to the structure, which looks to have strengthened those old sandstone abutments all the while leaving the gorgeous sandstone skins intact.
Turning around from the trestle we find even more impressive sights, such as the third falls in the area – known as Upper Falls. Though the highway sits just up the hill, the water and gorge manage to create a sanctuary of nature which seems to transport you far away from the hustle and bustle above.
Of course the addition of those trestles high above only add to the scenery – especially when a gaze downstream reveals not just one but three such crossings spanning the picturesque gorge. Its an impressive site, one of many one finds scattered about the old industrial landscape of the Copper Empire.