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Tracks of history

Since 1850s, railroads have carried the area’s mining industry

November 18, 2012
By JOHN PEPIN - Journal Staff Writer ( , The Mining Journal

MARQUETTE - From mules and horses to plank roads, steam and iron rails, the modes of transportation steadily improved in moving ore from the western end of Marquette County to the ships of Lake Superior during the area's early 19th Century mining days.

The infancy of the Upper Peninsula's iron industry began soon after Michigan acquired the region in the settlement of Michigan and Ohio's "Toledo War" land dispute.

In surveying the newly acquired territory, state geologist Douglass Houghton described deposits of iron ore near Negaunee in 1841. Three years later, U.S. Deputy Surveyor William Burt detailed the discovery of a large outcropping of iron ore near Negaunee. Early iron ore prospectors hoped to capitalize on the discovery.

Article Photos

A group of Marquette, Houghton and Ontonagon Railroad machinists with some of their tools. (Marquette Regional History Center photo)

Prior to a railway system, ore was moved from the mines in the Ishpeming and Negaunee area to Marquette by horse- or mule-pulled sleighs or wagons. In those days -between 1846 when the mines first began producing and 1851- the area was a sparsely populated wilderness.

The search to improve transportation was on.

In 1853, the Jackson and Cleveland mining companies contracted to build a plank road to Marquette, a more suitable surface for the horses and mules to travel over. But the Iron Mountain Plank and Railway Company never completed the plank road. Instead, ties and strap rails were installed over the planks to form the Iron Mountain Railway in 1855. The railway was built in eight months at a cost of $120,000.

Travel on the railway was dangerous with frequent derailments and some of the mules or horses being killed in accidents.

According to a 1955 "Historical Highlights" radio program by local historian Kenyon Boyer, teams could make about one trip daily, resulting in a maximum of about 1,000 tons of ore being shipped over the course of a year.

After a couple of years of operation, the plank road financiers began to sell their interests to a competing group of developers working to build a steam railroad over roughly the same route.

Since 1851, Herman B. Ely and his associates had hoped to build the Green Bay and Lake Superior Railroad from Marquette to Green Bay. By 1852, at least four railroads were projected to be built into the U.P. to reach the iron reserves of the Marquette Range and the copper deposits of the Keweenaw, according to professor Aurele Durocher, in a comprehensive series of articles on the "Railroads of the City of Marquette," published during the mid-1980s in the Soo Line Railroad magazine.

The 12-mile Iron Mountain Railroad was completed from Negaunee to Marquette by the Ely group in 1857. The first Soo lock had been constructed at the St. Marys River rapids two years earlier, an additional valuable improvement in the local iron ore transportation system.

Also in 1855, the mining companies began construction of two docks at the harbor in Marquette, then called Iron Bay.

Two railroad engines, the Sebastopol and the Cornelius Donkersley, had been brought to the area by 1857. With the help of several dozen ore cars, shipments had increased dramatically to 1,200 tons each day.

Then financial problems -during the Panic of 1857- forced sale of the railroad to interests who, in turn, also sold the railroad to an Ely-backed company. The venture was called the Bay de Noquet and Marquette Railroad. By 1860, the new company was operating the railroad five trips daily to Marquette. Each run had about 25 ore cars and a passenger car.

From 1858 to 1871, the B de N & M railroad encountered competition and other problems.

Developers planned to build the Marquette and Ontonagon Railway west from the city. The two companies disputed land grants that were given over the two routes that lie in close proximity. The B de N & M secured its grants in 1865.

Meanwhile, in 1862 and 1863, the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad was building a route north from Wisconsin and financed a new local railroad project called the Peninsula Railroad. The new route was to run from Negaunee to Escanaba.

More land grant disputes resulted when the B de N & M decided to build a route to Escanaba itself. Chicago and Northwestern eventually received the land grants after agreeing not to extend its line into Marquette.

More problems surfaced after the B de N & M built the Marquette and Ontonagon Railroad, a 14-mile extension from the Ishpeming area west to Champion. An additional 8-mile extension was built to Michigamme in hopes of bolstering its land grants and slow the progress of the competing Marquette and Ontonagon Railway.

The railway objected, saying the railroad had built the Michigamme extension for fraudulent purposes. But by the mid-1860s, when the railway failed to complete its route to the southern reaches of the Copper Country, the argument died.

Another competing railroad to the B de N & M hoped to develop the Houghton and Ontonagon Railroad from Michigamme to L'Anse, where an ore dock was to be built. The company also wanted to extend the railroad to Houghton to capitalize on the shipping of copper reserves from the Keweenaw Peninsula.

Work began diligently, but the company realized it could not complete the line by an 1872 deadline set by the state. About 10 miles was constructed.

The H & O then merged with the B de N & M to form the Marquette, Houghton and Ontonagon Railroad in 1872. From 1846 to 1872 the railroad had hauled the bulk of the 2.8 million tons of ore moved to Marquette. The railroad had nearly 20 locomotives and ran passenger trains in addition to freight runs.

By 1874, the railroad boasted 30 locomotives and 63 miles of mainline track. Passenger service between Marquette and L'Anse was initiated that same year. Two years later, passenger service was started from Humboldt to Republic.

During the next decade, plans were made to build a railroad depot in Marquette to service the railroad and a new line being built to the city from St. Ignace: the Detroit, Mackinaw and Marquette Railroad. The depot was not built until 1901.

The line to Houghton was completed and the first passenger train from Marquette arrived there in November 1883.

In 1886, the first six railroads of the area had been consolidated through various mergers and renamed Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railway, also called the Duluth, South Shore and Sault Ste. Marie Railroad. The important local line lasted until 1961 when it merged with other lines into the Soo Line Railroad.

In the late 1890s, another important railroad -the Lake Superior and Ishpeming Railroad- was started by the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company and the Pittsburgh and Lake Angeline Mining Company.

By the turn of the 20th Century, lines of several railroads had spread across much of the region transporting iron ore, coal and passengers. Though roughly only 50 years had passed since the early days of mule and horse-drawn ore transport, the subsequent improvements made it seem lights years away.

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is



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