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CannonRide - The Railroad That Never Was

Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Day Trippin'' started by Cannonshot, Sep 28, 2020.

  1. Cannonshot

    Cannonshot Having a Nice Time Administrator Super Moderator

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    Back in the 1890s, Michigan was the largest supplier of iron ore in the US. Things were booming in the Upper Peninsula. Iron ore in this part of the UP was being shipped by rail primarily to ports in Marquette and Escanaba where it could be loaded on ships and transported to destinations on the Great Lakes. Some investors came up with an idea to create another port and rail connection to compete with the existing railroads. They wanted to ship by rail to Huron Bay in Lake Superior. This is an unusual story about a railroad that was built but never used.

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    A general overview of the area to be traversed by the new railroad. It was tough country and largely wilderness.

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    Elevation and water issues would be difficult to overcome.

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    I created a GPS guided day ride that explores some of the places involved in the rise and fall of this railroad. This ride report is the companion that gives some of the background information.

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    We'll get way out in the boonies exploring some interesting places and features like this 60' deep rail cut.

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    An old rail on ties in one of the cuts.

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    Apart from the history, there are a number of stops to make to take in some of the natural beauty of the area.

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    The route follows the original path of the railroad where feasible.

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    It was a beautiful fall day in the UP so colors were bright.

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    There is a lot of scenery to enjoy in the area.

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    I rode this on my KTM 500. I chose that motorcycle so I could enjoy some of the very sporty winding and rolling paths that I included on the route. It could be ridden on a big bike as well. A mid-sized dual sport would be a good choice. I'll warn about one small hazard area later in the report.

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    I rode this path alone, but it would be better to ride it with others for safety reasons. A few of these locations are very remote and without cell service.

    I'll post a GPX file to this report so that others can enjoy this ride.

    And now, on with the story . . .
    #1
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  2. Cannonshot

    Cannonshot Having a Nice Time Administrator Super Moderator

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    The 100 mile railroad ride loop takes 5-6 hours if you stop to look at things along the way. I am including an optional additional 40 mile segment that takes in Pequaming and Point Abbaye. Adding that loop would make for an all day ride.

    Here is the optional Pequaming and Point Abbaye loop.

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    A little information about Pequaming.

    In 1877 some guys set up a mill here because of a deep harbor and easy access to timber.

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    About two hundred men worked at Pequaming with an additional 300 working in the surrounding forests.

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    It was regarded as a lumberman's paradise. The company owned the land and the buildings but rent was free and wood could be purchased from the mill at very low cost. They had bath houses, a bowling alley, over 100 houses, ice rink, an orchestra, company store, and some other nice amenities.

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    The got the telephone here in 1879 and the Weston electric light in 1881.

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    These guys kicked out a lot of lumber. When the white pine was nearly gone, they switched to other species and made shingles, laths, and other wood products. For a while they loaded wood onto boxcars that they floated over to Baraga to connect with the railroad.

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    A fire burned the original mill in 1887. It was rebuilt in 60 days.

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    In 1922 Ford came into the picture. Ford wanted to buy the surrounding timber. Without the timber, the mill wasn't worth much. In the end, Ford bought the whole shebang: land, mills, timber, rail stuff, ship and harbor stuff, the town, and all things related.

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    Ford pretty much rebuilt the place. He even replaced an engine with a big jobbie like they used in WWI Liberty Ships. He also raised wages from $3.50 for a long day to $5.00 for an 8 hour day.

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    By 1925 Ford had connected to the Ford railroad in L'Anse. This allowed Ford to specialize with the lumber he got. Most of it was used for crating and the like. The good stuff went to his plant in Kingsford MI where it was used for auto parts like floor boards, truck boxes, trim and the like.

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    The depression hit and since there was little demand for cars the plant was idled. Ford stepped up and created other work for his employees like a cooperative farm nearby. He also adjusted food prices in the company store to make things more affordable and even donated clothing and blankets to his people. Ford used the town as a model for his theories on self-reliance. He turned his summer home into a vocational school.

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    In 1937 he built a high school with state of the art home economics food and clothing labs. He also equipped the school with the first fluorescent lights used by a school in Michigan.

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    During WWII Ford's ships were used for other purposes. He had been weaning away to ship by truck to the railroad at L'Anse.

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    A shortage of truck tires and other shipping expenses caused Ford to close the place in 1942.

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    The old power house for the mill.

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    Ford bungalow that was used for a vocational school.

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    You can rent the place for reunions and such. It sleeps 30.

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    #2
  3. Cannonshot

    Cannonshot Having a Nice Time Administrator Super Moderator

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    Port Abbaye is worth the trip just to ride out there. When the road ends you can hike into a natural area for some great views.

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    Hiking trail takes you out further.

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    #3
  4. N-Id-Jim

    N-Id-Jim Long timer

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    Awesome.... Up North stuff.
    #4
    Cannonshot likes this.
  5. Cannonshot

    Cannonshot Having a Nice Time Administrator Super Moderator

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    The path starts in L'Anse where there is food, gas, and lodging. Camping is nearby in Baraga.

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    L'Anse had a big ore dock. It burned in a fire.

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    L'Anse before the fire.

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    Fire department.

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    L'Anse after the fire.

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    Ford had a big mill there.

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    Over time, I think things went off the rails there.

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    The Ford plant is gone but a ceiling tile plant is in its place. Imagine my surprise to see them grinding up railroad ties for materials.

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    When this church was built, they used slate from a nearby quarry for the roof. We'll visit the quarry.

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    #5
  6. c1skout

    c1skout Long timer

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    Wow. I'll have to come back an read this better...... Good job.
    #6
    Cannonshot likes this.
  7. DSquared

    DSquared Dilly Dilly! Supporter

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    :*sip*
    #7
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  8. Cannonshot

    Cannonshot Having a Nice Time Administrator Super Moderator

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    Now, let's get this railroad report back on track . . . :D

    Heading up to the ore dock on Huron Bay.

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    On the way you'll cross the Silver River. Today the crossing is a modern highway bridge. Years ago, it was like this.

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    The dock was near where the Slate River runs into Huron Bay. The Slate River has a few walk-in waterfalls to view on the steep slope to the bay.

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    The old bridge.

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    The current bridge.

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    The bay is narrow but it's deep.

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    Workers cleared a 200 acre town site here. I tried to get close to the shoreline but things were locked up pretty tight with bay side properties.

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    Here is a shot of the ore dock they constructed for this end of the railroad. It has 112 ore pockets - 56 on a side. It had about 2 million feet of lumber and 3,000 pilings driven into the lake bed to support it. It was about 1,000' long. It cost $170K to build it at the time. They set up a mill here that employed 50 people to process all the lumber required for the build. Two pile drivers were brought in. One had a 7,300 pound hammer. In 1891 an uninvited floating saloon showed up just offshore. Management wasn't too happy about that.

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    Prior to completing the ore dock, a cargo dock was put in. Lots of supplies had to come in on both ends of the project to support what grew to 1,500 workers at one point.

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    This is a photo someone shared on the web that shows some of the remaining pilings. When the railroad went bust, the dock was sold to someone that took the lumber to Detroit.

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    Because of the drop in elevation and steep grade going down to the bay, a long trestle had to be constructed to get out to the ore dock. Trains were intended to come down the grade with ore, pull into a turn-around, and then back onto the dock with their loads.

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    You can still see the outline of some of the path of the turn around on this aerial image. Some think there were a couple of shops (machine/blacksmith) there as well. When the railroad bought two engines, they were stored there. There was also a stable since during construction flatcars were being towed by horses.

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    I wanted to explore the path of the turn-around but it was on private property so I passed on it. It seemed pretty grown in so there wouldn't have been much of a view anyway. It is tough enough just getting a look at the bay because of the trees.

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    A view looking down grade from where turnaround cut off higher on the grade. Pretty steep going down to the bay.

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    Looking upgrade from the turn-around. Still crazy steep for an ore railroad grade. Grades on this line were sometimes 8%. The steepest grade on the line that went to Marquette was 2%.

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    #8
  9. Cannonshot

    Cannonshot Having a Nice Time Administrator Super Moderator

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    Let's start heading uphill to the slate quarries.

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    It is a long run with some 8% or greater grades. The elevation at the quarries is 1150'. Huron Bay is 601'. There used to be a 3' tram that ran from the quarries to Huron Bay where slate was shipped. One of the investors in the railroad was also an investor in the quarries. It may be that the railroad built right on the tramway.

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    There are some crossings of old Ford logging railroads.

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    These old rail paths are great. I ran part of the UPAT on this one.

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    Since logging railroads were temporary (until the timber ran out) they were often just ties and rails laid on the forest floor with little other improvement.

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    Rails and ties are salvaged and reused. Even so, some ties were left in place. There is a spot on the paved portion at the far end of the route where ties were paved over and are now coming up through the asphalt.

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    There are a series of scenic falls on the Slate River in the vicinity of the quarry.

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    You can back country camp along the stream as well. One of the drive in "sites" is here.

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    Take some time to walk up and down the stream. As long as you are out in the boonies, enjoy the unique scenery.

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    It is easy walking and only a short distance to cover.

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    Keep an eye out for some interesting wildlife viewing opportunities. I was riding just east of the Slate River on the UPAT some years ago when I ran up on a couple of wolves. One ducked into the brush next to me and the other stayed with the trail as if it was reluctant to give it up. With only a few exceptions, anytime I ran up on wolves over the years they took off almost immediately.

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    I ran into these two wolves in northern Wisconsin. I had to push them to get them to let me pass. Obviously they were used to motorized stuff in the woods.

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    Finally got past one of them and then the other stepped aside.

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    I guess the point is that you may happen upon some stimulating wildlife encounters in this area. :D
    #9
  10. Cannonshot

    Cannonshot Having a Nice Time Administrator Super Moderator

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    On to the slate quarries.

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    The path leads you to a trail that goes over some waste slate.

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    There are some sharp edges.

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    I've taken some riders through here on my CannonTreks.

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    Here is an old quarry filled with water. I could give you an detailed report on the operations of this quarry but it is easiest to explain that they had an outstanding product but between geological challenges and mismanagement they went under. Their slate was used as far away as the Capitol in Texas. They shipped a high quality product all over the country. Nail holes were put into the slate and it was then used as roofing material. There is a seemingly inexhaustible supply of slate in this area and there were a number of quarries in operation.

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    The place had a pretty substantial town here as well (Arvon Station). That ghost town is gone. Not much left but some foundations in the overgrown forest. I think the railroad ran some of their operations out of Arvon Station as well. These quarries ran in the 1870s. The railroad was going to transport slate for them as well.

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    #10
  11. Cannonshot

    Cannonshot Having a Nice Time Administrator Super Moderator

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    I mentioned there was a hazard spot I would warn about.

    On the loop that goes to the waste pile and the quarries there are a number of water holes on the path. Most of them are shallow and have solid rock bottoms and are no problem. The grey line is an approximation of the rail route here.

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    However, some of them are pretty deep, green, and smelly. Even running the edge in dry weather can be deep enough to cause concern. Also be careful trying to edge some of these as they can be slick.

    Some groups I have taken through here on some CannonTreks have had incidents here.

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    Back on track . . . moving on.

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    #11
  12. Tricepilot

    Tricepilot Bailando Con Las Estrellas Super Moderator Super Supporter

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    The motorcycle travel content you produce is seriously even above the professional level. Love every bit of it. :thumb
    #12
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  13. Cannonshot

    Cannonshot Having a Nice Time Administrator Super Moderator

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    Continuing on past Mount Arvon.

    The grey line shows the approximate run of the railroad track for this section. As you can see, we are not on the railroad as it is impassible in this area.

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    Instead we are on some fun rolling and twisting roads through this area.

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    We roll right past Mount Arvon - the highest point in Michigan (cough). It isn't too distinct because we have a little elevation on the path we are on.

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    At first they thought Mount Curwood was the highest. Then they got more technical capabilities. In 1982 the federal government resurveyed and found that Curwood was 1978.24 feet high and Arvon was 1979.238 high.

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    Actually, the waste rock pile at the Tilden Mine in Marquette County is now the highest point in Michigan. I took a tour of the Tilden Mine and must have walked close to a mile on grates through the taconite plant.

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    Anyway, I left the trip to the top of Mount Arvon off of this loop as I kind of lost interest in it after the Tilden Mine thing.

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    It is only a short side trip so head over there if you want to.

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    Frankly there isn't much to see up there.

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    No tower. No view. Just an "I've been there" sign. :D

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    I was riding in the back country here some years back scouting some routes to share. It was getting late in the evening so I thought I'd better get back to civilization.

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    Shortly down the road I met a girl and her dog. She was a little upset. She had been traveling and instead of sticking to the major highways, she followed a route recommended by her GPS that took her through this rugged area. Eventually she bottomed out her vehicle and did some damage (or ran out of gas - she wasn't sure) out here in the boonies. When I chanced upon her, she had already walked six miles. Being 16 miles out in the boonies, she would have been walking around out here in the dark. I loaded her and her dog up on my motorcycle and took them to a State Police post. She offered to buy me dinner while she waited for someone to come get her but I explained that I wouldn't expect anything for helping someone and I was glad that it worked out the way it did. I told her it wasn't a good idea to be carrying a dog in wolf country. Her dog quit walking so she had no choice. The Trooper asked me several times what I was doing "back there" seeming not to understand the attraction for an adventure motorcyclist.

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    These roads can be pretty sporty if you turn the throttle a little.

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    I broke both mirrors on a DRZ once cutting close to the vegetation to negotiate corners at speed while following someone on one of my Treks along here.

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    I was glad I rode the KTM 500 for this one.

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    #13
  14. Cannonshot

    Cannonshot Having a Nice Time Administrator Super Moderator

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    The big cut. The highest elevation on the line had to be cut down a bit to allow trains to make it over the top. Project engineers decided to make a 60' deep cut in hard rock.

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    This was the location of Ruana Camp - one of the construction camps on the line. Not much here today.

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    Fall colors are nice in the UP . . . until you get into the pine forests.

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    Rocks and moss are pretty common.

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    Heading back to find the 60' cut. This gets some ATV traffic on weekends. Otherwise you will be on your own.

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    The next two shots are from a shallow cut above the 60 footer. Water is running in this cut that carries material down slope into the 60 footer.

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    As I mentioned, things get pretty remote. I brought along a satellite tracker.

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    These logging paths can get steep and rocky.

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    Anyway, back to the big cut. Mining engineers, plentiful in the area, would have probably opted for a tunnel instead. It would have been easier and cheaper. That and the snow won't be out of the cut until late May each year. This begs the question about how to remove snow from a narrow deep cut.

    A hundred men worked on this 1,000' cut. There were huge cost overruns and in the end it took three years to complete. In fact, rails had been laid elsewhere on the line and this unfinished cut prevented making the required connection. I think they planned for $265K cost for the cut (the ore dock cost $170K) but it ended up costing closer to $500K. By the way, UP winters are tough.

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    This is the way into the cut. The path is close to a logging road but not too obvious.

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    Start walking up grade to find the good stuff.

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    After the railroad was sold, scrappers salvaged all they could. Apparently these rails were buried in sediment that washed into the cut as they remained in place.

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    I think the first year they started work on this thing they completed 14 miles of graded roadbed and laid 4 files of rails. They started with 500 men at $1.75 per day. They realized this wasn't even close to what was required so they hired more running up the tally to at least 1,500 workers.

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    With enough men, they finished the grading the next year but not the cut.

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    The contractor underbid the project because he believed that the project would eventually be funded no matter what the costs. This caused a big problem once the initial investments ran out.

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    I think the investors had it in mind to sell the completed railroad within three years of its completion.

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    At one point, unpaid workers were left penniless in the local area. Local merchants weren't getting paid. The railroad said they had to present their claims in-person in Detroit in an effort to hold them off. The local welfare system was taxed beyond capacity because of the desperate situation for many penniless former workers. One paper said the laid-off workers were "weary, starving and sick, and in some cases dying, shelterless, with only the dishonored time checks of the company in their pockets".

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    Eventually the project was able to raise more money to keep it going. 40,000 cubic yards or rock had to be removed from this cut. Tons of blasting powder were used along with steam drills and manual labor.

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    There was a camp here that had a blacksmith shop and a few log buildings. Some workers lived in huts that were half underground.

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    This crest was at 1960' in altitude. Huron Bay is 601'.

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    #14
  15. Cannonshot

    Cannonshot Having a Nice Time Administrator Super Moderator

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    The big cut, continued.

    With the primitive conditions it wasn't long before typhoid set in. It turned into a medieval scene. Medical care in those days was something along the line of basic hospitals that the mines operated for their own employees. Soon the mine hospital at Champion was full as was the house next door. Some sick railroaders were sent to another hospital at Ishpeming. Many workers died. A wagon would haul the dead away from the hospitals at night.

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    Looking back out the cut at the way I came in. The large amount of rock taken from the cut was used to build a high grade that helped negotiate a nearby swamp and trestle arrangement.

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    No climbing these walls.

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    It is difficult to see very far to pick up some of the remnants of the railroad since the forest has grown back in.

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    I couldn't really see much that would relate to the on site work camp either.

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    #15
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  16. Cannonshot

    Cannonshot Having a Nice Time Administrator Super Moderator

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    #16
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  17. Hakatan

    Hakatan quality > quantity

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    Perusing my Colorado Benchmark...
    Wow, another incredible @Cannonshot report, combining wonderful photos, well researched history and useful ride suggestions. You contribute immeasurably to the body of knowledge found on ADV.
    I was actually in that part of the UP just a couple of weeks ago, mountain biking in Copper Harbor. I fell in love with the area and can’t wait to return with my motorcycle and follow some of your (big bike) GPX tracks. Thanks!
    #17
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  18. budsboy

    budsboy I crashed the swing too. Supporter

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    I've spent a fair amount of time up there.
    It's funny - when I see those pictures - I can smell it.
    #18
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  19. 9Realms

    9Realms Drawn in by the complex plot

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    Great stories well told and depicted!
    #19
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  20. sprink

    sprink Adventurer

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    Sooo much history in such a seemingly empty area. Thank you very much for sharing!
    #20
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