Flashback Friday: All Aboard

Green railroad map with red routes on it
Route map of the Keweenaw Central Railroad, 1911. The dotted lines were never built.

At the height of the Copper Country’s success, railroads were omnipresent. Children in Hancock crossed the tracks to get to classes in the morning, while their counterparts at Painesdale High had a school train rather than a bus. Locomotives chugged through downtown Houghton, passing houses, warehouses, and roundhouses. Trains collected industrial products to carry from mine to mill to smelter; they deposited passengers at depots built next to churches and breweries. They pulled through forests, along lakes, and over hills, whistles shrieking over the sounds of mines working at full power and steam rolling high over the branches of pine trees. Onlookers saw a variety of names as the cars and engines passed by: Copper Range Railroad, Mineral Range Railroad, Quincy and Torch Lake Railroad, and many others.

One of these rail lines enjoyed a fascinating two-part existence, if only in name. The Keweenaw Central in its first incarnation was both an industrial enterprise and a leisure line; the second railroad by that name, established half a century later and positioned further south, was intended purely for tourists and pleasure-seekers. Both desired to play up the scenic beauty of the Copper Country and contribute economically, and both experienced only momentary success before fading away.

The first Keweenaw Central began its life in 1906 under the guidance of the Keweenaw Copper Company. Leaders of the parent corporation sought to revitalize abandoned or flagging mines in the northernmost reaches of the peninsula, an area that had been overshadowed by the prosperity of Calumet & Hecla, Quincy, and Copper Range to the south. To that end, the company acquired a number of properties, among them Aetna, Mandan, Medora, Phoenix, and Washington. The Delaware Mine had constructed a stamp mill at Lac La Belle and, in the 1880s, built a narrow-gauge railroad to carry copper-bearing rock from the mines down to be milled. The Keweenaw Copper Company acquired the idled line and quickly worked to expand it to standard gauge. The width of the track was the most modest growth of the railroad, however.

People standing in front of wooden building
Passengers waiting at the Mandan depot, undated.

Naturally, the primary purpose of a mining company railway was to ferry products, and the Keweenaw Copper Company’s line would bring its copper to the mill and to the market. Like its neighbors elsewhere in the Copper Country, however, the executives of the corporation saw another opportunity. Keweenaw County had no passenger railroad, and overland travel for people in the county remained challenging. The industrial Copper Range Railroad in Houghton County, by offering passenger service to the range towns and outlying settlements, had infused life into many of them. Why could not the Keweenaw Copper Company do the same with its own line? The Keweenaw Central Railroad was born from that vision.

Employees of J.J. Byers, contractor, worked frenetically through the summer of 1906, first to complete the original track widening and then to prepare new railbeds. From Delaware, the laborers hewed north to Mandan and south toward Mohawk. They carved out a path on the outskirts of the once-vibrant Central Mine (making possible the town’s annual reunion), through Phoenix at the base of the spectacular cliffs, and past swamps and forests toward Mohawk. A subsequent elongation would carry the Keweenaw Central all the way to Calumet.

Strange train plowing through snow
The Copper Country’s unparalleled beauty also presented unique needs, like a locomotive specially designed to plow the snow.

The line enjoyed breathtaking scenery, a fact that advertisements used to the railroad’s full advantage, attempting to attract pleasure seekers and tourists. “Beautiful Keweenaw!” exclaimed an early brochure. “For many miles its unbroken forests with narrow trails, lakes and streams mark this spot as one of the ideal places where old dame Nature has been allowed to revel in all her primeval glories… the cool and exhilarating climate, and its remoteness from the cares and distractions of the busy and bustling outside world, [make] it a paradise for the weary and the lover of out of door life.” From the hamlet of Ojibway to Phoenix, having left the noise and success of Calumet behind, “the track is bordered on one side by the ‘Cliffs,’ one of the greatest natural wonders of the Northwest. Towering almost beyond the line of vision, the vari-colored rock peers forth here and there from its covering of verdant green… the scenery along the Keweenaw Central Railroad, unlike the usual rail trips, continually changes, and has a most pleasing effect upon the eye.”

Like the Houghton County Traction Company and its Electric Park, the Keweenaw Central capitalized on these scenic surroundings and built a recreation resort. Crestview, situated along a branch from the main line, was “provided with the necessary attractions for an ideal outing. The casino is the handsomest, the most complete and convenient structure of its kind in the copper country.” A dance hall, complete with all the modern conveniences, a magnificent view of Lake Superior, extensive walking paths, swings, a bathing beach, and a house orchestra “to assist the worshipers at the shrine of Terpsichore” called to prospective Crestview guests from its opening in 1909.

People disembarking from train
Crestview guests disembarking from a Keweenaw Central train, undated.

Forces greater than the appeal of Crestview, however, and the allure of nature prevailed in the story of the Keweenaw Central. Despite all the optimism invested in its purchases, the Keweenaw Copper Company’s mines underwhelmed again; production was lackluster. There would be no lasting revitalization of the abandoned properties. By 1919, with copper prices plummeting from heights they had attained during World War I, company officials realized the hopelessness of their situation. Consistent service from Calumet up to Crestview, north to Mandan, and downhill toward Lac La Belle ceased soon after. Although the company held tenaciously on to some of its equipment for another decade, the Keweenaw Central’s life was over.

Its first life was over, that is. The Keweenaw Central name made a reappearance in the Copper Country in a different place and time, providing a scenic thrill and a brush with history. This second incarnation will be covered in a future Flashback Friday, bringing the story of the Keweenaw Central full circle.


2 Comments on "Flashback Friday: All Aboard"

  • Dan Brinks
    February 20, 2021 at 10:42 am

    Thanks for this great write-up! Especially for mention of the Crestview, I’ve never heard of it before. I was able to dig up a few scraps of information and photos online, really fascinating, I wonder where exactly it used to be. Looks like it was quite the building.

  • Bailey from Baileys Bargain Barn
    February 21, 2021 at 7:42 pm

    Crestview huh, never heard of it! Dan Brinks was right, a fascinating peek back. I will say this MTU Archives is a great source of information and a feather in the Universities hat. Thanks for writing