Copper Country Railroad History

Copper Country Railroad History

The Need for Railroads in the Copper Country

Quincy Mine located in Hancock

Before 1840, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was a vast wilderness of large timber areas, swamps, deep ravines, mountainous terrain, rivers, lakes, and Lake Superior.  After signing the 1842 Treaty of LaPointe, the Upper Peninsula's mineral lands were now open for exploration and mining.  The Keweenaw Peninsula, containing the Keweenawan rock sequences, stretching from Keweenaw Point in the middle Lake Superior, all the way through Ontonagon County, had vast amounts of reported copper. According to Clarke (1973), in 1843, the U.S. Government set up the Lake Superior Mineral Lands Agency with offices in Copper Harbor and Ontonagon.  In Washington, D.C., the Secretary of War simultaneously issued leases to various investment groups to start mining throughout Keweenaw and Ontonagon counties' copper district.  

The excitement was immediate.  Prospectors started arriving as early as 1843, and various mines were organized and incorporated by 1845.  By 1846, mines were beginning to produce copper ore.  The miners, however, faced overwhelming obstacles.  The terrain was hostile, the environment was seasonal, and when favorable, the mosquitoes and other flies were constant harassment.  But worse, the mines were isolated, without transportation, without housing, and without adequate food supplies.  

Moving goods from point A to point B initially required strong backs and strong dispositions.  But even these were not adequate to get the job done.  A solution had to consider transportation, for it was a challenging problem.   While boats could bring in supplies from far off ports, there were no inland roads.  Everywhere, miners and mining companies spent great energy building roads through forests and swamps.  For instance, "the Copper Falls Mining Company in 1852 built 4 ½ miles of wagon-road to Eagle Harbor which they had to grade." (Clarke, 1974, p 16).  

The first railroads develop in Keweenaw County

Mine Ruin with a view of the Dredge out the Window

As various mines in the Keweenaw developed, the problem of transportation became more and more serious.  Finally, Clarence Monette (1997) wrote that in 1882, the "first railroad, organized by the Mendota Mining Company of Lake Superior" was built.  It was later known as the Lac La Belle and Calumet Railroad.  He stated, "The Mendota Mine was connected with the Delaware and Clark Mining Companies." He described their need to get their rock to the newly erected stamp mill in Lac La Belle. Monette (1997) wrote,

Thus the Lac La Belle and Calumet Railroad ran between the Mendota, Clark, and Delaware Mines and the Lake La Belle smelter and docks between 1883 and 1888.  At this time, the railroad and equipment were worth $146,000. (p11)

By 1905, the name of the Lac La Belle and Calumet Railroad was changed to the Keweenaw Central Railroad Company.  When the Keweenaw Central Railroad Company took over, they had to rebuild most of the railroad.  Their goal was to link up to the Mineral Range Railroad and the Copper Range Railroad in Calumet. (Monette 1997, p15.)

Railroad development in Houghton County

Railroad tracks going into the stamp mills in Tamarack

After developing the railroads in the Keweenaw, the communities of Houghton, Hancock, Lake Linden, Dollar Bay, and Tamarack City faced similar problems.  Many dreams and planned attempts to build a railroad, but it wasn't until 1873 that the Mineral Range and L'Anse Bay Railroad Company constructed a line between Hancock and Calumet. "By late October 1873, Mineral Range had contracted to carry the copper produced by the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company, upward of 1,000 tons per month, from the mine to the smelting works at Hancock during the winter months." (Monette, 1993, p 26)

The Marquette, Houghton, and Ontonagon Railroad was charter in 1872 and by 1871 had already constructed the railroad to L'Anse, intending to bring their line into Houghton.  They realized their goal to reach Houghton in 1883 (Monette, 1993, p10). In 1887, the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railroad Company (DSS&A) leased the Marquette, Houghton, and Ontonagon Railroad.  And shortly after, in 1888, the Canadian Pacific Railway took control of the DSS&A, thus interconnecting many different railroads. Wiki Dulu..etc

Copper Range Railroad interconnects Keweenaw, Houghton, and Ontonagon Counties

Miners at Qunicy Mine, Hancock, MI

The south mineral range to the south and west of Houghton remained undeveloped. As copper deposits in the south range were identified, investors, in the late 1880s, began to consider a new railroad system that would leave from Houghton, travel through the south range, and to the Ontonagon mines.  The Copper Range Company realized this dream.  By 1898  the Copper Range Railroad Company began construction in May 0f 1899 and completed their work by December 1899. Their railway linked Houghton with Greenland in Ontonagon County.  Copper Range further developed branch railroads to Painesdale, Baltic, Trimouintain, then into Stanton township, and Greenland by 1901.  Eventually, they created a branch from Painesdale to Freda.  (Copper Range Company, (Undated), p 880)

As Copper Range Railroad built its railroad, the mines of Baltic, Trimountain, and Painesdale opened up.  The small communities of South Range, Baltic, Trimountain, and Painesdale quickly sprung up alongside the new mines.

Eventually, Copper Range Railroad extended its service to Calumet and leased the Mohawk and Traverse Bay Railroad in 1917 from the Mohawk Mining Company.  They also linked up with a portion of the Keweenaw Central Railroad line in 1917.  (Copper Range Company, (Undated), p 881). 

Biography and References

Clarke, D. (1973). Copper Mines of Keweenaw No.1 The United States Mineral Agency. Unknown Publisher.

Clarke, D. (1974). Copper Mines of Keweenaw No.6 Copper Falls Mining Company. Unknown Publisher.

Copper Range Company (n.d.). Copper Range Railroad Company Records 1873-1980. Retrieved 2020, May 26 from pgs 880-881 of Copper Range Company Records MS-080 found at

Monette, Clarence. (1997). Keweenaw Central Railroad and the Crestview Resort. Greenlee Printing Company

Monette, Clarence. (1989). The Copper Range Railroad. Greenlee Printing Company

Monette, Clarence. (1993). The Mineral Range Railroad. Greenlee Printing Company

Wikipedia. "Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railway.",_South_Shore_and_Atlantic_Railway. Accessed 5 November 2020.