Railroad grades are pathways
“I went down to the station, just to take a ride. Found myself on a flatcar, yesterday behind.” — John Fogerty
Sometimes, when I’m crosstie walking along some long-forgotten railroad track that’s grown up in weeds and grass, I try to imagine what it might have been like back in the late days of the 19th century when these iron ore and timber-hauling rail lines were just being built.
In some ways, this growing region would have been bustling with people and industry, all bent on charting progress forward into the future. In other ways, however, much of this land and the rivers and creeks that drain it would have been far more unsettled.
The taming of rivers with dams for hydroelectric power and bridges and railroad trestles, some mighty indeed, had not yet spanned the native waterways of this peninsula.
Fish, fowl and game animals, like bears and deer, were in great supply. But unrestricted hunting and fishing would take a significant toll on these populations.
Passenger pigeons, whose flocks were said to have been so large they could block out the sun, were shot to extinction by hunters and target shooters. Michigan was the first and only state to pass a law against killing the birds, but it was done when it was too late to reverse their flight to oblivion.
Comparatively, I imagine those days to be too rough to romanticize, but it must have been something to see before all the big pine trees were cut down for miles and miles around – the days before the tremendous, consumptive wildfires followed, sweeping across the countryside.
Those times were before the Gilded Age, before the Titanic sunk, before the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. A walk in the woods then must have been different, with far fewer roads, trails and means to reach places we visit routinely today, like Tahquamenon Falls.
I think it’s remarkable that some of the relics from those by-gone days remain, like these old railroad tracks that bend rusted around a corner into the dense green of a white pine stand.
There are remnants of ghost towns, water-filled mine pits and shafts many people have never known as anything but lakes. There are place names that remain though their significance has been obscured by the years and changes.
For example, there are more than a dozen places in Michigan with names that include “pigeon” as part of them — for the passenger pigeon — including the heralded trout waters of the Pigeon River.
Beyond these obsolete curiosities from yesteryear that might still be found on a walk through the woods or down some forgotten two-track road or railway line, more stunning to me are the old features constructed way back when that are still in use.
In many cases, these historic structures have been reinforced or upgraded to meet the demands of today’s modern machines.
I recently set out with a friend on a journey to discover one of these old structures for myself. The trip started long before we ever left the driveway.
I had first seen an old railroad trestle, a stunning sight, in an old postcard painting I have. The artist’s perspective was from the ground beneath the bridge and a fair distance downstream.
So, when I look at the postcard, I am looking up more than 100 feet to the high tracks above, where a locomotive is crossing the bridge, pulling railcars, puffing smoke. The sky is painted blue with summertime cumulus clouds afloat.
The canyon beneath the trestle’s steel truss work exhibits a misting spray floating up from the rapids of river, before the stream widens into a shallow flow between numerous sharp and jagged rocks.
The riverbanks are adorned with broken rocks, low shrubs and trees.
I was immediately consumed by this image. I knew I had to acquire the postcard. Then, I wanted to one day see this place in person.
I did a fair amount of research on where exactly the trestle was and how I might get there. The superstructure of this mighty crossing is positioned over a steep canyon. There are no railings, an obviously dangerous location.
The first locomotive to test this trestle did so in August 1896, when a steam engine pulling 40 half-filled, wooden, 30-ton iron ore hoppers chugged across the span.
The impressive wooden railroad trestle would be replaced only 20 years later as increasing weights of engines and railcars made the crossing increasingly unsafe.
An uncharacteristic-designed, steel-arch span was built in 1916 at the location, the only bridge of its type in Michigan. The trestle is 565 feet long.
On the day we visited, it was nearly 90 degrees, not the best for hiking. We walked along old trails and roads through open areas, past raspberry brambles and along the edge of a hardwood forest.
When we reached the bridge, to see the view I found in the postcard, we had to make our way down the steep embankment to the river. Previous visitors had left a rope attached to some stumps and trees along a path that would help us climb back up out of the gorge.
We anticipated this would be a strenuous climb, based on how quickly and directly the path dropped down toward the river.
I sat on the edge of a massive boulder admiring the work nature had carved with water through this canyon. Compared to the painting in the postcard, the canyon walls have eroded significantly.
The river here tumbled over the rocks in rapids and a short waterfall within the shadow of the steel trestle arches.
Downstream, the river flow was much slower, with water pooled deeply against the far canyon wall. This was a place that I’d bet might be a good place to cast a fishing line, but I wasn’t here for fishing today.
I just wanted to see this grand location for myself and to leave with a few photographs. Around the base of the trestle arches, there are piles of iron ore pellets dropped from the hopper cars that pass overhead.
I had hoped I might capture an image like the one painted on my postcard, with a modern railroad engine crossing the trestle instead. The railroad didn’t present us with a crossing that day, but the experience was nonetheless fantastic.
My buddy and I are both what railroad engineers privately refer to as “foamers,” those who love trains and seek to photograph them or just watch them in action.
No doubt this “foamer” affliction is likely more prevalent in those of us who grew up playing with toy trains and lived in places where we could see, hear and feel trains run.
For me, this started in my earliest of remembrances. My mom said I would slide a wooden kitchen chair up to the window when I heard the train whistle so I could get up and watch the Soo Line roll into town.
Surprisingly, the walk back up the embankment was easier than expected, though the hot and humid day left me taking several short breaks in my walking.
Seeing this place for myself made me think and feel a variety of things. The canyon itself was awe-inspiring. I noticed its water-smoothed walls and the gigantic boulders moved by the high-water flows of springtime.
I felt fortunate to have been able to put something I had only previously experienced in a painted postcard in front of my eyes, in real life. I also felt inspired and alive being in this place.
Looking at the tremendous structure in front of me, I was proud of the men who built this and those who have the nerve to drive an engine over it, especially in the wintertime. The footings from the old wooden trestle are still visible today.
I guess my visit to this place made me feel young again. I was taken back to those childhood days when all the boys on our block would run down to the tracks to wave to the engineers and watch the train move slowly past.
Today, the trains, tracks and several of the old trestles are gone.
I’m still here, walking the crossties, following the rusted lines around the next bend, wondering what I’ll see. I hope to hear an old engine blow its whistle as it rolls its way out of the woods in front of me.
But I never do.
Editor’s note: Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.