Historically speaking

Negaunee has proud railroad history

NEGAUNEE — The Upper Peninsula’s first railroad began in Negaunee in 1855. But the first train didn’t arrive behind a chugging, clattering locomotive. It was pulled by a team of mules.

Rich deposits of ore which had been discovered in Negaunee had attracted a lot of attention across the nation and several companies hurriedly formed to mine and market the ore. The big problem was how to transport tons of ore economically and quickly to the freighters waiting in the Marquette harbor.

Herman Ely, an enterprising promoter from Massachusetts, was the man of the hour. He proposed to the Cleveland and Jackson Iron Mining companies that a railroad should be built across the rugged terrain between Marquette and Negaunee to haul the rich ore. Both companies were interested.

The bumpy road that was in use made the hauling of ore long and tedious. And although there was a lot of interest in a rail system, funding was an object and Ely’s Green Bay & Lake Superior Railroad was only a project on paper for several years.

Getting impatient with the road conditions in summer and sleighs in the winter as the only means of transporting ore, the mining companies built their own road out of planks running from Negaunee to Marquette in 1852.

The person behind this idea was Tower Jackson, the first mining agent of the Cleveland iron Mining Company. The plank road was an improvement, but it soon became inadequate to handle the growing volume of ore.

Rough planks that were cut at Eagle Mills, had been laid side by side from Negaunee, over to Dead Man’s Curve on Marquette County Road 492, along the present north track of the Soo Line Railroad to the foot of Cole’s Hill in Marquette. A solution to the rapid ore movement seemed to be a strap railroad laid over the planks.

Work began and hopes were high and by Nov. 1, 1855, thin strips of iron were laid on wooden rails over the planks all the way from Negaunee to Marquette. It was called the Iron Mountain Railway.

I don’t know for sure but I think it may have derived its name, because at the discovery of ore, the Indians referred to the iron ore deposits on rock out-croppings as the “shiny mountain.” Just my thoughts.

Teams of mules pulled the cars which held about four tons of ore each. But mules came at a high price, about $1,500 a pair and hay was selling for $50 a ton, so this venture soon proved to be unprofitable as well as impractical.

In the meantime, Ely had actually begun building his railroad, the Green Bay & Lake Superior and the two routes merged. By 1857, the Green Bay & Lake Superior reached Negaunee and the mule teams were retired. The shrill whistle of the new steam engines replaced the braying of the balking mules.

The lure of rich iron ore and profitable freight and passenger traffic attracted more rail development. Before long, rails began pushing west from Negaunee and in 1865 the year that the Civil War ended the Bay de Noquet & Marquette Railroad began building its line toward Ontonagon.

Negaunee rapidly became the junction point. The Peninsula Railway was completed to the city of Escanaba and was the first line to cross the Upper Peninsula. Ore from the Negaunee mines traveled in a steady stream to docks built in Escanaba by the Chicago & North Western Railway.

Railway “fever’ was rapidly spreading throughout the nation after the Civil War and Negaunee caught the bug. The different railways used different gauge rails so this kept the cars of one line from being switched onto the racks of another. This situation came to an end in the mid 1880s when the railway systems merged.

With good rail service in all directions, another line, the Lake Superior & Ishpeming Railroad Company drove its first spike in its new route in 1895. The new line built a depot in Negaunee and through traffic began in 1896. Trains pulling millions of tons of ore have left Negaunee. Railroads have made a lot of progress from mule teams to diesel locomotives. But it wasn’t only the transporting of iron ore that benefited from the rail system.

The Union Station was located on Gold Street and pictures at the museum show throngs of people getting off the passenger trains. Although the Union Station was torn down, there still is a depot where the Union Station was. It is now vacant, but Marilyn Mutch operated an Art Gallery from that building.

A new passenger station, Chicago and North Western was built across the street in 1914 and although it does not serve as a passenger station any longer, it is privately owned and highly sought after for graduation parties, wedding receptions and overnight lodging.

The railroad that once carried passengers down that road still serves the public and is known as Rail Street.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today