Surveying for the D.S.S. & A. – Part I

A railroad surveying crew poses for a photo. (Photo courtesy of Marquette Regional History Center)

“Well! Here we are out in the woods & camping with a reality that I never before experienced. I have just enjoyed it hugely so far.”

— Ed Longyear, November 1886

The Duluth, South Shore, and Atlantic Railway formed in the fall of 1886. Its initial focus was to link Sault Ste. Marie and Duluth. Survey teams were hired to chart a course from Nestoria, Michigan (located west of Michigamme) to Iron River, Wisconsin. Surveying in the untamed regions of the U.P. was a strenuous job. Edward Longyear, a college student from Lower Michigan and a cousin of John Munro Longyear, was assigned to a survey team near Nestoria and documented the life of DSS&A surveyors in 1886-87.

On November 13, Ed wrote his mother telling her of his decision to work for the railroad. He tried to calm her fears, “Munro says that he envies me, as there is nothing he likes so well as being in the woods summer and winter. I shall not have as easy a time as I have been having nor will I get as much pay at first, but it will be better for me.” He included he would be warm working in extreme temperatures – the key being to layer his winter clothing. He indicated, “Thus attired a man can be out with the thermometer 40 degree below zero.”

The survey team of 24 men found a camp set-up near the hamlet of Nestoria. Their job was to survey for the new route, placing stakes to mark where track would be placed. Once a route was staked, the team retraced it 3 or 4 times to verify its accuracy.

Ed wrote he was tired in the early days, “The first day we ran about 2 and a half miles, which means ten miles of tramping for most of us.” He added, “It will not be necessary for you to give me any more advice about taking plenty of exercise as I will not have much else.” By December he had grown stronger. “I carried about 60 pounds on my back and can walk 10 miles as I did yesterday during my work and not feel at all tired.”

Reminiscing about his living conditions, he wrote, “[W]e of the engineering party have very little to do with the work at camp as there are special men who look after wood, fires, etc. There was always a camp ready for us, which was moved ahead every 3-4 days. There were four tents for us, two sleeping, a cook, and a dining room. We six engineers had a sleeping tent of our own. The rest of the men slept in a larger tent.”

One letter spoke of meals served. “Pork and beans are on the table every meal. Usually ham or bacon. As good bread and biscuit as you can find anywhere. Coffee, which is as nice as I ever drank & tea. Usually some kind of fruit cake. We use condensed milk which comes in cans. A quarter of a teaspoon goes as far as a quarter of a cup of milk. There is a peculiar flavor to it at first, but it takes the place of milk very well.” He observed, “…[it] takes an immense amount of provisions to feed 24 men, 700 pounds of meat being used per month.”

At times he experienced loneliness. “We are now about 18 miles from civilization or America as the boys say here for it seems as though we were almost out of the world. Have seen two men outside of our parties in five weeks.” The men were given time off at Christmas and Ed mentioned being lonesome during the holiday. He spent his time reading and sleeping. He wrote his mother, attempting to be upbeat. “In about a week or more we shall probably turn our faces eastward and approach ‘America’ once more.”

In a News Year’s letter, he shared facts about some of the men in his team. “Wells, the transit man, also a married man, about 60 years of age, too old to see as much fun in these rough experiences as we ‘younger bloods’ do, who are all bachelors.” Another, “McClure, a level man, a peculiar character, 28 years old, six feet four inches tall, who looked out for No. 1 first and other people can take what is left…gets mad easily and gets over it just as quick, under whom I worked as [a] rodman and with whom I soon found the best way to get along is to stand up for my rights.” He ended with, “the rest of the men, French and Irish boys. The French lads are nice young fellows, but the Irish boys are pretty rough.”

By January 30, the team, having completed a survey, headed out on a new assignment in 36 degrees below-zero weather. In March this survey ended, and his team returned to camp in a blizzard. As he slept that night, Ed noted, “Our little tent was flopping about all night and it seemed as if it could not stand it but it was tied down very strong and stood it all right…though we were about suffocated by smoke which blew down our chimney and filled the tent.”

Transportation in the winter months was primarily by snowshoe. In early March there was three feet of snow and Ed, a new advocate for snowshoeing, commented, “It seems strange that they are not used more in the southern part of the state. One can walk over the snow anywhere with them.” In mid-March, he trekked on snowshoes to Nestoria to obtain transportation to Marquette, where he spent time with his cousin John M. Longyear’s family. Next week’s article will discuss the many changes Ed found when he returned to camp.

To learn more about how railroads connected Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the rest of the country, visit the Marquette Regional History Center’s special exhibit “Railroads of Marquette County: Yesterday and Today.” Learn where tracks ran, what they carried, and their destination. The exhibit looks at how working the railroad has changed over the decades and how it is part of this region today.


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