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

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

MARQUETTE – Last week’s article discussed Ed Longyear’s work for the DSS&A as a surveyor. From November 1886 to March 1887, he had worked on a survey team mapping a course from Nestoria, Michigan (located west of Michigamme) to Iron River, Wisconsin. After a brief vacation in March, he returned to find camp sites improved, the scope of the work expanded, and the arrival of many immigrant workers.

There were now four camps, one located every 3 miles along the line. Ed described improved living conditions. It was a “new and much more elaborate camp, for a carpenter had put down a board floor in our tent, and put-up shelves and tables, etc. for us and fixed us in a good deal more comfortable shape than we were in before.” In addition to better-quality tents, log buildings were constructed for the dining hall, a bunk house, and in 2 camps office space. There was also a barn for the horses & mules.

April and May were busy. On April 2, one hundred and sixty Italians arrived. Ed observed, “…most of them directly from Italy, and a noisy lot they are. They will board themselves…They live mostly on rye bread and pork.” The next day, Easter Sunday, Ed wrote “…we had the worst storm of the season – a regular blizzard. We have nearly 2 feet of snow now, but it is going fast.” Additional snow and cold continued throughout April and Ed didn’t think summer would ever arrive.

In May, Ed’s camp was becoming a small village. There was a bakery, a blacksmith’s shop, and the cook’s family joined the community. Additional workers were brought in increasing the population. May 2 the community experienced weather that Ed referred to as a cyclone, which lasted 15 minutes. He remarked, “Large pines four feet through were torn out by the roots and broken up into kindling wood.” Fortunately, the camp did not suffer any damage, just frayed nerves.

The railroad, like the mines, had an extensive immigrant work force. Ed noted Italians, Irish, Finnish, Polish, Greek, Swedish, and French worked on the site at some point and labor troubles occurred. The day after the ‘cyclone’, the Italians went on strike for higher wages. Their concerns were met with resistance from management. “Wednesday they had five sheriffs here and marched the men out of the woods at the point of the bayonet. By the time they had got down to Nestoria all but ten were willing to go back to work.”

Thursday of the same week, an additional 250 Italian workers arrived. On Saturday their living quarters burned down while they were at work. Everything, except the clothes on their back, was destroyed. “Money, baggage and all, gone.” They came to Ed’s camp and slept in the barns. “The poor fellows seem to be about heartbroken, crying and don’t know what to do.” The camps were low on provisions, but Ed’s community shared what they could.

As June arrived there were days the temperatures rose to “90 plus degrees in the shade.” Ed had finally made it to summer, but whether he appreciated going from subzero to sweltering heat is unknown. He did note that with the extreme temperatures came wildfires. “Forest fires plagued us and kept 150 railroad construction workers fighting blazes.”

The early months of summer also brought a new deterrent to worker morale. Ed declared “…I was also getting acquainted with pests…mosquitoes, black flies, and no-see-ums, a small black fly that is worse than mosquitoes.” He catalogued the varieties of flies that made life ‘unendurable’. His list was extensive: “horse flies, sand flies, deer flies, black flies…and a half dozen others that have no names and almost everyone stings like a bee.” He was happy when this horrid experience was overshadowed by the sight and fragrance of budding wildflowers.

By late summer, Ed left his position to enroll at the Michigan Mining School (now Michigan Technological University) in Houghton. Following graduation, he managed survey and drilling teams in the western Upper Peninsula for his cousin John Longyear. He moved on to be a pioneer of the Mesabi Iron Range in Minnesota. Soon after he formed an international drilling company, which exists today as Boart Longyear. Later when speaking of his success, he credited his time as a surveyor for DSS&A as valuable groundwork for his achievements.

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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