By Mikel B. Classen
What if I told you a story, a true one, but one that has been lost through time? It is a tale that has intrigue, extortion, plague, and death. What if I told you the legend of the One Time Train, the Iron Range and Huron Bay Railroad? I think I will.
Between the towns of Champion and Michigamme, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the Peshekee River flows into Lake Michigamme. It is an exceptionally beautiful river that cuts through Upper Peninsula mountains and deep forests. When seen it is easy to understand why the wealthy McCormick family chose the area as the location for their wilderness getaways and Michigan’s moose transplant project chose as the best possible area for success. Running north off from M-28, just past the bridge that crosses the Peshekee when traveling west, a small blacktop road meanders along the river. The road is called the Peshekee Grade and leads to the famed McCormick Tract, a large section of land once owned by Cyrus McCormick. Most people know that this road was built over the top of a former railroad grade, hence the name, but the story of that particular railroad is one of a kind and rarely told.
In late 1889 a project was proposed and adopted by owners of the Champion mines and several other interested private investors. At the mouth of the Slate River, which empties into the Huron Bay in northeast Baraga County, there was about to come into existence an immense ore dock. Its completion was only a matter of months. The dock contained two million feet of lumber and three thousand pilings. It was built to handle the shipping from a slate quarry which was in operation in a town called Arvon situated about four miles to the south. The Champion mine owners and investors decided that it would be immensely profitable for them to build their own railroad to the Huron Bay ore dock. At the time, all of their product was being handled by the Duluth South Shore and Atlantic Railroad which took it to Marquette and shipped it from there. Shipping their ore themselves would eliminate this cost plus open up the Huron Mountain range for further mineral and lumber development. They were optimistic towards obtaining all shipping business that would come out of the area. They were already certain of the Arvon quarry using the line along with a few lumbering operations that were currently under way.
Plans were drawn and money was invested in what they called the Iron Range and Huron Bay Railroad. It was decided that the railroad should be laid alongside the Peshekee River and then as it splits into tributaries, the railbed would move away and follow the Slate River to the Huron Bay.
Bids were called for from local contractors through the regional newspapers by a man named Milo Davis, the Chief Engineer and Superintendent of Construction. The main office for the railroad was set up in Arvon near the slate quarry. The bids were filed and they chose one by a contractor named Wallace Dingman, who, as it turned out, grossly underbid the project to secure the contract. He divided it up to several sub-contractors. Dingman also assured the company that the project would be complete in little over a year.
Construction began in 1890 and because of the rough terrain, the grade was a master engineering feat. Several low areas had to be filled in with rock for support. The trestles of heavy cedars and massive pine were erected on top of these. The longest of these contained over five hundred feet of rock fill and a mile of trestle.
Another major construction obstacle that had to be overcome was the huge rock outcroppings that are so abundant in the area. Several rock cuts had to be made through the high bluffs. The rock strata of the area is of the Canadian Shield which consists of the hardest granites there is. The largest of these cuts was located near Arvon and was necessary if the railroad was to follow the Slate River down to the bay. Literally tons of black powder, steam drills to place the charges and large crews of workmen were required to move the forty thousand cubic yards of rock that it took to make the cut. This created a divide that was at an altitude of 1960 feet. The work was so intensive that a camp was set up with several log buildings and partially underground huts that were constructed on the site. Even a blacksmith shop was required. This one cut alone cost $500,000.
This wasn’t all it cost. It took three years to complete and it cost many lives. Because of the mostly underground living quarters and a shortage of supplies, typhoid broke out. The results were horrible. The scene was medieval, like when one pictures the plague. Dr. Paul Van Riper of Champion, years later, remarked on it. “There was a great many died. How many, I have no way of knowing. The Champion Hospital was filled as well as the house next door. They were also hauled to Ishpeming by team. The wagon used to come up at night and haul away the dead nearly every night.” Milo Davis watched his crew sicken and die around him, yet he pressed on with the construction.
Dingman, when he underbid, expected the company to pick up the excess no matter what expenses incurred. Almost immediately he ran over-budget. The Iron Range and Huron Bay only paid him his bid amount. After so much the company refused to pay anymore. Consequently Dingman ran out of money and couldn’t pay the sub-contractors. Everybody owed everybody money.
Costs had soared. It was so expensive that at one point in 1891 work was stopped because there was no money to pay the workers. In Michigamme and Champion they lined the railroad platforms angrily calling for the paymaster. Some workers were paid in time checks which were in turn bought up in some communities at a 50% discount. Some paychecks had been outstanding for several months and merchants all along the line from L’anse, Michigamme, Champion and Marquette who had accepted the checks or extended credit to workers were suddenly finding themselves in near financial ruin. Daily workers lined the railroad platforms waiting for the pay that was to come on the train from Detroit. Wallace Dingman, was forced to mortgage his property for $10,000 to cover pay for his workers.
At one point Milo Davis was called into court to answer for expenses of food, blankets and supplies to keep men working and alive during the typhoid attack. The courts made him out to be frivolous and not having the authority to keep the crews supplied. He was raked over the coals thoroughly by the lawyers.
Finally the investors were able to get more backing through loans and the money came once again. Work resumed and the line was completed in 1893, without Dingman. A small settlement was even erected at the site of the ore dock in anticipation of the business boom that was to come. All in all approximately two million dollars was spent in constructing 45 miles of track and purchasing two locomotives and 21 flatcars.
A former hotel proprietor from L’anse named Sam Beck worked as a railroad watchman told newspaper reporters about the first trip on the new railroad. “The engines were unloaded from the boats at Huron Bay. As the last eleven miles of the road was downgrade, it was decided to make a test run.” The engine was fired and Beck climbed into the cab with the engineer. “We had proceeded up the grade when the roadbed gave away and we went into the ditch.” The engine lay in the Peshekee.
It was the one and only time a train traveled the railway. The loans that the Iron Range and Huron Bay Railroad had laden themselves with were immediately called in. Unable to pay, the bankrupt investors sold all they had. The locomotive was pulled from the Peshekee River where it lay and sold along with the other unused one along with the flatcars to the Algoma Central Railroad. The rails were pulled up and sold to the Detroit Urban Railroad. The whole project turned out to be disaster for all concerned. $2,000,000 worth of railroad was sold for $110,000.
Milo Davis, went to Detroit where lawsuits began catching up to him. He lost most of the money he’d made from those suits. Probably thinking that he would become the corporate scapegoat in upcoming suits in the Upper Peninsula, he went to Mexico. Having seen so many men die and then lawsuits flying everywhere while never having any luck in previous court experiences, a change of scenery was what he chose and was never heard from again. The U.P. newspapers vilified him as an embezzler and a cheat, a fugitive from justice.
The slate quarries in Arvon ceased soon after. The little settlement at the ore dock continued for a short time but was burned down by an Indian woman who was angry at a storekeeper. The remains of the ore dock was then dismantled in February of 1901.
In the end nothing remained of the Iron Range and Huron Bay Railroad except an empty roadbed and some shattered dreams. It was a one-time train that never carried a single pound of cargo.