TALKIN’ TRAINS

Four railroad companies remain active throughout the U.P.
By Bryon Ennis

The Wisconsin Center Ltd. (WC), a subsidiary of CN (Canadian National Railroad) is the railroad that comes closest to spanning the U.P. It travels from Sault Ste. Marie to Iron Mountain before heading into Wisconsin. (Joseph Zyble photo)

During the “Golden Era” of American railroads from the 1890s into the 1920s, some 19 independent railroads operated in the U.P. on 3,513 miles of track. One-quarter of all railroad miles in Michigan were in the U.P. But by 1920, cars and trucks began to cut into railroad’s monopoly on rapid transportation. The amount
of rail passenger traffic began to decline as early as 1930, and, except for a temporary increase during WWII, the heyday of passenger railroads was essentially past.
In addition to the loss of passenger revenue, the depletion of many U.P. copper mines and the concentration of iron mining at fewer locations caused many railroads to face bankruptcy, which led to multiple mergers between 1930 and 1970. This period became known as the “Era of Decline” to railroad historians.
Today there are only four independent railroads left in the U.P.: The Canadian National, the Escanaba & Lake Superior, the Lake Superior and Ishpeming, and the Mineral Range. The last three are considered “short line” railroads and the first is a “main line” or “trunk line.” Short lines usually have limited miles of track, comparatively few freight customers along their length, and they must interchange freight to a trunk line railroad if the cargo is to be moved over longer distances.
The U.P.’s trunk line is the Wisconsin Central Ltd.(WC), a subsidiary of the Canadian National Railroad, (CN). Several U.S. subsidiaries of Canadian National operate under the “CN” brand name and are collectively referred to as CN. Since 2001, rail fans may have noticed an interesting identification code on WC and CN locomotives. One may see an increasing number of locomotives bearing the CN colors and insignia as WC locomotives get repainted, but the actual indication of ownership is shown by smaller letters under the windows of the locomotive cabs. If there is a WC in this location, it is a Wisconsin Central owned locomotive, otherwise the locomotive is owned by CN.
CN comes closest to spanning the entire U.P.. From Sault Ste. Marie, the CN runs southwest to Trout Lake where it branches to Munising and Escanaba. From the Escanaba/Gladstone yards, the WC splits again with one branch heading north through Ishpeming, then terminating at L’Anse. The second branch heads west to Iron Mountain and slips over the border into Wisconsin, while yet another branch heads south to Menominee, then into Wisconsin.
Today’s CN in the U.P. is the outcome of many railroad bankruptcies, abandonments and mergers over the past 150 years. If we work backward from the current CN, we have the Soo Line, and the Duluth South Shore and Atlantic. Prior to the Soo Line and DSS&A, we find short-lived railroads with names such as the Detroit Mackinac and Marquette; the Marquette, Houghton and Ontonagon; and the Sault Ste. Marie and Marquette, which were originally built and pieced together to span the north shore of the U.P…

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