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.
The CN currently owns 525 miles of track in the U.P., and it interchanges cars with our three short lines. For outbound cars, depending on where the freight is heading, the CN will carry it to its destination, or deliver it to another railroad. The CN has an extensive North American network allowing it to reach three coasts: the east, the west, and the gulf. Of course, many bulk products are also shipped into the U.P. by train. For example, propane from western Canada is brought into the U.P. by the CN. When a CN manager for business development was asked recently if there is sufficient freight traffic in the U.P. for an economically viable future here, he responded with a conditional, “Yes, but a little more would always be nice in some spots.”
Perhaps the U.P. short line railroad that works most interactively with the CN is the Escanaba and Lake Superior Railroad (E&LS). The E&LS tracks run mainly north and south from Green Bay, WI, to Sidnaw in the U.P. There are four locations where the E&LS and the CN interchange cars: Green Bay, Marinette, Pembine, all located in Wisconsin, and North Escanaba.
The E&LS is an old name in U.P. railroads, founded in 1898, by Isaac Stephenson, with seven miles of track heading northwest from Wells. Stephenson, a Wisconsin politician and lumberman, wanted to move pine out of his vast real estate holdings in the south central U.P. Shortly after building his logging railroad, Stevenson was approached by the Milwaukee Road about hosting MR trains carrying ore from mines in the Menominee Iron Range to Escanaba.
So, from 1900 to the mid 1930’s, the E&LS prospered by moving both forest products and iron ore. However, when larger railroads such as the Chicago and Northwestern, and the Milwaukee Road began to see their revenues dwindle during the depression, they terminated the E&LS’s freight contracts in favor of an ore traffic pooling arrangement. The E&LS petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to continue joint operations with the two larger railroads, but it was ultimately blocked by a Supreme Court decision in 1938.
The E&LS then turned to local sources of freight revenue with contracts from the Harnishfeger Crane Corporation, and the Escanaba Paper Company. These agreements served the E&LS well for three more decades, but by the early 1970’s, their freight business had fallen to just 449 full carloads.
In 1978, John Larkin, a businessman from Minneapolis purchased the E&LS. About this time, the Milwaukee Road, facing bankruptcy, petitioned Michigan for permission to abandon substantial portions of its tracks in the U.P. The State of Michigan, prompted by businesses along these routes, did not want to see them abandoned, so Michigan got behind the E&LS, and designated grants that would help fund long-overdue track maintenance. Several years later, Wisconsin kicked in two million dollars to refurbish E&LS tracks from Green Bay to the Michigan state line.
Since 1978 the E&LS has had to be both creative and frugal in generating the revenue necessary to maintain a viable railroad. According to E&LS vice president Mike Logan, the railroad’s revenue is now derived from three sources. The E&LS owns storage space on various sidings and spurs in Michigan and Wisconsin for up to 5,000 railroad cars. Since 1999, it has stored 35,000 rail cars for larger railroads. Some of the E&LS car storage is visible on the west side of Route 95 through Channing.
Another source of revenue for E&LS is a refurbishing shop in Escanaba and a paint shop in Wells. In 2017, the E&LS repaired 1700 railroad cars and repainted 500, including the full sand blast and repaint of a locomotive. A third source of revenue for the E&LS is hauling forest, agricultural and mining products along its own lines, and to WC interchanges.
The oldest of the short line railroads still operating in the U.P. is the Lake Superior and Ishpeming Railroad (LS&I), which dates back to 1896. The LS&I was built by Cleveland Cliffs, Incorporated, and it is still owned by CCI. Though mining iron ore was fairly simple in the early days, transporting it was always difficult and expensive.
From 1855, the Cleveland Mining Company had to contract with independent railroads to haul ore first to Marquette, then to Escanaba. It regularly feuded over rates and service with the rail companies serving the Marquette range. But after absorbing the Cliffs Iron Mining Company in 1890, and surviving the national panic of 1893, the newly formed Cleveland Cliffs Corporation finally generated the resources necessary to build its own railway.

A locomotive from the Lake Superior and Ishpeming Railroad Company crosses the Morgan Creek trestle in Marquette County. LS&I is the oldest of the short line railroads still operating in the U.P. It was begun in 1896 and is still owned by CCI. Editor’s note: In our print edition of the Marquette Monthly, we mistakenly identified this as the Dead River Gorge trestle, which is actually located about 2.5 miles north of the Morgan Creek trestle. (Photo courtesy of LS&I)

While the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railroad, CCI’s nemesis, headed from the mines straight east into Marquette, the LS&I route crossed over the DSS&A halfway between Negaunee and Marquette (at U.S. 41), and took a jog north that ended near Presque Isle in Marquette’s North Harbor. This route not only allowed the LS&I to avoid the rail and dock congestion of the city, it also reduced the 2.6 percent gradient the DSS&A encountered to 1.6 percent. This reduction proved to be an important advantage, because loaded LS&I ore trains were easier to control on the downhill run. In addition, more empty ore cars could be pulled up the lesser grade at one time.
One major obstacle along the new LS&I route was the Dead River Gorge, which dropped more than 100 feet below the surrounding topography. It was first spanned in 1896 by an entirely wooden trestle system, but with the advent of heavier and more powerful locomotives, the wooden structure was deemed unsafe and was replaced by an all-steel structure in 1916, which still serves the LS&I in 2019.
The LS&I has also been fortunate among U.P. railroads for over 120 years, to have a reliable source of revenue freight, iron ore and iron pellets. According to company officials the LS&I does not seek any additional sources of freight.
The third U.P. short line railroad created quite a stir when it began operations in 2013. It was the first new railroad for the U.P. in more than 50 years. Though the Mineral Range (MR) is an entirely new railroad company, it also carries the name of an historic U.P. railroad. According to an official of the new Mineral Range, the historic Mineral Range Railroad was born in 1873 in Houghton County on the Keweenaw Peninsula, and ran its first train between Calumet and Houghton to transport copper ore from the Osceola Mine near Calumet to a stamp mill in Hancock. The MR official said, “It was time to dust off a grand old railroad name and make it new once again in the Lake Superior country for a new railroad to serve a new mine.”
Like the old Mineral Range Railroad, the new MR is an independent short line railroad. But while the old MR carried raw ore to a processing mill, the new MR carries it from the mill after it has been partially processed. Today copper and nickel ore from the Eagle Mine is trucked to the Humbolt Mill for processing. Then it is loaded onto covered gondola cars of the new Mineral Range Railroad, where it takes a short ride of 14 miles to a drop-off point in Ishpeming. Here, the CN picks up the cars, and delivers them to customers throughout the U.S. and Canada for further refining and smelting.
A portion of the new MR right-of-way had been a segment of the Iron Ore Heritage Trail, which under “rail bank” agreements reverted back to railroad use when needed by the MR. But a grant from the Lundin Mining Company provided funds for that portion of the Iron Ore Heritage Trail to be rebuilt nearby.
Located at Mile Post 79 along the new Mineral Range RR, and largely forgotten today in the piney woods, is the site of the Barnes-Hecker Mine disaster, the worst in U.P. mining history. This historic site will be recognized again by all trains that pass with a new station signboard and whistle order.
Though there are many fewer miles of railroad right-of-way remaining in the U.P. than there once were, those railroads still remaining in operation have made important transformations that acknowledge the realities of moving rail freight in the twenty-first century.
Because of railroad’s comparatively benign effects on the environment, and the implementation of computerized freight tracking and GPS train monitoring, the future for rail transportation is more promising than it has been in fifty years. Rail fans can look forward with some assurance to seeing these thrilling behemoths and hearing their distant whistles across the U.P. for many years to come.

SIDEBAR: From chef to chief
By Bryon Ennis

Train 3 caption: Two decades ago Mike Logan was a short-order cook in a small town in northern Wisconsin. Today he has worked his was up to vice president of mechanical operations for the Escanaba and Lake Superior Railroad Company. (Bryon Ennis photo)

Two decades ago Mike Logan was a young man trying to earn a living in the small village of Crivitz, Wis. At the time he was putting together breakfast and lunch food orders for the townsfolk who frequented the Cedar Shack Restaurant. Among the clientele of this restaurant were employees of the Escanaba and Lake Superior Railroad.
Learning who these men were employed by, Logan often expressed to them his desire to leave the restaurant business and take up work with the E&LS. As fortune would have it, these men told Mike of an opening for a shop laborer at the E&LS shop in Escanaba.
Mike applied and got the job. Now, 20 years later, he is the vice president for all mechanical operations of the E&LS. This includes the entire operation of the Escanaba refurbishing shop which employs 75 workers, and daily operations of the railroad locomotives and rolling stock.
Due to this past winter’s severity, Logan was responsible for restoring 15 derailments, most quite minor, but some fairly serious.
In the 20 years that Logan has been with the E&LS, he has moved upward through the positions of shop laborer, assistant supervisor, shop foreman, production supervisor, shop manager, and vice president.
When asked what attributes he believed were responsible for this continuous rise in the corporation, he cited many of the personal practices that managers in diverse industries recommend for advancement: excellent attendance, conscientious effort, attention to detail, pride in one’s work and willingness to go beyond what is expected.
However, when one has the opportunity to observe the way Logan has resolved technical challenges, initiated efficiency procedures, simplified material handling and made intelligent personnel assignments, it becomes evident that he either possessed some intuitive knowledge from the start, or has learned on the job what was necessary to perform successfully at each higher level of management. Mike tends to credit the latter saying, “I have attended the college of experience.”

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