The Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railway: A History of the Lake Superior District's Pioneer Iron Ore Hauler

The Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railway: A History of the Lake Superior District's Pioneer Iron Ore Hauler

by John Gaertner


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The Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railway: A History of the Lake Superior District's Pioneer Iron Ore Hauler by John Gaertner

The rise and fall of the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railway from 1887 to its merger with the Soo Line in 1961 is the subject of this thoroughly researched book. The DSS&A was organized in the hope that it would become a transcontinental link between the Canadian Pacific at the Sault and the Northern Pacific at Duluth, with the major route taking passengers from the Twin Ports of Duluth-Superior through Northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to St. Ignace. The line was forced to merge because of competition from more efficient lake vessels on Lake Superior, which could carry goods of lower value at much better rates than the DSS&A.

John Gaertner's account draws on a wide array of sources, such as the Soo Line records at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, the Michigan State Archives at Lansing, the Burton Historical Collection in Detroit, and local newspaper accounts. A compelling read for history buffs and railroad enthusiasts alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253351920
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 11/19/2008
Series: Railroads Past and Present Series
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 7.30(w) x 10.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

John Gaertner is a native of St. Paul, Minnesota. He is author of The North Bank Road, a history of the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Read an Excerpt

The Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railway

A History of the Lake Superior District's Pioneer Iron Ore Hauler

By John Gaertner

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2009 John Gaertner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35192-0



The state of Michigan, newly formed in 1837, gained its Upper Peninsula in the settlement of a boundary dispute with Ohio that had nearly resulted in the "Toledo War." The compromise generated sentiments similar to those inspired by "Seward's Folly" in later years. Many shared the views of the explorer Lahontan, who described the UP as the "fag end of creation." These sentiments could not have been more mistaken as the UP would develop into one of the richest mining regions in the country. The area's copper deposits, long used by native people, had been discovered by the Europeans as early as 1672 during the explorations of the Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette. The massive iron deposits went unnoticed until receiving scant mention in an 1841 report by Michigan state geologist Dr. Douglas Houghton, who even then questioned their potential value.

Such misconceptions were put to rest on September 19, 1844, when William A. Burt, United States Deputy Surveyor, and his crew were running lines near what became the city of Negaunee and noticed their compass behaving erratically due to magnetism. A little exploration led to the discovery of an outcrop that became the Jackson mine. The following year, Philo Everett, on his way to the UP to explore for copper, learned of the discoveries at Sault Ste. Marie, and was able to locate them through the help of Chippewa chief Marji Gesick. Everett returned to his home in Jackson, Michigan, and organized the Jackson Mining Company, which laid claims to the area.

Upon returning to the UP in 1846, Everett and his party started to work the 150-foot-high mound of rich iron ore known as Jackson Mountain. This was the pioneer activity in the great Lake Superior Iron District, which would go on to furnish the majority of the nation's iron ore needs for more than a century. A forge, to melt the iron into blooms, was built on the Carp River about 3 miles east of Jackson Mountain, and went into operation on February 10, 1848. Unfortunately for the Jackson company, the lack of adequate transportation remained a stumbling block.

Iron ore from the mine was hauled to the forge by teams and wagons, or sleighs in the winter. The same method of transport brought the forge's usual 3-ton daily production of blooms down the steep and winding road through mosquito-infested swamps to Iron Bay on Lake Superior, near present-day Marquette. After a boat took the blooms to Sault Ste. Marie, they were portaged around the St. Mary's rapids and placed on another boat for movement to eastern furnaces. The inefficient transportation resulted in the Jackson blooms going for $200 a ton at Pittsburgh, while local iron ore was only $80 a ton.

Another concern, the Cleveland Iron Mining Company, got its start in 1850 mining a nearby mound known as Cleveland Mountain, later Ishpeming. Although briefly operating a forge near what became downtown Marquette, the Cleveland company decided to await transportation improvements before making active shipments. William Burt noted in 1846 that no matter how rich were the resources of Upper Michigan, they were valueless unless the federal government provided incentives for building roads or railroads in the area. Burt thought the best route would be from some point on Lake Michigan, passing through the iron region and then up to the Copper Country of the Keweenaw Peninsula. Loading ore or ingots on Lake Michigan would do away with the bottleneck at the Sault, as there were no rapids through the Straits of Mackinac between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.

The first real action to improve the transportation picture saw the incorporation of the Iron Bay and Carp River Plank Road Company on March 20, 1850, by men largely associated with the Jackson mine. The charter proposed "to lay out, establish, and construct a plank road and all necessary buildings from Iron Bay, on the South Side of Lake Superior, in the county of Marquette, to or near the village of Carp River [site of the Jackson forge] in said county." Before the plank road had a chance to get off the ground, Heman B. Ely came on the scene with the promise of a railroad. Ely, from a Rochester milling family, dabbled in law, telegraph, and canals before becoming actively involved in the Cleveland, Painesville and Ashtabula Rail Road. After a visit to Marquette, Ely became engrossed with the idea of connecting the mines to the lake by rail.

After successfully negotiating exclusive 15-year hauling contracts with the Jackson and Cleveland companies, Ely filed articles of association for the Green Bay and Lake Superior Rail Road Company (GB&LS) on November 25, 1851. The road, using Burt's rationale of avoiding the bottleneck at the Sault, would run from the Iron Mountains to Marquette and then on to Lake Michigan, eventually terminating in Green Bay. The route selected would necessitate hauling the heavy iron ore down into Marquette and then up over the ridge separating Lake Superior and Lake Michigan.

At a meeting of the GB&LS board of directors a month later, arrangements were made to place surveyors in the field and to build between the Iron Mountains and Marquette before the next season of navigation. The most difficult segment would be the climb out of Iron Bay with its steep grades and numerous gullies. Construction, the first of any railroad in the UP, commenced upon completion of the survey work, and, by the fall of 1852, the line had been largely cleared and some grubbing and grading had taken place. The lack of capital then brought the process to a halt, with the financial community not yet sold on the isolated iron resources of Lake Superior.

The lack of progress alienated the mine owners, who were anxious to see a return on their investment. Tower Jackson, agent of the Cleveland Iron Mining Company, seemingly unaware of the tremendous tonnages underfoot, wrote his principals in Cleveland on December 5, 1852: "We want a plank road to the Cleveland Mountain. It would be better than a railroad, for if we had a plank road we could haul the year round and the farmers can haul you all the coal [charcoal] you want which you cannot transport on a railroad. A plank road would build you up a nice town and a railroad would not. One hundred teams, which would run daily on a plank road, would occupy a good many men and teams and the people would settle here and clear up farms, make coal and haul their products to market, and that would have the country prosperous; but a railroad will fill the pockets of a few Eastern men and that would be an end to your business. The only prospect of a railroad in my opinion is that it never will be built."

Ely did not soothe feelings by demanding, in the spring of 1853, that the Cleveland and Jackson companies give him $50,000 in cash before he would proceed with further construction. By this time the original Jackson company owners had tired of the project and sold their interest to the Sharon Iron Company of Pennsylvania. The Cleveland and Sharon companies refused to make any advances to Ely, and that summer they contracted with David Himrod, Jackson Iron Company agent, to proceed with the plank road scheme. As they intended for the plank road to use approximately the same route to Marquette as the GB&LS, Ely obtained an injunction to stop them from building on his right of way. This was followed by countersuits of the Cleveland and Jackson mining companies against Ely. Plank road construction proceeded in other locations, with every mile of road from Iron Bay to the Jackson mine under contract by February 1854. Half of the grading was completed by the end of spring, including the most difficult stretch out of Iron Bay.

In spite of the early sentiments of Tower Jackson, the Jackson and Cleveland companies came to realize in the summer of 1854 that a plank road would be incapable of handling the potential iron ore tonnage, and the idea of a strap railroad was substituted. This poor man's railroad consisted of two parallel timbers, protected by 1" × 2" angle iron, laid about 3 feet apart, and mounted perpendicular to cross ties. The mining companies' new tack took the form of the Iron Mountain Railway Company, which was incorporated under the laws of Michigan on March 14, 1855, with a capitalization of $140,000. The company purchased the assets of the Iron Bay & Carp River Plank Road two days later.

The bitter legal dispute between the mining companies' strap railroad and Ely's steam railroad remained a major stumbling block. Finally on September 13, 1855, the parties agreed to submit their dispute to Charles Harvey, the initial engineer and general agent of the Sault Ste. Marie canal project, to act as arbitrator. Harvey made quick work of the dispute and on October 2 announced an agreement had been reached which carefully spelled out where the two roads would cross and how they would be constructed in the contested areas.

At that point, the Iron Mountain Railway had completed its plank road nearly the entire length to the Jackson mine and strap rails were laid 4 miles out of Marquette. With the settlement, gaps on the disputed right of way were quickly filled, and the strap railway was pronounced ready for operation on November 1, 1855. The strap road cost $120,000 to build, with one of the costlier items being a long cut in Marquette which allowed the railroad to go under Front Street and out on a trestle into the bay. The trestle descended until it was 8 feet above the 800-foot-long Jackson dock, which in turn was 4.5 feet off the water. The Cleveland company built its dock at the foot of Superior Street, later Baraga Avenue, in 1855. This dock, reached by a spur off the strap railway, differed from the Jackson dock in that the flat cars were driven right onto the dock itself, rather than onto an overhead trestle.

Iron ore was brought down from the Jackson and Cleveland mines by mule and flat car combinations. The flat cars were 4-wheeled affairs with a capacity of 4 tons. With 15 sets in operation, making one round trip a day, 60 tons could be handled, about the capacity of one later railroad ore car. Accidents were not uncommon. The track would get out of gauge, resulting in derailments. The steep grade down to the dock caused the flat cars to get out of control and run over the expensive mules.

Upon reaching Marquette, the ore had to be shoveled out of the cars onto the dock, where it was again loaded into wheelbarrows and dumped into the hold of what was usually a sailing vessel. Steamboat companies, usually engaged in carrying passengers, did not want to wait at the dock for the long loading period. It would take a crew of twenty to thirty men three to six days to load a boat with 200 to 300 tons of ore, the usual cargo at that time. After having been loaded with ore, the boat would usually be listing heavily and a crew of trimmers would go down into the hold to level out the cargo. The Marquette Range mines did manage to ship out 6,790 tons of ore in 1856, which, considering the equipment at hand, was quite remarkable. Completion of the strap railway also resulted in freight rates dropping from $3.00 per ton in 1855 to $1.27 in 1856.

This iron ore movement would still not have been possible without a parallel development at Sault Ste. Marie. In 1852, the U.S. Congress authorized a land grant of 750,000 acres in Michigan to any company that would construct a canal through the St. Mary's rapids, joining Lake Superior with Lake Huron. The grant required that two 70' × 350' locks be constructed to overcome the 18-foot difference in elevation. Charles T. Harvey, agent for the Fairbanks Morse Scale Company at the Sault, persuaded his company and other eastern capitalists to bid on the job. After they secured the contract, the St. Mary's Ship Canal Company was formed and construction started on June 4, 1853. Harvey, only 23 years of age, was given supervision of 1,600 men working year-round to build the canal. Harvey's youth and inexperience began to show as the project dragged on for several years, and, in 1855, a more professional engineer was hired to see the project to completion. The steamer Illinois made the first transit on June 18, 1855, and on August 17 the brig Columbia locked through with a deck load of 132 tons of iron ore from the Cleveland Mining Company, the first of many millions of tons from the Lake Superior District.

Still another early mining concern on the Marquette Range was Lake Superior Iron Company. Organized by Heman Ely and others on February 5, 1853, Lake Superior Iron came to possess mineral lands west of Cleveland Mountain. The company also became the financing vehicle for the Green Bay & Lake Superior Rail Road, issuing $50,000 in bonds. Ely was contracted to build the 17 miles of railroad from the mine property to Iron Bay at a cost not over $2,000 per mile. The GB&LS purchased property in Marquette for docks, warehouses, and yards, and, in the spring of 1853, put down its first rails. This trackage, the first in the UP, was laid to a gauge of 4'10", no doubt based on Ely's familiarity with the Cleveland, Painesville & Ashtabula and other Ohio roads, which were of similar construction. The GB&LS soon encountered rough terrain out of Marquette, and estimates for completing the road exploded to $12,586 per mile. More financing was arranged at the Lake Superior Iron board of directors meeting on June 13, when the amount of bonds was raised to $100,000.

With the impending completion of the Sault Locks, it was no longer necessary for the railroad to go to Lake Michigan, and the Ely interests organized a new concern on February 15, 1855, called the Iron Mountain Rail Road Company. Its charter called for a 25-mile line from Marquette to a terminus in Township 47 north, Range 27 west, thought to be the western limit of the Marquette Iron Range.

Helping to speed work on the Iron Mountain was the arrival of the locomotive Sebastopol on August 7, 1855. The little 25-ton 4-4-0, named for the Russian Black Sea port recently made famous in the Crimean War, was the first locomotive to appear in the UP. Continued acrimony with the Sharon Iron Company was evident, as it was questionable for a time whether the brig Columbia would be allowed to unload Sebastopol at their dock. The mule drivers of the strap railroad were also on hand and unimpressed with the new sign of progress. Heman Ely brought along his pistol to ensure the unloading went smoothly.

After the steamer Delaware brought 26 tons of T rail to Marquette the last week of August, the Sebastopol was soon engaged in work train service, advancing the track toward the Iron Mountains. The rail was one of the first cargoes to be landed on the new Ely dock, under construction off the end of Main Street. Another rock cut, similar to that of the Iron Mountain Railway, was put in under Front Street in Marquette to reach the new dock. By September 24, 1855, the track gang passed the Eureka mine, 2V2 miles out, and a 74-mile spur was laid into that location.

Inclement weather put an end to construction, but building resumed again as the snows receded in the spring of 1856. Progress remained painfully slow, although grading was under contract for the entire 17-mile distance to the Lake Superior Iron holdings. Most of the grading was completed that year, except for a difficult 3-mile stretch between the Cleveland and Lake Superior mines. One bright spot saw the Ely dock handle its first revenue ore shipments from the Eureka mine, marking the first Lake Superior District iron ore handled by rail to a Lake Superior port. Although there were signs of the bank Panic of 1857 taking hold as early as April, the Iron Mountain continued to push its way to the mines. One trouble spot, a sinkhole west of the "gorge," was finally conquered on the fourth attempt, when a locomotive and cars passed over on July 10, 1857. After crossing the Carp River Marsh, track laying was held up for almost two weeks by an uncompleted rock cut.


Excerpted from The Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railway by John Gaertner. Copyright © 2009 John Gaertner. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Strap and T Rails to the Iron Mountains
2. Irresolvable Conflicts Create the Marquette, Houghton & Ontonagon
3. The Mackinac Road
4. Formation of the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic—Canadian Pacific Seizes Power
5. The Zenith City Short Line
6. The Mineral Range and L'Anse Bay Railroad
7. An Independent Entrance to Superior
8. The South Range Line
9. Bridge Route Revisited
10. World War I—Soo Line Control Follows Federal Control
11. Drastic Cuts—Bankruptcy
12. Reorganization—Profitability
13. Promoting the Family—The End of the South Shore


What People are Saying About This

retired Soo Line Director of Labor Relations - James A. Welton

Just the right length to be both a reference book for a historian, and a book read by someone who would have a general interest in railroad history.

author of Amtrak in the Heartland - Craig Sanders

This is a solid job of scholarship and makes a number of important contributions to the field of railroad history.

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