Railroad: Copper Range Railroad Company

The Copper Range railroad (COPR) was financed by the Copper Range Company, owner of numerous mines in Ontonagon, Houghton and later Keweenaw counties. The main line was built north from Mass City to Houghton in 1899 and a branch was built to its mills near Freda in 1901. The COPR was extended across the Portage Canal to Hancock and north along the east shore of the peninsula (via Dollar Bay) to Calumet in 1903. COPR also had numerous branches to mines as well as powder facilities on the Senter Branch. In 1917, it leased the Mohawk Mining Company's branch to Gay, the location of two smelters on Keweenaw Bay. That branch had been previously leased and operated by the Mineral Range railroad. [MRL]

The line from Lake Linden to Calumet was abandoned in 1964 and the remainder of the operation abandoned in 1973. [MRL]

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BuiltCopper Range Railroad → Abandoned

Operated for 74 years.

Built: 1899 from Houghton to Winona and in 1903 to McKeever. To Freda in 1901 and Calumet in 1903.

Became: Abandoned in 1973.

Reference: [MRRC]

Copper Range Caboose

Photo Info: Top, a short COPR freight train stops for a photo on what is probably the Firesteel River. [Charles Geletzke Jr. collection]. 2nd photo, a COPR caboose, with a modified freight door, at Houghton yard. July, 1972. [Charles Geletzke Jr.]. Below, a Copper Range advertisement from 1909. [Mark Worrall collection]


The Copper Range railroad was the idea of Charles A. Wright of Hancock along with other investors. He was general manager of the road during construction but was replaced by R. T. McKeever by the board after the road began service. He went on to promote the Keweenaw Central which built north from the Mohawk Mine to Lac Le Belle.

The Copper Range railroad (COPR) was built to serve the mines and mining locations of the south range, extending from Houghton to McKeever where they had a connection with the Milwaukee Road's line to Ontonagon. The railroad was principally owned by the Copper Range Company.

During its 72 year history, the railroad owned 32 steam locomotives and 3 diesel engines. [MIS-2022-W]

The railroad's main yard was located on the south shore of Portage Lake just west of Houghton. The railroad had a large coal loading facility near the yard, which was used to unload coal from lake freighters for delivery to hoist houses at their mines and smelters along Lake Superior. The railroad also had a large coal storage facility at Mill Mine Junction.

Over the years, the railroad considered various extensions to Watersmeet and other locations. None were built.

The Copper Range had friendly connections with the Milwaukee & Northern, and its successor known as the Milwaukee Road. The railroad operated direct trains from Calumet and Houghton to Ontonagon for many years. The COPR also hosted a MILW passenger train from Chicago to the Copper Country.

The Copper Range had three large steel trestles which spanned the Firesteel River between Mass City and Champion. The three bridges were all within 1/2 mile of each other and were 511 to 560 in length. Locations: [46.784493, -89.011766], [46.785455, -89.009599], and [46.786474, -89.007206. The railroad also crossed smaller branches of the Firesteel and other rivers, using smaller trestles or underpasses. The structures were completed by the Phoenix Bridge Company of Phoenixville, PA. [CRR]

Time Line

1899. March. The survey of the Copper Range railroad along the south range is about completed. There is a gap of only four miles yet to be done. [DFP-1899-0304] General Manager Wright indicates that the contract to lay the new road will be let in April, calling for grading of the road and laying of ties and rails from Greenland to Houghton. Construction of a bridge across the Firesteel river will not be included in the main contract but awarded separately. The survey north of Houghton to Calumet will be made shortly and steel rails have been purchased for the line north of Portage Lake. The extensive mineral lands owned by the Copper Range company will be given considerable attention when the snow departs. [LAS-1899-0401] In April the contract was awarded to C.E. Loss of Chicago. [BBAN-1899-0413]

1899. July. The first consignment of steel rails for the Copper Range railroad will be delivered at Greenland early next week. The first locomotive will arrive in August. The rolling stock of the line is to be delivered within the next 90 days and will consist of six Baldwin locomotives, then passenger coaches, fifty freight cars and 100 flat cars. [LAS-1899-729] 700 men are employed in construction of the railroad and more men would be used if they were available. [DFP-1899-0814] Extensive wharfs are being built at the Houghton end of the road. [LAS-1899-0819]

1899. September. The Copper Range railroad's agent who has charge of building the track near Houghton, has gone to Tennessee to hire 200 Negroes, it being impossible to secure white labor in needed force. [OT-1899-0901]

1899. December 27. The line is completed from Greenland (on the MILW) 40.9 miles to Houghton (on the DSS&A) out of heavily timbered country and it was necessary to blast out stumps to clear the way for the graders. Track laying was begun Sept. 26 at the Houghton end of the line south, and five miles were completed that month. The rails, weighing 75 lbs. to the yard, were made by the Illinois Steel Co. at South Chicago. There was an average of 900 men and 300 teams at work all summer, and the last spike - appropriately made of copper - was driven December 26.

The contract of C. E. Loss & Co. included culverts and bridges with the exception of the bridge over the Fire Steel River, which is long, composed of three trestles each of 500 feet, and which cost $60,000. Of the other bridges, the largest, that at Cole's Creek Valley is 320 feet long and 85 feet high, and one at the old Atlantic Stamp Mill is 400 feet long and 75 feet high. It was intended to build these bridges of steel, but the difficulty in getting material made it necessary to build them temporarily of timber.

The first passenger train was run on the road December 8, [1899] when service was opened from Houghton south 27 miles to Winona Mine, and with the completion of the road this service has now been extended over the entire line. The road is owned by the Copper Range Co., which controls the entire capital stock and $1 million of bonds of the road. It also owns outright 8,000 acres of land on the mineral range, and has under option 2,240 acres of land from the St. Mary's Canal Mineral Land Co. The road with its feeders, which are yet to be built, taps a very rich copper mining district. [RG-1900-0112] It is standar gauge.

1899. The grading for the main line right of way required clearing timber and removing thousands of stumps, which were blasted out of the ground for the 100 feet wide line. [CRR]

1899. November. The Copper Range railroad's agent in Cleveland telegraphed the management today saying that there is not a cargo of steaming coal that can be bought in Cleveland for love or money. [DFP--1899-1109]

1899. December 30. Master Mechanic George W. Taylor of the COPR recently made a copper spike to be used as the "last spike" on the Copper Range road and be driven when the iron bands between Houghton and the Milwaukee Road at Range Junction are joined. It was expected by railroad officials that the copper spike was driven Monday afternoon (1/1/1900), as the tracklaying gang promised to have the last rail in place by that night. [LAS-1899-1230]

1900. January 4. The Copper Range railroad began running through passenger trains this morning from Houghton to Range Junction near Greenland, Ontonagon County, where connection is made with the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul railroad. The COPR will be extended next summer from Houghton to Calumet. [DFP-1900-0105]

1900. The COPR made a verbal agreement to use the Atlantic & Lake Superior railroad to reach their mill at Freda. The A&TL crossed the COPR at Atlantic Mine. However, a written agreement could not be worked out and the COPR built their own branch from Mill Mine Junction. The COPR Freda branch did connect with the A&LS at Redridge Junction to access the Baltic mill. [CRR]

1901. January 6. A branch is built from Mill Mine Junction to Painesdale to reach the mining district there. Lines also extended to Baltic Mine, and. Mills at Freda, Redridge, Edgemere and Greenland. [MRL]

1901. January 9. Regular passenger and freight trains are running to the Baltic, Trimountain and Champion mines over the Copper Range railroad. [DFP-1901-0109]

1901. The branch line from Mill Mine Junction to Freda along Lake Superior was constructed as part of the original Copper Range railroad. [MRL]

1902. SNAPSHOT. The road employs 172 people, including 2 train dispatchers, 11 station agents, 12 enginemen, firemen and conductors,6 other trainmen, 54 section foremen and hands, 12 switchmen, 5 flagmen and watchmen, and 2 telegraph operators. The railroad crosses the Atlantic & Lake Superior railroad at Atlantic and the Mineral Range railroad at Peppard. The road operates 13 locomotives, 9 8-wheel passenger cars, 2 express/baggage cars, 19 box freight cars, 100 platform cars, 128 ore cars 2 conductor way cars, and one steam shovel. All cars equipped with power brakes, Westinghouse and New York patterns. Passenger cars are headed with steam, Baker and Gold heaters. Top five categories of freight carried in tons:  copper rock (381,547 tons); coal (124,000 tons), forest products (46,000 tons), stone, sand (25,651 tons), and cement brick, lime (7,971 tons). The company used the United States Express Company, and the Western Union Telegraph Co. owned about 60 miles of telegraph line. [MCR-1903]

1902. October 6. Two trespassers were killed this year. "Engine No. 101 struck them before it could be stopped. Jug with whiskey found beside them. Jury exonerated railroad company". [MCR-1903]

1903. The main line is extended across Portage Lake and on to Calumet. [MRL] The C&H leases a depot site on the north side of Red Jacket. [CRR]

1903. The COPR reports that it crosses the following railroads at grade: MR at Peppard; A&LS at Atlantic; MR on the Portage Lake bridge; H&C at Hancock (branch to the smelter); and the MR near Calumet. The COPR crosses over the Q&TL at Mason (3 different crossings); under the MR Arcadian Branch at Montreal; under a spur of the Q&TL at Mason; under the H&C near Mills; under the H&TL at Lake Linden; and under the Houghton Street Railway near Calumet. [MCR-1904]

1904. March 19. The management of the Copper Range railroad has just ordered five new passenger coaches and two new combination cars for use on their line between the copper country  and the Marquette range towns during the coming summer. Many excursions are expected during the summer and the company wishes to be prepared for this increase in their business. [BHN-1904-0319]

1904. June. The Copper Range railroad has placed an order with the American Car & Foundry Co. for 25 forty-ton ore cars. These will probably be built at the Detroit plant. The road has also ordered two new locomotives. [DFP-1904-0622]

1906. An agreement has been signed in Chicago between President Earling of the Milwaukee Road and President Paine of the Copper Range. Milwaukee Road passenger trains will now use the Copper Range tracks via Mass City, to reach the copper country. Until this time, MILW passenger trains had only used the South Shore and Mineral Range. The U.S. Express company, which operates over the St. Paul, will be of benefit to the copper country patrons of that company and express will reach the copper country several hours earlier due to better schedules. [LAS-1906-1103]

1907 School Train. From 1907 to 1944, the Copper Range railroad operated a school train for the purpose of picking up and delivering students from the mining region to the Adams Township School in Painesdale. Most of the mines in the region south of Houghton were owned or operated by the Copper Range Company, the parent of the railroad and the road system between mining locations was inadequate especially given the snowfall during the winter months.

The train, with as many as six passenger cars, left the Houghton COPR yard heading south. At Atlantic Mine they dropped off a car for loading of students.

The train then headed around the wye at Mill Mine Jct. west to pick up students at Freda, which also had Copper Range mills on Lake Superior. The train turned around at Beacon Hill, picking up students along the route at Redridge, Salmon Trout and other towns. Back at Atlantic Mine, the dropped off car was picked up (now full of students) and the train headed south to the school at Painsdale picking up students at Baltic, Trimountain and other locations.

In the afternoon, the trip was reversed and students were brought home. While school was in session, the locomotive crew switched the ore mines in the area and ore cars were often attached to the back of the train on the trip home. Copper Range Bus Company busses began replacing the school train at some locations in 1941 and the service was discontinued in 1944. Stanton and Adams Townships reimbursed the railroad for the cost of the train and a coupon system was used by students when they used it.

For a complete description of the train, see the September/October, 2020 edition of the Michigan History Magazine and the article by Jeremy W. Kilar on page 14. [MHM-10/2020]

1909. The line from McKeever to Mass City is removed. [MRL]

1910. July 19. Offices Move. The general offices of the Copper Range railroad in the Dee Building were this morning shifted from the rear to the front of the second floor of that structure, taking possession of the suite recently vacated by Paine, Webber & Co. This suite of rooms occupies much of the front of the second floor of the building and has been entirely remodeled and redecorated for the railroad company. [CN-1910-0719]

1910. October 3. Telephone replaces telegraph. The Copper Range railroad will substitute a telephone system for the former railroad ticker, and the Kellogg train dispatching system, which is being installed on that road, will be in operation by the first of next January (1911). This work of installing this system will require the reconstruction of the entire line and poles will be replaced from the right to the left side of the tracks. The telephone, because of the great ease and facility of transmission, is rapidly supplanting the telegraph which has been considered the standard for handling train movements for a great many years.

There are several reasons why the telephone is better than the telegraph for railroad purposes, it is said. By the Kellogg system more privacy may be secured but at the same time, if necessary, all the agents on the road may be talked to at the same time. It is also no longer necessary for a ticket agent to be a Telegraph operator. Several trains on the Copper Range railroad will be supplied with telephones and in case a train should become stalled, connection with the line can easily be made by means of what is known as a fish-pole arrangement. [CN-1910-1003]

1909. A special train will be run over the Copper Range railroad tomorrow evening for the accommodation of those from Calumet and Lake Linden attending the Whitehead-Goodale glove contest in Germania hall. Returning the train will leave Hancock at 11:30 pm. [CN-1909-1210]

1910. October 4. Copper Range rebuilding car shops. Work on the foundation of the new car shop to be built on the site of the one recently destroyed by fire, was begun yesterday by the Copper Range railroad company and will be rushed to completion. The foundation will be built by the railroad company and the contract for the remainder of the building will be let to a local contractor.

The new car shop, which will be a paint shop and carpenter shop combined, will be constructed of brick, steel and concrete, and is to be entirely fire proof. The dimensions of the paint shop are 24 by 147 feet, while the carpenter shop will be 36 by 105 feet. A steel frame will separate the two shops and a track will be run through each. The new buildings will be a big improvement over the old shops. The company will avoid another fire like the recent one, which entailed a loss of $4,500 all of which, however, was covered by insurance. [CN-1910-1004]

1911. February. The Copper Range railroad employs an army of 100 men in its regular section gangs along and almost invariably during a snow storm to keep the tracks clear. The company operates two large Russell wing-elevator plows and to man the trains which run these plows requires from forty to fifty more men. The advent of the Russell plow practically marks the passing of the old rotary. This monstrous affair has become almost obsolete, and although much more spectacular, is much slower and takes a great deal of power. [CN-1911-0208]

1911. May 18. Charles A. Wright, one of the big businessmen of the copper country, dropped dead last night while skating at a local roller rink. He was president of the Keweenaw Central and former general manager of the Copper Range railroad. Wright was also president of the First National Bank and the Superior Trust company of Hancock, and connected with a number of other business interests. He was 56 years old and survived by a widow and four children. [DFP-1911-0519]

1911. July. The Copper Range Consolidated Company acquires the Atlantic Mining Company through a stock exchange. The Atlantic & Lake Superior railroad was included. [CRR]

1911. SNAPSHOT. All equipment has air brakes and automatic couplers, consisting of 22 locomotives (2-6-0's and 2-8-0's), 488 cars including 38 boxcars, 145 flat cars, 253 rock cars cabooses, and 23 passenger cars (coaches, mail and express, baggage). [CRR]

1911. The COPR begins trackage rights with the MILW to run a daily passenger train from Calumet to Ontonagon and return. From McKeever to Channing, they also begin "fast freight" service using their own crews. The MILW also begin trackage rights from McKeever to Calumet via Houghton using MILW locomotives and crews. This was called the "Northern Michigan Special". [CRR]

1912. January 30. Copper Range receives three cars which were rebuilt. The Copper Range railroad will place in commission Thursday between Calumet and Ontonagon, a train of new cars, or old ones which have been entirely rebuilt and which have just been received from the shops. The cars have been painted yellow, so as to conform with the color of the St. Paul cars. There is a new day coach, smoking car and a combination baggage and mail car. A feature of the new train is the Pintsch gas lighting system, by which a storage tank in each car will be filled with gas from storage tanks set up in the Calumet and Houghton yards. As soon as the new cars are placed in commission three others will be sent to the shops to be rebuilt. [CAN-1912-0130]

1913. There was considerable excitement in the South Range district this morning when the strikers paraded in various locations and carried out the same tactics that were employed in Calumet yesterday. At Baltic, Trimountain and Painesdale the strikers divested the deputies of their stars and met with no resistance. One man at Baltic was beaten but not seriously hurt. The Copper Range Consolidated has men patrolling the electric plants at Painesdale. It supplies all of the lighting for the South Range district and it is feared the strikers would shut it down unless the plant was adequately protected. The Copper Range group of mines has appealed to Sheriff Cruse for troops but there being only a small number at Calumet, none could be spared. As of noon, everything was quiet at the South Range district and there was no trouble at Quincy. [CN-1913-0725]

1913. September. The Ingot, the private car used by the general managers of the Copper Range railroad will be replaced by a new private car, now being constructed in the shops of the railroad. The car is 60 feet long with one-piece steel frame on which is constructed a concrete floor. In one end is the dining room, kitchen, pantries, sleeping sections and the smoking room, and in the other end is the observation apartment. It is expected the car will be finished in time for the completion of the new extension from Toivola to Painesdale. [CN-1913-0924]

1913. November 19. Wires Cut by Strikers. The wires of the Copper Range railroad and the Western Union telegraph wires were cut at Ricedale and between Mill Mine Junction and South Range. In consequence, train service was delayed several hours. [DFP-1913-1119]

1913. The Painsdale branch is continued to a connection with the main line at Ricedale. This becomes the new main line and the old main line from Mill Mine Junction is removed. [MRL]

1913. November 21. Extension Ready December 1. Announcement was made today that the service over the new Painesdale extension will go into effect December 1. All tariffs and time cards have been changed to accord with the new route, beginning on that date. The extension is now completed, the track laid, and it could be used by trains under new construction conditions. But the prospect is for favorable ballasting weather up to December 1 and General Manager Bolles is giving Chief Engineer Batchelder that much leeway to order that the construction may be more nearly complete.

It is not unlikely that the ceremony of "driving the copper spike" to commemorate the most important construction undertaken by the road in several years, will be in a theory only. It is probable the weather conditions on December 1 will be unfavorable to such an outdoor demonstration of the Painesdale joy in being linked with the main line of the road. If the weather conditions permit there will be some such ceremony. [CN-1913-11221]

1913. December 27. Union Leaders Put On Train. William Moyer, President of the Western Federation of Miners, and John Tanner, an organizer of the WFM were observed taking a street car from Hancock to Houghton, and then boarding a southbound Copper Range passenger train accompanied by three men who seemed to be guarding them. The train was bound for Chicago. Moyer's departure was unexpected and a Citizens Alliance professed ignorance of the incident and refused to discuss it. This was a turning point in a long strike by miners in the region which seemed to culminate in the Italian Hall Christmas party incident which killed 72 persons, mostly children. [HP -1913-1227]

1914. July 3. New Coal Dock. The Copper Range railroad is erecting on the dock of the Houghton County Electric Light company a coal trestle on concrete piers, which will be used in handling about two-thirds of the company's consumption of fuel. The remainder will be brought in by boat. It is expected the new trestle will be in operation in thirty days. [CN-1914-0703]

1918. May 31. Women Hired. The Copper Range railroad in upper Michigan is hiring women station agents to take the places of men called to the colors (for the war effort). [LSF-1918-0531]

1928. The nine miles of the Keweenaw Central railroad out of Calumet Junction to the northeast is operated by the Copper Range railroad. The remaining seven miles were optioned to the C&H. [CRR]

1928. The line from Freda to Freda Park is removed. [MRL]

1933. The Copper Range and Mineral Range railroads reach a coordinated services agreement on January 8 for one year. All rail service from Hancock to Calumet was moved to the COPR trach with a joint agency at Calumet. The COPR withdrew from this agreement in 1934 in preparation for bankruptcy. The COPR reduced service to Calumet on an as-needed basis. [CRR]

1935. March 26. The Copper Range railroad petitions for bankruptcy in federal court. [CRR]

1938. July 1. The bankruptcy court returns control of the railroad to the owners and management. [CRR]

1948. When the Copper Range railroad in Michigan's upper peninsula replaced its steam locomotives with modern diesels, folks along the right-of-way complained. Not about the diesels but about the bells they carried under their running boards. The bells jangled continuously and had none of the fine old railroading tone of the steam locomotive bells. The railroad's president, Homer Johnson, made everybody happy by salvaging the old bells and substituting them on the diesels. [HES-1948-0506]

Bet old 26's cowcatcher was smiling broadly as the Copper Range railroad up north brought the old steam engine out of retirement to pull the sleek, smug diesel engines through snow drifts. We never cared much for that diesel's "face”, long frowning and forbidding. Ah, but the "face" of a steam engine always looked happily human to us. Its flag ears waving gayly in the breeze, the green and red eyes and the big white nose all climaxed by that wide steel-toothed grin, sometimes called the cow-catcher. [BCE-1950-1202]

1950. November. The Copper Range railroad which retired its last steam engine in favor of modern diesel power gave "old 26" the last coal-powered locomotive a reprieve today. General manager Homer Johnson called the ancient steamer out of mothballs to help out the diesel streamliners during a blizzard which piled drifts up to the engines' headlights. "Old 26" worked so well, Johnson said, they're going to keep it in service. [PHTH-1950-1130]

1952. A five week old strike of maintenance workers on the Copper Range railroad has resulted in closing two copper mines, a dozen wood products firms and an explosives company. Although only 40 employees of the 10-mile-long Copper Range are on strike, more than 500 workers in the area are without jobs. The COPR operates between Gay in Keweenaw county and McKeever in Ontonagon county. The strike started March 7, when maintenance workers demanded a wage increase of 23 1/2 cents an hour. The railroad offered 12 1/2 cents. Among the firms forced to suspend operations are the Caledonia Copper Mining company in Ontonagon county, and the Champion Shaft near Painsdale in Houghton county, several wood product firms, saw mills and pulp cutting companies; and the Atlas Powder company near Point Mills. The railroad argues that it cannot afford to pay wages comparable to those of larger railroads because it is not a "first class" line. [LSJ-1952-0411]

1964. The branch from south of Lake Linden to Calumet is abandoned. [MRL]

1964. June 30. The ICC authorizes abandonment of 33% of the Copper Range railroad system, including Atlas Junction to Senter, Lake Linden Junction to Calumet, Calumet Junction to Laurium, Calumet Junction to Nichols, Mohawk to Gay, and discontinuance of operation of the leased Keweenaw Central from Nichols to Fulton. [CRR]

1971. Mining Railway Being Removed. The rails of the Copper Range branch line between Mill Mine Junction and Freda, a milling town are being removed.  Freda once was the location of the Champion Copper Mill, which crushed all Champion Mine rock for more than half a century. The Copper Range Railroad is a subsidiary of the Copper Range Co., which owns the White Pine Mine in Ontonagon County. [Escanaba Daily News, September 4, 1971]

1972. The railroad received permission from the ICC to abandon its remaining mileage. The permission was stayed by the ICC on a petition of the railroad's unions in November. In January, 1973, the union's petition was denied and the permission to abandon was reinstated. The entire line was abandoned on March 31, 1973. [CRR]

1973. The remainder of the line, from McKeever to Lake Linden is removed. [MRL]

1980. April. The railroad corporation was officially dissolved. The Copper Range Company was the major shareholder. [CRR]






The following sources are utilized in this website. [SOURCE-YEAR-MMDD-PG]:

  • [AAB| = All Aboard!, by Willis Dunbar, Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids ©1969.
  • [AAN] = Alpena Argus newspaper.
  • [AARQJ] = American Association of Railroads Quiz Jr. pamphlet. © 1956
  • [AATHA] = Ann Arbor Railroad Technical and Historical Association newsletter "The Double A"
  • [AB] = Information provided at Michigan History Conference from Andrew Bailey, Port Huron, MI

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