The $2,000,000 Ride

The Iron Range and Huron Bay Railroad really did exist – for twenty long minutes.
Michigan Natural Resources March-April 1969

Ever get that letdown feeling when your raffle number doesn’t come crashing through a winner, when a three-buck household gimmick produces $7 worth of chores, or your bargain Oriental waders part on the downstream side when you’re netting an upstream book trout?
Read on – then kiss thanks to your favorite rabbit’s foot that you weren’t around to risk a little green on the Iron Range and Huron Bay Railroad back in 1890. Many did, thanks to Milo Davis, a slick Detroit promoter who convinced all listeners that a Champion to Huron Bay railroad would line their pockets – providing they first emptied them to make room.
On the surface (and most railroads are) it did look good:
. . . . In an area already established as one of the country’s foremost iron ranges and just a few hours’ crow-fly east of the equally famous Copper Country, it didn’t take much to convince the flat-landers that the Huron Mountains which lay between were also oozing with mineral wealth.
. .  . Not to mention the great timber stands waiting patiently for transportation to the mills.
. . . . And not to mention the Arvon quarry. This was Milo’s real convincer, for the three slate quarries in operation had already shipped thousands of squares of shingles for the roofs of Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee as well as other Midwest cities. E. E. Myers, noted Detroit architect and construction superintendent on the new Capitol building in Lansing, reported Huron Bay slate to be superior in quality, strength, and durability. The market was there, the product apparently unlimited in supply, and the company’s 3-foot by 4-mile horse-drawn tram system to the Huron Bay docks was ripe for replacement by a first-class railroad.
Working in reverse on Milo Davis’ logical arguments in favor of this wildcat enterprise, we find that. . . .
. . . From 1890 to 1895 quarrying and track-laying proceeded at about the same pace – in different directions. It was uphill all the way for the railroad construction crews but, thanks to the 1893 depression, increased costs of quarrying and a changing public mind, it was a downhill slide for the Arvon boys. Both projects finished in a dead heat.
. . . . Almost all of the iron ore from the Marquette Range was being shipped out of Marquette and Escanaba via the South Shore and the Chicago & Northwestern railroads, and ore docks already constructed at L’Anse and St. Ignace were just standing around twiddling their pilings. The Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad had enough smarts to stand clear of Milo Davis and Company.
. . . . The timber stands were still waiting patiently, long after the Iron Range and Huron Bay Railroad had perished after its five-year incubation period ad twenty-minute life span.
. . . . The minerals extracted from the Huron Mountains totaled far less than was deposited n the form of misdirected rifle slugs during a century of deer hunting.
But, there was a railroad. . . sort of. . .
After some big money from Detroit was assured, the articles of incorporation for the Iron Range and Huron Bay Railroad were filed in July 1890, and work started at once. Milo Davis originally stated that the railroad would be 35 miles long and would cost about $15,000 a mile to construct, but he was a little conservative in his estimate – about seven miles and 1 ½ million dollars conservative, to be precise.
With an able chief engineer and superintendent. . . Milo Davis. . . in charge, the construction program whipped along just about as fast as you might expect it would, having read this far. When the picks and shovels got warmed up in July, Milo predicted the railroad would be completed before winter set in and for once he was right – partly. He had the correct season but was five years short on the remainder of the completion date.
Before that last mile of track into Champion was laid in the summer of ’95, the thousand or so laborers who wielded pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow or drove team through gorge and swamp had quite a time. They did get a little breather during the 1893 Depression when frivolous projects such as wildcat railroads lay dormant – and some of the crew became even more dormant when typhoid fever broke out in the camps along the grade. But betwixt depression and death, it was strictly mosquitoes, swamp, and rock.
And what rock! One seven-mile cut with walls up to 60 feet high took wagon loads of black powder, a beaver dam of sweat, a couple lives and almost a year to complete.
During the fall of 1890 bids had been taken for the construction of a large ore dock at Huron Bay; and, when the last of the track found its way into Champion, the quarter-million dollar wooden structure had already been waiting around a couple years. Two 110 class locomotives – complete with a first class interlocking plant, twenty-flat cars, lorries, and a well-equipped machine shop- were chomping at their cow-catchers for the first pay load and the long-awaited day drew near.
Sam Beck, former Champion Hotel operator and a railroad watchman at the time of the first test run, described the experience:
“As the last eleven miles of the road were downgrade, we decided the uphill run from Huron Bay would be a good test. I was in the cab with the engineer and we had proceeded just a short distance up the grade when the railroad gave way and we went into a ditch.”
“From that moment on, the Iron Range and Huron Bay Railroad ceased to exist as a railroad!”
Though the $2,000,000 trip was of painfully short duration, Sam did get a tremendous amount of mileage out of the experience through the years that followed.
. . . It was decided at this late date that the terrific grades, which were 8 percent in some sections, would be impossible to negotiate unless each car had its own locomotive.
. . . it was also about then that the Iron Range and Huron Bay Railroad Company went under financially. . .
. . . And shortly thereafter, Milo Davis came up with the novel idea of an extended trip into Mexico, thus avoiding the distasteful lawsuits initiated by numerous creditors, employees, and investors. He also avoided the degradation of seeing his entire dream – including tracks, equipment, right-of-way, real estate, bridges, and ore dock – go on the block for $110,000.
Although the Iron Range and Huron Bay never hosted a train over its entire length or hauled a pound of freight, its various components served well in other areas for many years. The engines found their way north of the Soo to the Algoma Central, the steel was used in completing electric lines, between Grand Rapids and Holland, from Oxford to Flint and from Romeo to Imlay City and the three-million feet of select pine salvaged from the ore dock went into Detroit construction.
Several company buildings near the old dock site remained tribute to one of the more illustrious flops in the industrial history of the Upper Peninsula – until they were burned down by an irate Chippewa woman, following a set-to with a local storekeeper.
Something about credit, no doubt. . . . .