Diversions: The end of the road in Michigan

I currently live a short distance from a permanently busy Florida street called Tamiami Trail, so named because it is the old pre-freeway route connecting Tampa to Miami, following the Gulf Coast south through Sarasota and Naples, where it then heads east across the Everglades on “Alligator Alley” to its southern terminus. That road is also designated as Route US-41. This week, however, I am at the northern terminus of Route US-41, in a place where the freeway has not yet supplanted it, and it never will, some 2000 road miles north on the shore of Lake Superior.


Route US-41 northern terminus. Photo by the author.

This humble turnaround is just past Copper Harbor, Michigan, which is the permanent home of less than 100 people, a population limited perhaps by the average 208 inches of snow that fall here in the winter. I did not drive here from Florida on this trip, although I have done so by an alternate route in past years.


Copper Harbor, Michigan. Photo by the author.

Originally designated in 1926, most of US-41’s current routing was finalized by 1949. The original route extends the aforementioned Tamiami Trail north to Atlanta, and then runs through Chattanooga, Nashville, Evansville, Chicago, and Green Bay, right through the center of most cities. It enters Michigan’s Upper Peninsula at Menominee, where it then passes through Escanaba, Marquette, and Houghton before reaching this ignoble turnaround in the geographic finger jutting into Lake Superior called the Keweenaw Peninsula.

A short stretch of Interstate 75, which also has its source in Miami and parallels much of US-41 through Florida and Georgia, traverses the far east end of the U.P., over 250 miles away, crossing north over the Mackinac Bridge (my favorite “catenary”), and terminating at the Soo Locks on the Canadian border in Sault Ste. Marie. I was in “The Soo” on this trip as well. However, the roads on this west end of the peninsula, where US-41 ends, have not changed much since my childhood days on the Keweenaw. Some four-lane has been constructed in places, mostly in short stretches to allow cars to pass the slower RVs that are abundant during summer here. Unlike the fabled Route US-66 from Chicago to Los Angeles, most of US-41 still exists, closely following its original route from north to south, with only a few stretches subsumed by modern freeway.

About fifty miles south of Copper Harbor, US-41 crosses the old copper ore shipping canal on the west end of Portage Lake with a unique bridge, linking the twin towns of Hancock on the north and Houghton on the south. Copper mining began here in 1845, but by the 1970s the industry was in a steep decline, and no active copper mines remain today on the Keweenaw.


Houghton-Hancock Bridge. Photo by the author.

This bridge was near the end of the line for the once-busy railroads serving the mines and towns as well. I remember this double-decker horizontal lift span being built in 1959. Car traffic normally flowed on the top level, while trains carrying ore from the mines could traverse the bottom level. When small boats needed to come through and no trains were expected, the span could be raised a notch so that cars could continue unimpeded, driving on the train level (as shown in the picture above).

Today there are no more trains crossing this bridge. The train tracks have been removed and traffic normally flows across the old train level. When a larger boat comes through, such as the Ranger III ferry to Isle Royale National Park, the entire span raises, blocking traffic until the boat clears. But the Ranger makes its 73-mile, 6-hour run to the Lake Superior island park (one of the least visited in the national park system) just twice per week. So, don’t expect many delays at the bridge.


The abandoned Quincy Smelting Works in Ripley, with my father’s old school behind to the right. Photo by the author.

Just east of the bridge, in the tiny community of Ripley, the ruins of the old Quincy Smelting Works have been recently opened for tours as a part of the Keweenaw National Historical Park. This tour was a special exploration for me. My grandfather began working at the coal yard adjacent to this smelter shortly after arriving here from Sweden at the turn of the 20th century, and he stayed through World War II. He raised his family just a few blocks away but lost his eldest son in the Philippine Islands very close to the end of that war. And then he died shortly after his retirement in 1948.

Today the smelter buildings, still in very rough condition, are an abandoned mix of the ore smelting technologies used over its 70-year life. This is not some cleaned up museum exhibit. Much of the equipment and two of the furnaces remain in scattered disrepair as you carefully make your way through the debris of crumbling buildings.

That the smelter is still here, and not stripped for its scrap metal, is a testament to the insufficiently funded efforts trying to put together a coherent Keweenaw National Historic Park from scattered sites and fast-disappearing relics. Nature, with a helpful hand from humans, has begun to heal some of the worst environmental damage from over one hundred years of mining that was much more evident in my youth. Hundreds of acres of piled “poor rock” debris from the mines are now more hidden by new forest growth than they were through the 1960s, but if you stray from US-41, you will still see them. Large stretches of black “stamp sand” refuse from the copper stamping mills that once lined Portage and Torch Lakes have been planted over with grass as part of a “Superfund” EPA cleanup.

Most of the “headframes” that sat atop the old mines, which once dominated the skyline of the Keweenaw, are now gone. One exception is the Quincy Mine headframe that dominates the ridge top overlooking the Hancock side of the bridge.

Quincy Headframe

Quincy Mine headframe, Hancock, Michigan. Photo by the author.

This headframe sits atop a 9260-foot mineshaft that produced copper for 99 years and paid the bills for my immigrant family for a generation. Today you can walk 2000 feet into a horizontal “adit” to access the Quincy Mine on a guided tour and get a flavor of a very hard and dangerous life.

The Keweenaw is today a place of contrasts. New houses and stores sprout up on the steep hillsides and lakeshore, but the ruins of company towns, old mines, rock debris, and crumbling industrial works remain to tell a tale of the past. Folk singer and Michigan native Sally Rogers recorded the best version of Craig Johnson’s evocative song “Keweenaw Light.” The song lists four old copper mining towns that you pass through in sequence driving south on the Keweenaw from the north end of Route US-41:

I’ve drifted through boom towns a century dying,
Passed the ruins of smelters and the rusted headframes;
Down through Ahmeek and Mohawk, Centennial and Laurium,
And other sad places that pass without names.


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