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Kevin E. Musser


Winter Operations on the Copper Range Railroad

A look at the last month of one of the worse winters in Copper Country history


The blizzard of 1939

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Winter time in the Copper Country has always been a hard and difficult time. In the early days of copper mining most activities ceased and only a brave few hung on to try and last the winter until the first ship arrived in the spring to bring new supplies. Mail was moved by snowshoe from Green Bay, when it moved at all. Later, when life was more established, large rollers, pulled by teams of horses, flattened the snow to allow travel during the winter. Area railroad's used a combination of push plows and rotary plows. Houghton and Keweenaw County Road Commission's used rollers as well as push plows and later, rotary plows, after starting operations in 1911.

The winter of 1949-50 was an exception, dropping a total of 254 inches recorded at Calumet & Hecla in Calumet and 288 inches at the Houghton County Airport, setting an all time record. Up to this time the Copper Country had experienced an average of 150-180 inches a year, with the winter of 1938-39 coming in a close second at 226 inches. Recently, average snow falls have increased, topping 350 inches during more than one winter.

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The Keweenaw has always had it's share of capable equipment to remove this natural obstacle but that doesn't mean that things are always moving smoothly.

The following account was written by A. A. Zareber, who was the cashier at the Calumet Station on Copper Range. This account gives a brief insight into what it took to keep the trains rolling.

March 1, 1950
Practically snowbound in Calumet yard. Weather terrible, 1 below, wind 29 miles per hour N.E. No school in County.

March 2, 1950
10 below at Calumet. 53 below at Humbolt. Strong BE Wind.

March 7, 1950
Snowplow stalled near St. Louis Crossing. Dug out engine 101 in evening with Engine 100, Conductor Labby. Left plow in snow all night. Conductor ABB on plow. Took plow from 3/2/50am to 3/4/50 at 8pm to go from Lake Linden to Waterworks field near Calumet. Left plow in snow just over Albion crossing overnight. Opened up balance of Caluet and Laurium sunday 3/5/50, using engine 100 on plow, conductor ABB engineer Polky and helper engine 101 engineer Kelly, conductor Labby. Double headed from Bridge 30 with six cars freight on way up Sunday am 3/5/50. Had all both engines could do. Banks so narrow on hill that markers on caboose were bent back. Banks two feet over plow in some places.

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March 8, 1950
NE Blizzard started previous evening. Tied up practically every thing. No. 35, Engine 101 had to be pulled in from Atlantic acct shifting apparatus failed. First bus to Calumet 10:20am. Jordan plow came to Calumet ahead of No 9 on DS. Considerable snowfall and 30 to 50 mile an hour winds. Most secondary roads blocked in County.

March 9, 1950
Snowplow conductor ABB jumped track 3 times between Lake Linden and Calumet Jct.. Got over to Albion crossing  and stalled in large drift in field. Dug out plow and went home. Jumped on St. Louis crossing coming up with plow.

March 10, 1950
Opened up into Calumet then went into Laurium where engine 101 jumped track. Got Laurium opened up and about that time master cables on engine 100 on two motors were disabled, crippling engine. Engine crew Schuster and La Belle took over engine 101 from snowplow crew and completed switching Calumet and Laurium with conductor Gatien, then took train and disabled engine back to Houghton . Left Labbys plow at Yandell switch overnight.

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March 11, 1950
Tried to open up Gay line, could not get to Copper city with plow. Burried plow near Yandell. Dug out plow taking over two hours then took plow back to Jct. and went thru to Fulton with light engine 101.

March 12, 1950
Went thru to Gay and got loads, also got some loads from Mohawk and took them to Houghton. Left mtys for Gay line at Junction.

March 13, 1950
Took mtys to Mohawk and Gay.

March 17, 1950
Blizzard started about 1am, winds 40 miles per hour by morning. East wind considerable drifting and snowfall. Snow very light. Most schools closed. No soft weather so far this winter. All of winters snow still here. Ran light engine 101 from Houghton to Fulton to break up snow. Most secondary highways blocked. March 18 clear and cold 7 above 8am.

March 26, 1950
East to North east blizzard, heavy wet snow struck Copper Country about 5pm Sunday afternoon. Tied up traffic on all highways. Overnight wind blew down Old North Store building in Quincy. Highway from top of Quincy hill to Mesnard only one way traffic. Banks as high as County plows. Plows only able to zig zag thru banks. Same condition from Osceola store to Sacred Heart Church. Autos stranded all along US 41.

March 27, 1950
Continued East wind. Foggy, not snowing.

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March 28, 1950
Snowplow came to Calumet, engineer Polky, conductor Labby. Stalled in snow drift beyond Albion crossing. Finally broke thru and came into Calumet without derailment. Temp. 20 above, strong NE wind, visibility about 100 feet most of AM. Went to Laurium and Gay, came back into Calumet that night. First headed in then backed in. Heavy NW wind all day.

March 29, 1950
Snowplow, engineer Polky, conductor Labby, arrived at Calumet 8:55AM Calumet yard in worst condition of winter.

April 1, 1950
NE wind, temp. 25 above, cloudy, snow, blowing considerable around Calumet yard.

April 4, 1950
Temp 30 above, light snowfall heavy NE wind considerable drifting. Anderson crew opened up Ziegler track for car Salt. Calumet yard same as mid winter. Rock train, conductor Gatien, returning from Freda had to leave seven mty steels in snow near Obenhoff on account of cars being derailed due to snow condition.

April 5, 1950 Snow plow crew conductor Labby spent most of day rerailing cars and taking them to Mill Mine. One car at a time and then would return for another.

April 7, 1950
Noon temp 20 above, wind NE about 40 miles an hour, blizzard conditions. Extra gone to Gay today, had to back engine out of Gay on account of too much snow in Gay wye. Good Friday. Drove around Lake Linden to Hancock, roads in icy condition. Rock train conductor Gatien got back to Mill Mine with 11 mty steels and two cars of  Mineral. Left 11 mty steels and CR box and caboose a quarter mile north of Obenhoff crossing in snow. Snow plow to go after cars Monday April 10th. Snow plow to go to Calumet and Laurium in AM first.

Good Friday night about midnight No 34 conductor Wright had CR1002 and CR1118 mty flats and GN 52433 mty box derail at north end of Toivola siding near switch. Trucks on CR flats stuck in snow pulling bodies off and also pulling GN box on top of CR flats trucks before train stopped. Had to call out crew with tool car about 2AM Saturday to go up and pull rear end of train back to Painesdale and clear track of wreckage rolling box and flats clear of right of way. In meantime McKeever crew did some switching around Toivola and Donken then both crews returned to Houghton. Called out yard crew which was not working Saturday to run McKeever Freight Saturday. Easter Sunday April 9th Weather cloudy and windy, temp 14 above most of the day. Storm warning up 11AM for south to south west winds 30 to 50 miles and hour by night. Snow forcast with colder temperatures.

Calumet yard pretty well drifted in. No train north of Houghton today.


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The following account is a newspaper reporting of the Blizzard of March 16, 1939.

It was also related that this was the storm where the Copper Range RR had to resort to hand shovel labor to open its line of RR from Lake Linden to Calumet, as its rotary snow plow had already been sold, much to everyone's dismay! The accompanying view showing the Russell plow apparently stuck in the snow, ready to get pulled out. It is on Lake Linden hill, and appeared in the Milwaukee Journal paper, a truly great action shot of the CR fighting snow. Notes by Clint Jones referencing this material from Charles Sincock.

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Copper Country Experiences One of Worst Blizzards in Recent Years; Traffic Stops
Thursday Morning, March 16, 1939

Copper Country residents awoke yesterday to find themselves snowbound after a storm from the northeast that prevailed throughout the night and yesterday, tying up traffic on trunk roads with drifts from six to eight feet high. Train communication from and into the Copper Country was annulled yesterday and school superintendents declared a holiday.

On trunk highways and in all towns available snow removal equipment was kept in operation throughout Tuesday night and Wednesday in an effort to open main thoroughfares, but the wet-heavy snow piled up again almost as fast as it was cleared. Visibility was nil and car owners who could operate their vehicles drove with headlights as a protection from collision.

Few snow storns in recent years, with the exception of last winter's January storm, have equalled in intensity this blizzard of Tuesday night and Wednesday. The snowfall is preported to have reached a level depth of 13 inches, according to road operators. It was impossible to keep sidewalks open either in business or residential districts and most people, if they got to work at all yesterday morning, found they had to shovel their way to the street or wade through snow in some cases up to their waist. Down town districts had the appearance of old time days with sidewalks blocked entirely or containing only a single trail. Pedestrians took to the streets and shovelers were generally engaged in opening up paths from throughfares to the doorways of business places and homes.

There have been few times in which employes of the Houghton County Highway commission have experienced such difficulity in their fight to keep highways open. Traffic during Tuesday night was suspended on practically all Houghton county trunk lines. Every scrap of rolling equipment the commission has was kept in operation throughout the night and yesterday. Although the commission has been highly commended for its efficiency in this and past storms its work has been sadly handicapped by lack of equipment.

US 41 from Houghton to L'Anse was blocked yesterday, tying up traffic from this quarter. The county highway commission reported its equipment reached the Baraga county line at 10:30 yesterday morning and that the roadway filled up almost as rapidly as it was cleared. If the storm abates it is expected this section of highway will be open today. There will be no attempt to open county and secondary roads until the storm is over.

The county plow which started from Calumet at 4 o'clock Tuesday morning reached Hancock at 10:30. This was on the upper road. The lower road through Lake Linden was opened at 8:30, and every effort has been made to maintain traffic on this highway. The plow from Houghton reached Painesdale at 9 o'clock yesterday morning. On all highways it was found impossible, up to noon yesterday, to maintain other than one way traffic.

The Copper Range Motor Bus Company suspended its service to points outside Hancock and Houghton during the night and persons from outside districts who attended entertainments in these towns were forced to stay with friends over night. Taxi service in most localities was suspended Tuesday night but was resumed Wednesday.

Service Is Demoralized

The last trip to Franklin by bus was made at 8:15 Tuesday night. It was 10:30 before the driver was able to return to Hancock. The Wednesday morning bus started to Lake Linden at 10:30 and the bus to Painesdale left Houghton at 11:45. The bus to Calumet from the Portage Lake towns left at 6:15 Tuesday night. It was 2 o'clock Wednesday morning before the driver returned. This was the only night trip to and from Calumet.

Train service over the St. Paul line was annulled yesterday and the South Shore train bound for the Straits remained snowbound in the Copper Country. A freight train, the only one to attepmt to reach the Copper country, was stuck in a snow bank at the Isle Royale mill at an early hour yesterday morning. The crew reported storm conditions all along the line, southward.

During the day yesterday the storm switched to the northwest and continued with unabated fury. Cars left out overnight countinued to remain burried in snow except where owners had dug them out. Many business places were short of help and schools were forced to dismiss for the day. Students who reached the Hancock high school. as an example of other schools in the country, totaled about 20 per cent of the regular enrollment. In Hancock E. L. Wright school, 12 students reported for the morning enrollment. There were eight at the Hancock Ryan school.