Huron Mtns Trip, Pt. 4: “The Blue Walls of Lost Arvon, and the Railroad That Never Ran"

October, 2012.

Return to Part 3

Day 4, continued.
We ended up flying back and forth over the same area several times before we could locate the correct hole in the trees that led to the supremely remote quarry.

Unsure of our location or whether we were on the correct path, I was craning my neck out the window and suddenly was surprised to see a large mound of blue rubble emerging from between two yellow-leaved maple trees, nearly ready to spill into the road:

We had arrived at the Huron Bay Quarry, better known as the Arvon Slate Quarry.

Not feeling this road was too terribly trafficked upon, I parked the Rusty Camel directly in the middle of it, both of us unholstering our cameras as we got out.

Not far away was this large pond, that I was pretty sure was actually the flooded pit of the quarry.

Anxious for a real break from the car seat, we both energetically began climbing the slopes that spilled all over the area for a better view.

The crisp blue of the sky and the slate and the reflection in the water contrasted perfectly with the gold of the leaves and the green of the spruces.

I couldn’t help but take a closer look at the wildly varying textures and shapes of the slate pieces strewn about me; a few of them oddly, perfectly geometric.

There were many acres of strange terrain here to cover, and Navi and I quickly parted on our own ways. Suddenly, I found myself looking at what definitely appeared to be a manmade wall of some type:

It was made of neatly stacked pieces of uniformly sized slate…was it just a stockpile of slate that never sold, or built with some sort of a purpose? I tried to envision what kind of building this mortarless wall might have belonged to, but no other signs in the vicinity gave such evidence. It could as easily have been merely a retaining wall, and I eventually was forced to assume that’s all it was. Nonetheless, I was intrigued.

All around were similar walls, piles, and arrangements, some of them forming a winding staircase down a slope into a ravine between two more piles:

The ground, as always, was made up of smaller, thinner flakes of the slate, softly crackling like cereal, or shaved almonds under my steps:

I hadn’t quite ever seen another place like this anywhere, and I’m pretty positive Navi hadn’t either. Still intrigued by the blue wall I had seen a moment ago, I decided to go back for a better look. It was not far at all from the water’s edge (as you can see at left):

According to Mr. Emerick, the Huron Bay Quarry Co. and the 300 workers who lived in its attendant shanty town (named Arvon), pulled slate from these pits for about 30 years. They closed down the quarry in the 1890s—right around the same time that the ill-fated “Railroad that Never Ran” was being built. When that happened, it caused the town of Arvon to evaporate as well, leaving nothing but a few overgrown orchards, and these scarce ruins, apparently.

The Iron Range & Huron Bay Railroad (IR&HBRR), today better known as the “Railroad that Never Ran,” forged through the wilds very close to where we were. It was formed as an idea to haul iron ore out of the mines near Champion via a dock on Huron Bay to the north, near Skanee, as opposed to via Marquette Harbor to the east.

This seemed counterintuitive at first, being that the line from that area to Marquette ran through the already very well established mines in Ishpeming and Negaunee. But the idea was that a new railroad through this untamed wilderness would put Michigan one step closer to being able to open up the known, yet still untapped mineral riches locked within the rugged Huron Mountains.

Among the seven stockholders who initiated this venture were patriarchal Detroiters Christian Buhl and James Joy—old lumber and railroad money. According to an article by LeRoy Barnett in Michigan History Magazine, the newspaper L’Anse Sentinel bragged in 1891 that “these ancient rocks” were said to hold iron, gold, silver, lead, commercial slate, marble, granite, kaolin, terracotta clay, silica, quartzite, graphite, and asbestos…pretty much everything that was in demand back then.

But I guess we’ll never know if that’s all true, because the railroad never operated, and the Hurons were never mined. As you’ll recall, this was also about the time that the Huron Mountain Club was getting ready to clamp down on access to their precious Hurons.

The terrain for the proposed standard-gauge rail line was obviously quite challenging, and would require extensive grading for almost its entire 42-mile length. The first builder assigned to the project ran out of money in summer of 1891, before the grading was even completed. The second builder hired managed to finish the grading and lay rails by winter 1892, but final expenses came in at almost double the amount originally budgeted.

The worst obstacle was a 1,000-foot rock cut near Mt. Arvon that became known as “Summit Cut.” Not to mention there were a few very serious grade inclines along the path of this railroad. For standard-gauge trains, a 2.5% grade incline was average for mountainous areas, with 3% considered “excessive,” especially when hauling heavy freight like ore.

Some sources claim that the rail bed of the IR&HBRR reached well over 4% grade in places. Two Brooks “Mastodon” locomotives were purchased, and one was sent on a test run up to the steepest part of the line. During this run, part of the bed eroded away, causing the locomotive to roll over in a ditch.

With the project’s price tag now up to $2 million, the Panic of 1893 setting in, and the subsequently lowered demand for iron ore—not to mention the closure of the Arvon Slate Quarry, and signs that the iron mines near Champion were beginning to dry up—the IR&HBRR was totally and utterly f@#$%ed. It was abandoned, and dismantled in 1900. Milo Davis, the engineer who had originally convinced investors that the railroad was a good idea, fled to Mexico to avoid charges of fraud (and possibly the wrath of James Joy).

Today the only vestiges of the “Railroad That Never Ran” that remain are the ore dock on Huron Bay near Skanee, and the impressive Summit Cut, deep in the woods far from any path or road. Most of the rest of the grade has been turned into a dirt road for cars, known as the Huron-Peshekee Grade Road. A few of my CopperCountryExplorer forum colleagues have visited the 40-foot deep cut, which is quite a spectacle to come upon in the middle of the woods, but unfortunately it was not in our itinerary today.

“The Railroad That Never Ran” is also the title of a book by Robert Dobson that tells the tale of this railroad. When I first heard of it, I had tantalizing visions of an abandoned steam locomotive and train sitting untouched, far out of memory in the backwoods of the Huron Mountains; sadly this was not to be.  But to this day, the IR&HBRR remains the steepest standard-gauge railroad ever built in the world.

A 1921 article in the trade publication Stone sings wistfully of the idled, untapped workings and abandoned structures of the Arvon Slate Quarry, impressing upon readers that they were in fact for sale and could be had for a song, if only some buyer were to come and rescue it from its loneliness.
...the crumbling shacks, rusted machinery, and water-filled pits, at Arvon, the site of the old slate quarry, is the almost sickening evidence of the failure of the original operators to make it a go, says L.D. Tucker, of the Upper Peninsula Development Bureau.
It went on to say that the material to be had there was of excellent and very salable quality as roofing shingle, its color and uniformity being altogether suitable, and Mr. Tucker beseeched some new competent businessmen to come along and have another go of the idea. "Three or four substantially-built and slate-filled warehouses" still remained on the property in excellent condition, awaiting shipment, and another sat filled with hundreds of sample drill cores.

Unfortunately the article did not say what kind of construction these warehouses were built of, wood or stone.

The wall I was looking at went around the corner and rejoined the slope of the ground, and it was just then that I realized that before me lay the foundation of an actual building, whose outline was so eroded that it was now almost barely discernable from the rest of the ground.

At last, proof that there were once real structures here, and that they were made of the blue slate. Within its boundaries I also noticed a random iron pipe jutting from the forest floor, undeniable evidence that it had once been a building:

My guess is that the pipe could have been for pneumatic drill pressure from a compressor, housed in this structure. There were also a series of the typical long, threaded bolts here, cut off where a large piece of machinery had once been pinned, possibly such a compressor:

Here too was a spot with traces of mortar that had once been the corner of a bricked wall (lower left):

The rest of the main wall behind me seemed to form a crotch where another corner of a shorter, similar wall opposed it:

What did this all mean?

At the time I knew nothing of the quarry’s history or to what purpose they would have stacked all this slate in such an arrangement if not to support a building.

It sure looked cool though. Rattler, one of my colleagues on the CopperCountryExplorer forum postulated that since he found an old rail embedded near one of them, they could be railroad docks of some kind, for a spur of the IR&HBRR.

By this point I had become concerned for Navi’s whereabouts, as I had not heard his footsteps or camera shutter for some time. I wandered off in search.

I crossed through a couple minor ravines, and saw some more wall structures, and some apparent roads that had been built of the finer slate.

Massive floes of the slate flakes pushed into the woods, right up to the creek, seemingly moved there by a bulldozer:

It was like I was standing in a bowl of grey Wheaties.

Now having relocated Navi, we decided that we had seen the entire quarry, and it was time to begin our trip to Mt. Arvon, which involved a couple more river fords.

Because all four of my appendages were more often than not busy with controlling our manual-transmission vehicle on rough roads with blind turns, etc., I rarely had the opportunity to photograph these parts of the journey. Thankfully Navi was better able:

Courtesy of BRN
I did however manage to take a one-handed shot of part of our twisty ascent of Mt. Arvon:

Despite all the guff that Mt. Arvon gets from professional “high-pointers” (such as Navi) about being a tame “2/5 difficulty level,” I was surprised to see that there were a few pretty wicked spots where I had to keep myself mentally drilled into the driving task at hand to make it up the steep grades, or avoid a fuckup.

It also took a lot longer than I anticipated to reach the top, as our narrow path wound extensively over the beautiful terrain, sometimes leading me to wonder whether we were still on the right track. There was a definite lack of signage in a few crucial areas, and I believe that we took a few “unofficial” paths on our way to the summit...had we not been able to punch in the GPS coords, I fear we might not have gotten there. The last stretch before we reached the end of the road was a super steep curve where I had to crank up the Rusty Camel’s RPMs a bit before we finally emerged at the top.

A short walk later, here we were. Finally...

Bucket list shortened by one checkbox.

CLICK for part 5

"An Upper Peninsula Railroad That Failed to Make the Grade," Michigan History Magazine, Sept./Oct. 2007, by LeRoy Barnett
The Railroad That Never Ran, by Robert D. Dobson
"Unworked Slate Deposits in Michigan," Stone, Volume 41 No. 11 (Nov. 1921).

1 comment:

  1. What a great article! Your pictures were amazing and just gorgeous Fall Colors! Very descriptive and gave a lot of interesting background on the area and that railway. Something had come across my FB page concerning the topic ... but that page was just hyper-riddled with ads and popups and stuff. Plus, yours is far more in-depth and much better writing style! The photos are amazing!


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