Making the Cut

Presque Isle County (pronounced "presk-EEL") was set off from Mackinac County in 1840, then from Cheboygan in 1853, then one last time from Alpena in 1858. Many of its settlers came from Poland, according to historian Gene Scott. The county was organized from 1870-71. Author Roy L. Dodge notes that there was a feud however between the town of Crawford's Quarry (modern-day Calcite), and Rogers City, both trying to claim county seat status. The strife lasted until 1875, and Rogers City was finally recognized as the seat.

According to David M. Brown the first surveying party in 1839 reported the area was "worthless," and the area was shunned for a long time, other than for logging. However it would soon prove to be one of the largest exploitable limestone deposits on the globe, which would turn out to be extremely desirable when the Great Lakes' concrete and steel industries developed, both of which required large amounts of karst-type gravel. I discussed this in my older posts about the nearby Rockport Quarry in Alpena County, and the Fiborn Quarry in Mackinac County.

The discovery of limestone at Calcite opened a new era in 1910, perfectly timed as the timber was running out. The Rogers City quarry was discovered in 1908 according to Dodge, got started in 1912, and came under ownership of U.S. Steel in 1920. Rogers City became the largest limestone quarry in the world, a title that it still holds to this day.

They even built an elevated "viewing area," as you can see. The scale here is incredible; according to the message spelled out in boulders below, the company had recently celebrated its centennial in 2012. The boulders are each the size of my truck, and yes that's Lake Huron visible on the horizon:

It is a third, and lesser-known such quarry that I will be talking about however, one which didn't make the "cut."

Further down the road I made a quick stop at the Presque Isle Lights. Lake Huron's shore along Presque Isle County is ragged and hazardous to shipping, as I illustrated in my previous post about the shipwreck at 40 Mile Point. To safely guide ships carrying lumber, gravel, and iron ore, many beacons were necessary. This is the "new" light, lit in 1870:

The name "Presque Isle" is French for "almost an island," or "narrow peninsula," because of the tombolo, though it is hardly the only one in Michigan. But since this one was used as a portage site in the fur trading days by both Anishinaabeg natives and French voyageurs, the appellation has stuck.

Not far away is the "old" light, which dates to 1840:

It is one of the oldest surviving lights on the Great Lakes, and also one of the most "haunted." It was superseded by the 1870 light because it was not able to withstand Huron's fury so close to the shore, and had deteriorated. The last keeper of this light was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln.

I later learned of an old abandoned quarry town in the central part of the county, called "Big Cut." From aerial views of the former gravel quarry it looked like it was open to off-road vehicles, so I decided to use it as an overnight car-camping spot on my next summertime trip up north. Unlike Rogers City and Calcite, Big Cut's quarry was not situated on Lake Huron's shore, but several miles inland.

When we woke up about dawn, steam was rising from the waters of a small lake that had formed in the quarry.

Nearby was a large hill of gravel, with what looked to be some sort of ruins, so I climbed it:

Looking down on my truck and the lake:

This was almost the very northern end of the grey scar that Big Cut had carved into the Earth's surface in search of gravel; it was about two and a quarter miles long from end to end, and a quarter mile across at it's widest point. That's a big cut indeed, but it never did achieve the success of the other major quarries in the county.

I couldn't quite figure out what all this junk was, whether it actually had anything to do with the quarry, or if it had just been dumped here in recent years.

They looked like sections of a tunnel or drain.

I wouldn't be surprised if this quarry is now owned by the county road commission, and that they were the ones who put this stuff here.

While the girlfriend was getting the coffee going, I wandered around the area on foot a bit to get a better idea of our immediate surroundings.

There was not a whole lot to see. This was some broken-off wooden post set in the ground, or into this cairn of rocks at least:

Back at the truck, coffee was almost ready. It was evident that the best way for us to explore Big Cut was by vehicle, so once our caffeine fix was decanted we saddled up the Iron Camel again and started driving the bumpy trails through the quarry, hoping that they weren't going to be too challenging for my two-wheel-drive pickup.

It wasn't long before we came to something that looked interesting, so I stopped and got out for a closer look.

Ummmm--this couldn't be a mineshaft, could it?!

Nope, just a half-buried tipple of some kind. Maybe once upon a time trucks or train cars were driven through this short tunnel for crushed rock to be dispensed into them from above.

There was no sign of a rock crusher or any other equipment here, so most likely when Big Cut was closed up in the early 1980s all the machinery was disassembled and sold to be reused elsewhere.

Climbing on top, I saw this wooden stand, which possibly once held pulleys as part of a cable conveyor system:

Not far away we found what looked like an old truck trailer, most likely converted into an office or storage unit at one time.

"Something, something, Asphalt Paving Co."...

Bare inside, but lots of writing on the wall.

Looking at the rear, you can see the top of a mudflap still in place from when it was a trailer.

Pretty fabulous old trailer, maybe from the 1950s?

A small pond sat nearby, with more unidentifiable iron wreckage sticking up above its waters:

We now found ourselves riding along a much wider north-south road, which made me think that perhaps we had found the old railroad grade:

Along the side was an old pile of crushed gravel, now the playground of four-wheelers and snowmobiles. There was hardly a spot of ground anywhere in this quarry that was not crisscrossed and loopty-looped by the aggressive tire treads of ORVs.

On the opposite side of the north-south road, I noticed there was a large bare foundation.

Roy Dodge notes that Big Cut had a population of 20 people in 1910, while David M. Brown writes that it was a station on the Detroit & Mackinac Railroad, and that both the quarry and the railroad were owned by the Pinkerton family.

This immediately caught my attention, as I assumed that this referred to the Pinkerton Detective Agency, predecessor of the U.S. Secret Service. I already knew that the Pinkertons had some involvement in Michigan, so I naturally figured that this was the same family.

According to the Historical Society of Michigan, Pinkerton agents were hired as guards by lumber mill operators of the Saginaw Valley in July of 1885, when the Knights of Labor led a strike against them. Governor Alger also called in the state militia to assist the Pinkertons when the volatile situation promised to turn ugly. The Pinkertons were also involved in rounding up a fugitive on Bois Blanc Island in 1880, as I explained in an older post.

However, the book The Pinkerton Family of New York, Iowa, and Michigan by Stephen R. Pinkerton seems to indicate that in fact these Michigan Pinkertons were not related to the Pinkertons of American detective agency fame, even though the latter did get its start here in the Great Lakes.

According to a Michigan Dept. of Transportation webpage, the man I was looking for was one Charles A. Pinkerton (1910-1979), who "was a pioneer in the creation, management and use of the short line railroad system in Michigan"...
He led in making short line railroads the predominant operating mode for all railroad operations outside the state's heavily industrialized areas. In the 1970s he was the first railroader to work with the State of Michigan to preserve service in areas not served by major carriers. Innovations in management and investment enabled his Detroit & Mackinac Railway Company to grow and prosper as the leading carrier in Lower Michigan.
Though if he was born in 1910 and the quarry was already in operation by that time, then I imagine either the quarry was founded independently before the Pinkertons bought it, or Charles Pinkerton was in fact the son of its founder, whose bio is not available online.

Coincidentally enough, the Pinkerton Detective Agency did in fact move their headquarters "back to the Midwest," to Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 2014.

Historic photos of the train station and the Big Cut quarry's switching locomotive can be seen at This quarry closed down in the early 1980s.

Atop one of the old electric poles sat the giant nest of some raptor, perhaps a bald eagle:

This was the crossing of Spice Dam Road and the North Eastern State Trail, an old abandoned bed of the Detroit & Mackinac Railroad that has been turned into an ORV trail:

The Detroit & Mackinac Railroad was formed in 1894, and its main line extended from Bay City to Alpena, with branches extending all along the Lake Huron shore lands. The D&MRR station in nearby Millersburg used to be abandoned, but has recently been renovated and reopened as a visitor center or something along the rail trail if I'm not mistaken.

Near the crossing was another large overgrown building foundation.

As I was getting back in the truck to leave, I noticed this odd ruin as well, immediately next to what would have been the railroad right-of-way:

Again, I wonder if this was a station where train cars were loaded with gravel by conveyor before shipping out.

Looking down in:

On a different trip through Presque Isle County, I made a quick stop at the "Sinkholes Pathway," near Shoepac Lake, a series of strange depressions in the Earth over 100 feet deep. Michigan State University's Department of Geology--as always--has a good webpage explaining this extremely unique phenomenon.

It was hard to get a convincing photo of these incredibly steep and deep karst sinkholes; I hope this offers some perspective:

Ocqueoc Falls is another attraction in Presque Isle County, the only real waterfall in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan:

There was also the old, ruined footings of a Detroit & Mackinac Railroad trestle upriver from here, which I had seen on

Unfortunately after I pushed my way through the brush to get to it, it wasn't there...

I was positive I was in the right spot, but there were no huge concrete piers straddling the river anywhere. Gradually I saw what looked like a piled-stone retaining wall on the opposite side of the river, so I made my way over to it.

By the time I got there I had come to the reluctant conclusion that the large footings had been recently removed, and it even looked like the ground had been disturbed in this area where I thought they had been.

But why would anyone waste money on demolishing some harmless concrete foundations? Not that our government has ever had a problem finding pointless things to spend our tax money on, but I hoped that this move at least had some sort of ecologically beneficial reasoning behind it, such as widening the Ocqueoc River to increase flow, or improving erosion control.

Anyway, I did get a close-up of the piled stone retaining wall that apparently backed up to the concrete bridge pier on this side, even though the sun had already set:

Had to highlight it with my flashlight here:

You can easily see the freshly disturbed patch of ground on the opposite side of the river where the railroad once crossed.

Michigan Shadow Towns, by Gene Scott, p. 138
Michigan County Atlas, 2nd Ed., David M. Brown, p. 148
Michigan Ghost Towns of the Lower Peninsula (II), by Roy L. Dodge, p. 159,4616,7-151-9623_11154-126443--,00.html
The Pinkerton Family of New York, Iowa, and Michigan, by Stephen Richard Pinkerton


  1. Someone else has been to Big Cut! I saw it first in I think 1990. It was the year they ripped up the abandoned D&M line west of Hawks. I entered via Big Cut Highway from Millersburg. There was a large sign with No Trespassing and other such warnings. The site was still active. There were multiple power poles and movable electric machines, perhaps sifters/screeners. The road south of the quarry toward highway 638 was blocked by flooding. People were hooning on the property. A few years later, and the sign was still there, but not the machinery. -D

  2. Hi, I’m apart of the family who owns big cut hunt club just before the actual quarry, I’m trying to find some information on the water testing at the site. If possibly heavy metals or some sort of toxins are in the water, I’ve swam in the water/ fished it many times. It’s just something I thought about and trying to dig up some information If possible.

  3. I ride my mountain bike on that old RR grade and always wondered about that nest, too. It's an Osprey nest; finally saw them in it this morning.


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