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Quincy and Torch Lake Cog Railway & The Pictured Rocks

Quincy and Torch Lake Cog Railway & The Pictured Rocks

Michigan's Upper Peninsula

By Robert & Kandace Tabern, Email:

July 22-23, 2014

Co-author Kandace Tabern gets ready to re-board the Quincy and Torch Lake Cog Railway for a trip up the hill.
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

Having resided in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area for quite some time, we are frequent riders on Amtrak's Hiawatha Service down to Chicago, Illinois. So frequent, in fact, that we almost hate to admit having memorized the timetable for the route's seven daily round trips (reduced to six on Sundays). But, if you look on the back of the timetable, you might notice a little-known bus connection between Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

The rear of Amtrak's Hiawatha timetable shows an overnight bus connection to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan

(Courtesy: Amtrak, Spring/Summer 2014 Timetable)

After a glance at the timetable... one question quickly came to mind for us. Was there anything interesting to do when one gets up all the way to Hancock, Michigan?  A quick online search found the answer - YES!  Not only was there an interesting railroad-related site we wanted to check out... there appeared to be some very beautiful National Park Service units in the area worth a visit, too. We contemplated actually taking the overnight Amtrak Thruway bus (operated by Indian Trails) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to make this trip report as authentic as possible for public transportation enthusiasts, but, in the end, opted to drive to Hancock, Michigan in our personal vehicle to give us the most flexibility when it came to visiting the locations we had mapped out.

A map showing the location of sites described in the trip report
(Map designed by Robert & Kandace Tabern)

After driving all night for 375 miles (and nearly seven hours) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, our very first stop was at a location just northeast of Copper Harbor, Michigan. Here stands the northern terminus of historic U.S. Highway 41, in a modest cul-de-sac near Fort Wilkins State Park. While this location is very out-of-the-way for the majority of Upper Peninsula tourists... it was on our bucket list... as Robert lived along U.S. 41 for all but about five years of his life.  U.S. 41 is a major north-south highway that runs 2,000 miles between Miami, Florida and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It travels through Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida. There is a historic marker at this location mentioning U.S. 41 follows the path of early Native American trails.

Co-author Robert Tabern poses at the sign marking the beginning of U.S. Route 41
(Photo by Kandace Tabern)

After a quick stop for breakfast in Copper Harbor, Michigan, we headed back south along U.S. Highway 41 for about an hour until reaching Hancock, Michigan, which, as noted earlier, is the northern terminus of the Amtrak Thruway bus connection from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The highlight of our visit to Hancock was the Quincy Mine, an extensive former copper mining facility, located within the Keweenaw National Historical Park. Today, the non-profit Quincy Mine Hoist Association maintains the buildings and grounds, and provides guided tours of the Number 2 Hoist House and the seventh level of the mine. Our visit began with a personal guided tour of the museum exhibits by Glenda Bierman, Manager of the Quincy Mine Hoist Association. She explained the mine was founded in 1846 and was named "Quincy" because most of the investment funds came from residents in the Massachusetts town of the same name. Ms. Bierman also went on to tell us that while many other 1840's-era copper mines were established at the same time on the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan, the Quincy Mine became the most successful, and was the country's leading copper-producing mine between 1863 and 1867. It even earned the nickname "Old Reliable" for the steady dividends paid out to investors. In the museum, railroad enthusiasts will especially enjoy the model of a tramway that was used by the Quincy Mine to transport ore down the hill to the Quincy Smelter. It consisted of two tracks with tram cars in counterbalance. It was 2,200 feet long with a 500-foot vertical drop. The model railroad was designed by Chuck Pomazal of Dixon, Illinois. The remains of some of the original tramway and 1889 roundhouse is still visible.



Photos from the model railroad exhibit in the Quincy Mine museum
(Photo by Robert & Kandace Tabern)

When Quincy Mine ended copper production in 1945, one of the mine's shafts was the world's deepest, at 9,260 feet. Today, nearly 70 years later, most of the levels of the mine have filled up with water, however the seventh level remains open for tourists to enter and get a taste of the conditions miners had to deal with on a daily basis. The most exciting part of the tour for us was the ride to the mine entrance on the Quincy and Torch Lake Cog Railway. Before the current tram was added, tourists were transported to the entrance by van (not as much fun!). The Quincy and Torch Lake Cog Railway was constructed in 1996 and 1997 and is a half-mile long, three-foot narrow gauge railway. Its tram car, designed by Phil Quenzi, and built by Royale Construction, Inc. of Kearsarge, Michigan, has a capacity of 28 people and travels at a maximum grade of 35%. It is also one of the few rack railways in the United States.



Photos from our ride aboard the Quincy and Torch Lake Cog Railway
(Photos by Robert & Kandace Tabern)

At the entrance to the Quincy Mine, visitors get off the cog railway and are given a comprehensive tour inside the mine's tunnels; this includes a combination of a short walk and a tractor-driven wagon ride. Our tour guide, Tom, showed us some of the advances in mining technology over the years and explained what a hard life the miners had trying to remove pieces of copper. The tour ends with a cog railway ride back up the hill and time to explore some of the surface buildings. Quincy Mine gives visitors the options of taking the surface tour only, surface tour and cog railway ride, or the "complete" tour with the surface tour, cog railway ride, and the underground tour. If you do the full tour at Quincy Mine, we recommend that you spend about three hours at the site to take everything in.


A few views from the Quincy Mine Tour; all guests are provided with hard hats and jackets
(Photos by Robert Tabern)

After the Quincy Mine Tour, we headed south for a short distance on U.S. 41 in order to make a quick stop in Houghton, Michigan at the Visitor Center and Headquarters for Isle Royale National Park. Isle Royale is an isolated island national park located in the middle of Lake Superior between Michigan and Minnesota. A trip out to Isle Royale has always been on our "bucket list" and is something we are planning to tackle on a separate trip later this summer (stay tuned for the blog post!!), so we wanted to stop and get some brochures and tips for traveling there. There are basically three options for getting out to Isle Royale... a 6 hour boat ride from Michigan... a 1.5 hour boat ride from Minnesota... or a 30 minute sea plane ride from Michigan. The sea plane was out of our budget range ($300+ per person) and Robert's stomach probably would not handle a 6 hour one-way boat ride... so we decided we will be doing the 1.5 hour boat ride from the Minnesota side later this summer. There is a good movie produced by the National Park Service and a lot of maps and other literature at the Visitor Center... it's worth the stop if you want to learn more about going to Isle Royale.

Kandace shows off her Junior Ranger badge obtained at Isle Royale National Park
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

From Houghton, Michigan we headed east a few hours to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, near Munising. The park boundary runs for around 40 miles along the shoreline of Lake Superior and features spectacular scenery of the hilly shoreline, with various rock formations, natural archways, waterfalls, and sand dunes. The most scenic part of the park, in our opinion, is Pictured Rocks Cliffs, northeast of Munising; some of the cliffs rise to 200 feet directly above the lake water level. The cliffs have been naturally sculpted into shallow caves, arches, and even formations that resemble castles. While one can hike to see some of the formations, the best way to view them, by far, is taking a boat ride out on Lake Superior with the crew from Pictured Rocks Cruises.

Kandace and other passengers waiting for a boat cruise with Pictured Rocks Cruises
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

Upon our arrival, we had the chance to meet John Madigan, who is the General Manager of Pictured Rocks Cruises. He explained that Pictured Rocks Cruises operates a full schedule of narrated tours of the Pictures Rocks National Lakeshore cliffs from mid-May to mid-October. Each cruise is 2.5 to 3.0 hours long and travels approximately 40 miles round trip. Mr. Madigan explained that the departure times and frequency of cruises vary depending on the season and that visitors can check the company's website (link provided below) for the complete schedule. All cruises depart from the city dock at the north end of Elm Avenue in downtown Munising. Mr. Madigan also told us that Pictured Rocks Cruises is an authorized National Park Service concessionaire; some summer cruises even feature narration from a National Park Service ranger. We chose the 5:00p.m. cruise which took us out to see the formations and Spray Falls.




Various shots taken from our time aboard Pictured Rocks Cruises
(Photos by Robert Tabern)

We were ready to call it a night after our long drive north, copper mine tour, and boat ride on Lake Superior. We noticed that Munising mainly had chain hotels that all wanted at least $130/night or more for a standard room. To save a little bit of money, we got a tip from locals to check out the Christmas Motel, located about five miles east of Muinising, in the small town of Christmas, Michigan. We both like staying in family-run 1950's-style motels versus chain hotels... so this was something we decided to check out. We were quite impressed with the small motel which was half the price of the chain motels in Munising!! It was very clean and the owners were very friendly; they even had a fire pit in the back of the motel which can be used by guests. We both were very pleased with this motel and would definitely stay there the next time we return to the Upper Peninsula. The only downside is they have less than 10 rooms and the owners explained they do fill up quite soon in the season; we were only able to get a room because of a last-minute cancellation.

The Christmas Motel provides comfortable and clean lodging at half the price of its competition
(Courtesy: Christmas Motel)

After getting the chance to explore Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore by boat the day before, we decided to spend some time that following morning exploring the park's natural areas on foot. We got up early and made stops at Munising Falls and Miners Falls. Munising Falls is located just outside of the city limits and is a very short walk from the parking lot. You are looking at a 1.2-mile round trip hike to view Miners Falls, but it was a lot less crowded and in more of a natural setting than Munising Falls. From there we grabbed breakfast and headed out on a 3.2-mile round trip hike to Au Sable Lighthouse. There is no other way to get out to the lighthouse, except by taking this trail. Be sure to stop off at the viewpoints to see some shipwreck remains! The National Park Service staffs the lighthouse during the summer months with volunteers who explain what early lighthouse keepers had to deal with; the highlight of the tour was walking up the steps to the top of the lighthouse, which is still used today by the U.S. Coast Guard.


Munising Falls (top); Miners Falls (bottom)
(Photos by Robert Tabern)




Views from the Au Sable Lighthouse in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
(Photos by Robert Tabern)

After the walk and tour of Au Sable Lighthouse, it was time to hit the road and head back south to our home near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Of course we made a quick detour over to Door County, Wisconsin to stop and pick sweet cherries at Paradise Farms Orchard. Sweet cherries are delicious and something we both enjoy, but the season is very short for the "u-pick" cherries; this season they were only open for just over a week. We hit it just right! We must of had fun there because we ended up picking over 25 pounds worth of their sweet cherries!  Check out Paradise Farms the next time you are in Northeast Wisconsin. We had a fun time at our last stop... and at every stop... on this quick trek north to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan!


Got cherries?  Yes, we do, in Door County, Wisconsin on the way home!
(Photos by Kandace Tabern)


End of U.S. Route 41 | Quincy Mine Tour Information | Isle Royale National Park

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Pictured Rocks Cruises (boat tour information)

Christmas MotelAu Sable Lighthouse Tours Paradise Farms Cherry Orchard


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