The view from Trout Lake

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, August 21, 2020

The depot at Trout Lake, Mich., built in 1907 at the crossing of Soo Line and Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic lines, survives today as a quiet Canadian National outpost. Kevin P. Keefe
As you pull into town on Michigan Highway 123, Trout Lake looks like its name — remote, woodsy, like a set from the 1990s TV show Northern Exposure. You arrive after passing miles and miles of birch and pine, skirting the edge of the Sault Ste. Marie State Forest near the eastern tip of the Upper Peninsula, then slow down to pass Mark’s Trading Post, the Trout Lake IGA, and the Buckhorn tavern before you arrive at your destination.

There, the adjacent rails still shiny with daily use, lies Trout Lake station, where two lines of Canadian National converge to form a sleepy Northwoods junction. The rambling frame station, built in 1907, still stands, but its modest architectural charms — even most of its windows — have been covered up in an unfortunate cloak of aluminum siding. Still, it feels good to be there, in a place out of time. 

I’m not the only one beguiled by Trout Lake. Not long ago the photographer Jeff Garrison, writing for the estimable website The Trackside Photographer, made note of the place:

“I’ve stopped at Trout Lake many times, but never lingered more than a few minutes. I like the area as it reminds me of small towns in the American west. And the IGA is always a treat with its wonderful ice cream and homemade sandwiches. Today this area seems so isolated, mainly a place for fishermen on the lake to replace tackle or buy beer or for snowmobilers in winter to race through on their cross-country runs across the Upper Peninsula. It’s not always been this laid back.” 

In fact, this was once arguably the most strategic spot on the railroad map of the Upper Peninsula (or U.P., as opposed to the railroad), a place where back in the 1940s the former Soo Line’s main to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, intersected the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic. CN’s former DSS&A line from Munising still comes into Trout Lake, but the track heading southeast toward St. Ignace — the route to the carferry Chief Wawatam, erstwhile king of the Straits of Mackinac — is long gone, abandoned in 1986.

In 1944, Trout Lake bustled with activity when passengers and mail/express connected between Sault Ste. Marie–Minneapolis Soo train No. 7 (background) and DSS&A No. 2 for St. Ignace. William Leonard
Back in the day, Trout Lake could be a busy place, as shown by the accompanying photo of Soo and DSS&A passenger trains meeting in 1944. In the steam era, this was 2-8-2 and 4-6-2 territory, symbolized today by Soo Line No. 730, a Pacific displayed under cover at the division point of Gladstone, 107 miles to the west. Steam on the Soo’s Gladstone Division lasted until January 1955. As late as the mid-1950s, the Soo still ran overnight trains 7 and 8 between Minneapolis and Sault Ste. Marie, with connections off the Milwaukee Road at Pembine, Wis.

Then came the diesel era, distinguished after 1960, when Soo absorbed the DSS&A and adopted a new image, by the bold red-and-white diesels emblazoned with the huge SOO spelled out in Venus Bold Extended across their flanks. Back then you were likely to see a lot of F7s and GP9s out here, working the main line or heading down to St. Ignace to feed the belly of the Chief Wawatam

Things remained interesting through the 1990s during the Camelot reign of the Wisconsin Central, when, incomprehensibly, you might witness magisterial SD45s mixed among WC’s ubiquitous maroon-and-gold SDL39s and GP30s. 

Soo SD40s lead gondolas filled with pulpwood east across the old DSS&A diamond at Trout Lake in September 1978. Ron Cady
Trout Lake ain’t what it used to be, but it’s still a good jumping-off point for one of my favorite road trips, the long trek across the bottom of the Upper Peninsula on U.S. Highway 2. It’s a drive I’ve made dozens of times, visiting family over in Cheboygan, just over the Mackinac Bridge.

Last week I was back on U.S. 2, following CN as it meanders over hill and dale, hugging every contour of the land. The Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Marie Railroad clearly had a tight engineering budget when it built through here in the late 1880s — the Lackawanna this was not — but CN’s track is immaculate and by all appearances sees plenty of business. Pulpwood and limestone customers are evident all along the line at places like Ensign, Gulliver, and Port Inland, served by local trains out of Gladstone.

Then there are CN’s two daily through trains, A450 and A451 — if you’re lucky enough to catch them. This is a 40-mph railroad, and U.S. 2 frequently wanders far afield, so chasing CN means you have to plan ahead. The trains are usually long, often augmented with distributed power, and include everything from taconite to aggregate to coil steel, and always pulpwood.

Some of the best places to catch trains are bridges over the many waterways spilling into Lake Michigan, among them the Escanaba River near Escanaba (captured here nicely via drone by Mike Yuhas), the Whitefish River at Rapid River, and the Manistique River in Manistique. 

Canadian National's A450 train, carrying steel from Sault St. Marie, is 120 miles west of Trout Lake as it crosses the Escanaba River at Wells, Mich., in July 2020. Mike Yuhas
Despite its industrious appearance, the old Soo across the U.P. faces an uncertain future. In late July, Trains correspondent Bill Stephens reported that CN has plans to spin off approximately 850 miles of railroad in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ontario. Although the company didn’t specify which lines are up for grabs, it’s a certainty that Green Bay–Gladstone–Sault Ste. Marie and attendant branches are among them. The railroad has hired an investment banking firm to help with the sale and details are expected in September.

Whatever CN decides to do, it’s unthinkable that this last robust remnant of U.P. railroading will go away. Driving into Gladstone the other day, watching CN hood units assemble yet another train of ore and pulpwood, I thought to myself, “this looks like the very definition of a working railroad, serving local customers.”

None other than Ernest Hemingway wrote about this territory in his celebrated short story of 1925, Big Two-Hearted River, a tale of riding the DSS&A to go trout fishing at Seney, just 48 miles west of Trout Lake. In spare details, he wrote of this “long undulating country” and its hold on his imagination. 

I felt the same thing last week. I’m looking forward to going back. The railroads here — yes, perhaps a shadow of the past — remain compelling. And next time I’m in Trout Lake, I’ll be sure to grab a sandwich at the IGA.

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