How They Did It: 47 Miles Across Michigan's Iron Range

Posted 11/12/13 by Carol Fulsher in Building Trails, Success Stories

Photo © Iron Ore Heritage Trail

It's rapidly garnering attention as one of Michigan's most exciting rail-trail projects - the 47-mile Iron Ore Heritage Trail deep into the Marquette Iron Range of the Upper Peninsula. As the trail continues to grow, RTC caught up with the driving force behind the trail's remarkable grassroots effort, Carol Fulsher, for her take on the significance of the Iron Ore Heritage Trail to Michigan's past, and its future.

Photo © Iron Ore Heritage Trail

The History:

"Call us the outdoor museum where you exercise your body and mind. The Marquette Iron Range marks the beginning of iron ore mining in the entire Lake Superior Region, which has fed the furnaces of the steel industry since 1845. This region supplied the raw resource of ore that eventually made the cannons and cannonballs for the Civil War, the weaponry and ships of World Wars I and II, and fueled the industrial revolution. And, of course, the millions of automobiles made in the Motor City."

The Landscape:

"The 47-mile Iron Ore Heritage Trail crosses the Marquette Iron Range. You ride along Lake Superior's beautiful harbor where gigantic ore docks hover over the lake. You'll find giant mine shafts towering over six stories high, you'll cruise past mine pits gleaming with shiny ore, and you'll bike through the towns that grew up with mining and shipping money."

The Trail:

"Of the 47-mile proposed route, 30 miles have been upgraded with asphalt and/or a crushed limestone/granite. The remaining 17 miles are along the Duluth South Shore and Atlantic and Lake Superior and Ishpeming rail grades. These are currently hard-packed dirt but are slated to be upgraded in the years ahead."

The Future:

"With any trail project, the tough part is securing the land in order to secure the funding. The Iron Ore Heritage Recreation Authority (the managing entity) used land swaps, easements, and land purchases to secure the entire 47-mile route. Much of it was garnered through the State of Michigan's purchase of rail grades, but areas were also bought by local municipalities and Marquette County's Recreation Authority. In one short section, the trail corridor is actually being resurrected for rail service again, and an alternate route had to be secured. 

In August 2013, we finished our largest project to date: a 12-mile section between Negaunee and Marquette connecting two major communities along the trail. This section provided some interesting challenges. We needed to convert an unused rail bridge into a pedestrian/bike friendly crossing of a major highway, which required the commitment of Michigan Department of Transportation (the owner of the bridge), the city (the lessee of the bridge), and the Recreation Authority (the sublessee and upgrader of the bridge surface). We were also involved in a three way land swap among a private property owner, the State Department of Natural Resources, and the Recreation Authority.

Lastly, a two-mile section of rail grade which was never quite vacated was needed for a local railroad company's future plans. Through the State of Michigan's intervention, the 100-foot corridor under the rail was secured by the state and the railroad was allowed to add rail in the future. Users can now learn about our mining past while seeing our mining present: trains filled with iron ore pellets (right) making their way from the mines to the harbor."

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