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Gladstone and railroads have long history | News, Sports, Jobs


By Escanaba Daily

Press staff

GLADSTONE — The Soo Line steam locomotive alongside US 2 arrived in Gladstone 63 years ago, but it represents an industry and company that helped build the town long before.

In 1883, millers in Minneapolis — a major lumber producer and the nation’s foremost leader in flour production — sought a way to transport goods without crossing through Chicago. The solution was a direct line of approximately 500 miles to the port of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada, where there was a connection with the Canadian Pacific railway. The new line established by the Minnesota magnates was called the “Minneapolis, Sault Ste. Marie and Atlantic Railroad,” and it reached Sault Ste. Marie (“the Soo”) in 1887.

Initially, the line leased trackage rights for a portion of track belonging to another railroad — the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha — between Minneapolis and Turtle Lake, Wis., but in 1888, the Minneapolis, Sault Ste. Marie and Atlantic built a subsidiary, christened “Minneapolis and St. Croix,” which connected the origin point to Turtle Lake. Around the same time, they also incorporated the Minneapolis and Pacific line, which ran to the Dakotas so that wheat from farms there could be brought to Minneapolis for milling.

Before the final destination had been decided and the businessmen were still plotting a route, they sought a deepwater port. Little Bay de Noc came under scrutiny. Escanaba had existing ore docks and traffic, so that was off the table.

At the museum and gift shop dedicated to 730, located at 921 Delta Ave. in Gladstone, John Pickard, president of the Gladstone Michigan Soo Line Steam Engine #730 Authority, showed the Daily Press a black-and-white photograph of a ship leaving port — a ship of a kind not commonly seen today.

“This steamship right here is the one that W.D. Washburn, the president of (what would become) the Soo Line, came here to look for a port — they went all the way up the bay to Rapid River, looking for the best place to have their railroad,” said Pickard, unraveling a string of history.

Undeveloped Gladstone, with land available for a rail yard and a point at which to load flour boats, was a perfect stop. At the time, Pickard explained, all that existed was a small fishing village on a point, used by a Captain Saunders from Bailey’s Harbor, Wis. The land was owned by Mason and Van Cleve, who agreed to give it to the railroad if they would help develop a town, Pickard said.

With all the costs associated with building and operating railroads, a big investor was needed. It happened just after the line reached Gladstone and needed to build a bridge to cross the Escanaba River. Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) became the major financier — with two major stipulations. The route would continue to Sault Ste. Marie, where it could connect with existing CP lines. The other mandate was that all the subsidiaries be consolidated. On June 11, 1888, they merged and became the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie Railway — nicknamed “Soo Line.”

In the years that followed, Wisconsin Central became a ward of the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie Railway, beginning in 1909. In 1961, another merger consolidated Wisconsin Central; the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie; and the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic Railway. Only then did “Soo Line Railroad Company” arise as an official name. The “new Soo” went about acquiring more lines, not all of which paid off. The purchase of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad — better known as “the Milwaukee road” — in 1985 plunged Soo Line into debt.

Canadian Pacific, which had held a majority stake in Soo Line since 1888, bought it out entirely in 1990. CP is partnered with Canadian National (CN), which had originally been formed by the Canadian government in 1910 to control failed railroads that had fallen into their hands. The railyard in Gladstone alongside U.S. Highway 2 to the west now belongs to CN, and trains that run today on tracks that had previously been on the Soo Line are operated by either CP or CN.

The steam engine that currently sits in Gladstone — 730 — was built in 1911 by the American Locomotive Company in Schenectady, New York. Throughout the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, regular maintenance was logged as it travelled over three million miles. 730 had one documented accident: In March of 1922, the train derailed in the snow in Frederic, Wis., where it sat until the snow melted.

Exclusively for passenger service, 730 ran from Minneapolis to Illinois, North Dakota and Wisconsin — never in Michigan — until diesel engines made steam power obsolete. According to Pickard, the locomotive sat on an unused bit of track in Shoreham, Minn., for years, and the railroad was about to harvest several old engines for scrap metal. In 1959, William Heslip and Peter Cannon — retirees who had worked for the Soo Line — organized a group and approached Soo Line about obtaining a historic engine for the City of Gladstone.

In addition to Heslip and Cannon, the group of Soo Line retirees included original president Don Buckmaster, Bob Bowman, Pete Standing, Jim Kennedy, Ken Pickard, Jack Krout, Jim Tuffnel, Jack Soderman, Melvin Bloomquist, O’Neil Groleau, Stan Jugo, William Cassidy, Douglas Schafer, Jerry Lynn Clark, Rudy Kukanic, Clarence Carrier, and Russ Case on the first charter, according to a list provided by the present Authority. The retirees successfully attained their goal in 1960; the railroad donated 730 to Gladstone. Soon after, cyclone (chain-link) fencing was installed around it.

From 1970 to 1980, Case, an avid rail fan, painted and maintained the relic, reportedly refusing to accept help from others.

In 1983, the Soo Line retirees held fundraisers for a covered structure to protect the engine from the elements. The $6,000 raised was not enough, so they reached out to Congressman Bart Stupak, who secured a grant with the Army Corps of Engineers. The City of Gladstone donated sandblasting and painting services. In 1985, the shelter was built by the Army Corps of Engineers.

In 1986, Tom Fisher of Fisher Monuments in Escanaba manufactured and donated an informational bronze plaque to be affixed to the side of the coal tender.

By 1998, many of the retirees had passed away, so a new committee was formed, organized by Gary Stiles. The 25-person committee enlisted the aid of Escanaba & Lake Superior Railroad’s John Larkin, who pledged over $50,000 for repairs to 730. Contributors to those efforts included EL&S and Pearson Asbestos Removal. In 2000, the canopy along the highway sat empty for several months as restoration took place at EL&S in Escanaba before the locomotive was brought back to Gladstone.

Another 20 years passed, and the call arose for another era of efforts. John Pickard — whose father had worked on the Soo Line and been on the original charter of retirees — rallied a new wave. The Gladstone Michigan Soo Line Steam Engine #730 Authority kicked off in 2021. John Norkooli, who had also participated in the previous committee chaired by Stiles, now sits as Vice President and takes some of the manual labor into his own hands. Several instrumental figures in the upkeep often act on their own time and dime.

Members from the International Union of Painters & Allied Trades cleaned and painted the locomotive. This task was aided by the Gladstone Volunteer Fire Department, though caution had to be utilized with the high-pressure hoses, as the metal is weak in places.

Hundreds of pigeons had taken to nesting under the shelter — on the engine and even inside the cab. Norkooli indicated how deep the bird droppings were by holding his hands a foot apart; it was unclear whether he was exaggerating. The mess has since been shoveled out.

The city of Ladysmith, Wis. — also on the Soo Line — has a steam engine similar to 730 and other pieces of railroading history that Pickard described as very well-preserved through funding by the City of Ladysmith.

“I met the folks in Ladysmith. I met the city manager; he came down and gave me a tour of their engine — they have a big facility there,” Pickard said. “That comes right out of their budget every year. They say, ‘we give so much money to this railroad fund there to keep it looking really nice.’ That’s where I saw the bird net.”

Money raised for Gladstone’s bird netting, which went up in 2022, was donated by Great Lakes 1st Federal Credit Union; the Lions Clubs from Gladstone, Wells and Bark River; the Soo Line Historical and Technical Society; the Rotary Club of Escanaba; Delta Appraisal Services; John Malnar; Iverson’s Home Center and dozens of other organizations and individuals.

Volunteers from the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters, the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council and the Upper Peninsula Construction Council helped install the netting. When difficulty arose reaching the highway side, where ground is uneven, Norkooli approached Loyal Tree Service about hiring the bucket truck. Brady LeDuc agreed to help and took on the job at no charge.

Railroad ties from EL&S were used to hold down the netting after it was discovered that pigeons were still able to get under it. Finally, the area seems to be bird-free.

Andrew Hess of Hess Knifeworks polished the numbers on the front of the train, which now gleam and reflect the lights installed by NK Electric and paid for by John Larkin.

Tom Fisher rebronzed the plaques, which are to be reattached soon.

Christmas lights are up on the locomotive once again, and this week, white-washed rock was added around the base.

Pickard said that efforts by Angelo Marrone, Rick Prica, Bill Marmalick, Jack Soderman, Diane Krouth, Michael Smith, Brad Reed, Tom Stearns, Ann McCarthy, Wayne Johnson and William Schmitt have been appreciated. The Authority also wishes to thank everyone who has donated to the cause, and is still accepting through the Community Foundation of Delta County (2420 1st Ave. South in Escanaba).

The organization meets on the second Monday of each month at 4:30 p.m. at the museum shop at 921 Delta Ave. They are looking for volunteers to fill positions and help run the shop, which sells shirts and sweatshirts but has not been able to set regular opening hours yet.

The group’s major fundraiser is a golf tournament sponsored by many local partners. Next year, it will be on June 27 at the Escanaba Country Club.

In September of 2024, the convention for the Soo Line Historical and Technical Society will be held at the Island Resort and Casino. The event, which travels around the Midwest and was this year held in Rhinelander, Wis., last came to Michigan in 2003.

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