State plans to buy U.P. railroad grade for trail

ONTONAGON – The Michigan Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh has approved the state acquiring 13 miles of inactive railway line in Ontonagon County to provide key trail connections for the area.

The land involved totals 160.6 acres – on the Ontonagon to Rockland railroad corridor – and would be sold to the state by the Escanaba & Lake Superior Railroad Co. of Wells for $516,715.

“The acquisition of this inactive railroad corridor, which includes a railroad bridge over the Ontonagon River, will provide key trail connections at the Village of Ontonagon and Rockland, and provide additional recreation opportunities in the western Upper Peninsula,” DNR division chiefs said in recommending the sale.

Creagh approved the purchase with a modification last week at a meeting of the Michigan Natural Resources Commission in Lansing.

DNR spokesman Ed Golder said the transaction will not close before Sept. 1, which will allow the Highland Copper Co. to first complete a rail feasibility study.

Highland is a Canadian company planning development of two mines. In November, the company entered into a binding letter of agreement with the Copper Range Co. to acquire all rights, title and interest in the White Pine copper project in the region.

Rail bank programs allow formerly active rail lines to be used for trail systems with the understanding they could be put back into use by industry.

In Marquette County, the Eagle Mine is working to re-activate a rail spur connecting its Humboldt Mill with a rail line that will be used to haul ore concentrate from the mill.

The DNR division chiefs recommended payment be made from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund’s State Trails Initiative, that the property be dedicated for public use and administered by the DNR’s Parks and Recreation Division and the land acquired be designated and used as a Michigan Trailway when legislated requirements are met.

The railway corridor runs from Ontonagon southeast to Rockland along the Ontonagon River, providing a barrier between the village and the river.

A triangular-shaped junction just north of M-64 was once used to move rail traffic onto an industrial spur and across the river bridge. The junction, bridge and 0.5 miles of the railroad spur within Ontonagon are included in the sale.

The recommendation said the sale would present several opportunities, including connecting Ontonagon regionally to all major towns in the area via a designated off-road vehicle route, connecting the village of Ontonagon within its borders by providing a trail from the village to a marina, bolster Ontonagon’s plans to develop a year-round recreational economy and supports local efforts to have Ontonagon considered as a “Pure Michigan Trail Town,” with the trail complementing efforts to continue development of the Keweenaw Water Trail.

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.