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History behind the Dead River Trestle

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

By: Adam Berger

In the coming year, the Upper Peninsula Land Conservancy (UPLC) will add two properties to the existing Vielmetti-Peters Conservation Reserve. This will form the Dead River Community Forest, 309 acres of publicly accessible land at the end of Brickyard Road.

In partnership with other local organizations, the current trail system will be expanded on the new land, creating more than five miles of multi-use trails. Located right next to Lowes and Meijer, the Dead River Community Forest will be a convenient destination for healthy outdoor recreation.

The Dead River Community Forest will also be a site for place-based education. UPLC regularly hosts K-12 and NMU classes on the Vielmetti-Peters land and is developing infrastructure to make the new Dead River Community Forest a more versatile educational space. A stage and bench seating has been built. More educational signage will be installed.

The Dead River Community Forest land holds many important stories about Upper Peninsula history. In fact, the Dead River Community Forest logo features an image of the Dead River Trestle, also known as the Dead River Railroad Bridge. This distinctive structure speaks to the essential role of railroads in Marquette County’s mining history.

The Lake Superior and Ishpeming Railroad Company (LSI) began operating in 1896, specializing in moving ore from Marquette County iron mines to Marquette Harbor, known as Iron Bay, where it was shipped throughout the Great Lakes. LSI later expanded into transporting pulpwood, but iron ore was always its most important freight. The company also moved passengers for a time, running lines from Marquette to Munising and Big Bay, but riders joked that LSI meant Lazy, Slow, and Independent. LSI made more money moving iron ore than people, and passengers were a bit of an afterthought.

In 1896, a wooden bridge was built across the steep gorge over a waterfall on the Dead River. The original wooden Dead River bridge structure was outdated within twenty years as rail traffic increased and the modernizing railroad industry began to use larger, heavier locomotives.

The current steel structure was built in 1916 by Wisconsin Bridge and Iron Co. The Milwaukee-based company also did other work in the Upper Peninsula, constructing bridges in Keweenaw County and Menominee County around the same time as the new Dead River Trestle.

Though it looks quite ordinary from above, the 565-foot-long Dead River Trestle was built according to an unusual design, unique in Michigan, making it something of an engineering marvel. It is essentially a very simple bridge on top of another, much more complicated bridge. The substructure is a form of steel arch, almost resembling the Eiffel Tower built in Paris in 1889. Due to the uneven walls of the gorge, the bents or framing pieces of the substructure have foundations at different levels.

Today, more than a century after it was redesigned in steel, Lake Superior and Ishpeming Railroad trains still use the Dead River Trestle. Once opened, trails will allow visitors to the Dead River Community Forest to view this impressive structure and the lovely Trestle Falls.

Witnessing an LSI train go overhead pulling ore cars is a memorable U.P. experience. Keep up with Dead River Community Forest news to know when it is possible to safely visit that part of the forest under the Dead River Trestle. Until the new property is officially owned by UPLC, and clearly marked trails are established, it is not yet open to the public. Once it is open, if you love trains, learn about the LSI schedule, and plan a hike and maybe even a picnic.

Visit the Marquette Regional History Center (MRHC) in early 2022 for a special exhibit about railroad history. Collecting for more than a century, MRHC holds railroad artifacts that will illuminate Upper Peninsula locomotive history for learners of all ages. Railroads are an obvious part of the historical landscape in Marquette County, yet we are forgetting how to see how they shaped our communities.

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