Thursday, May 27, 2010

Curtains for another little rail line?

It gets worse.

Last week I wrote about the planned abandonment of the Escanaba & Lake Superior Railway line to Ontonagon, Michigan, model for Porcupine City in my Steve Martinez mysteries. If the line is torn up, Ontonagon and the county of the same name will face an economic disaster from which it may never recover.

Today, while photographing trains, I was reminded of another looming Ontonagon County nightmare: the shutdown of the copper refinery at White Pine, 18 miles southwest of Ontonagon, and the consequent likely abandonment of the Canadian National Railway's 77-mile White Pine branch line up from Marengo Junction, Wisconsin. (The switcher in these photographs is working the refinery's yard, the northern terminus of the branch line.)

If both the E&LS and the CN lines go, there will be no operating railroads at all in the western third of Upper Michigan.

Hudson Bay Minerals, owner of the White Pine refinery, is closing the only source of the copper -- its mine in Flin Flon, Manitoba -- and if it does not find a buyer for the refinery by the middle of July, will shut it down for good.

Sixty-one more people in Ontonagon County will be thrown out of work, joining the hundreds idled when the Smurfit-Stone paper mill, the county's largest employer, closed permanently earlier this year.

Beleaguered Ontonagon County needs a miracle.

Just for rail buffs: The locomotive is a 600-horsepower EMD SW1, 661 of which were built between 1938 and 1953. This little engine hence is at least 57 years old. It served on the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Penn Central and Amtrak before ending up at the Minnesota-based Independent Locomotive Service, which leases it to the White Pine refinery.

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