Depot Rediscovers a Forgotten Landmark of Keweenaw’s Heritage
Review by Victor R. Volkman
One of the fondest memories I have of my father was our train watching visits to the huge and desolate industrial railyards of Detroit. A few times, in the late 1960s, we made special trips to see a final run of a steam engine before it was mothballed forever. I know this is true because I have 8mm, black-and-white film of these monstrous fire-breathing engines. Depot, by T. Kilgore Splake and Ed (“Jikiwe”) Gray, brought all those memories flooding back to me in the most wonderful and visceral way. Depot is a glorious paean to the history of the train depot in Calumet, Michigan. The town of Calumet was, of course, a company town at the epicenter of the copper boom in the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan.
Splake begins with a brief history of the Mineral Range railroad system, founded in 1871. The depot featured in this book, at 9th and Oak streets in Calumet, wasn’t actually built until 1908. At the time, Mineral Range been taken over by the Duluth South Shore & Atlantic (DSSA) railroad. The Calumet depot, as was the case for many early 20th century railroad stations, was built like a cathedral to the gods of transportation: “The floor of the station was striking aubergine tiles with a pattern of inlaid white stars. The border of the railroad station was designed with ivory stone.” Even the bathrooms were ornately finished with “a vivid white granite pattern.” At 115 feet long by 35 feet wide and two stories tall, it dominated the railyard scene.
One of the most entertaining aspects of Depot are the passages that are recollections of people who rode the rails through Calumet. The descriptions read like poetry themselves: “The conductor boosts us up the high steps…when he calls boaaaarrrd, all aboard…the train starts with a jerk, each clack of a rail connection, bang of a coupling, every bump and sway is exaggerated… the train dawdles along until it reaches the water tower… As soon as the tanks are filled, we pick up steam… rolling along now at a great rate.” And, of course, any book authored by T. Kilgore Splake is going to feature at least one original poem as well.
Equally enthralling are the heroics of the dedicated train engineers to get the train through impossible snowdrifts – up to 12 feet tall. Here’s an account of an arrival after a full day spent trying to travel a couple dozen miles:
“When locomotive 402 pulled into the depot, she was a sight to behold. The big crowd that was at the depot to welcome her looked on the train crew as heroes of the proper kind and such they were. The locomotive was minus her headlight, which had been taken off by a big drift early in the day. The big snow plow in front was twisted and bent… and the engine cab was completely wrecked. Engineer Vollmer and the fireman were covered with snow from head to foot, but were happy in the thought that they had managed to get through their big job.”
Depot is more than just a prose history of the Calumet station; indeed, the rare archival photos rendered in beautiful sepia tones make this an essential book for historical collections of the Western U.P. The photos featured are from, among other sources, Keweenaw National Park, the Copper Country Evening News archives, the Daily Mining Gazette (Houghton), the Michigan Technological University archives and Wisconsin historian Dave Engel.
Following the end of passenger rail in the area, the Calumet depot was decommissioned in 1968. Miraculously, in 2017, the Calumet depot was saved from ruin by a last minute township purchase for the sum of $40,000. They are actively seeking grants for the ongoing restoration in anticipation of its use as a community center.
Technically, at just 36 pages, Depot is a booklet, but it has the heart of a mighty steam engine pushing through that endless snowfall for which the Keweenaw is so famous. I recommend Depot for classroom use on the history of the U.P. or railroads in America. I rate this book 5 Golden Spikes for Splake’s efforts.
To get your copy of Depot, send check or money-order for $14.95 (includes postage and handling) to
T. Kigore Splake
25214 Ash Street
Calumet, MI 49913
Calumet Art Center Press
57055 5th Street
Calumet, MI 49913