First Michigan “Rail To Trail” is 50 Years Old
I was flipping through the channels the other day and stopped on an old 1963 episode of “Petticoat Junction.” It was about the railroad sending sour-puss V.P. Homer Bedloe to look into the long-forgotten spur between “Hooterville” and “Pixley” that featured the 1890’s vintage steam locomotive, the “Hooterville Cannonball.” It dawned on me that in the ’60s, there were a lot of “off-the-beaten-path” rail lines that would soon be killed off by the nation’s new highway system.
I remember one that went through the tiny 4-corners of “Doster”, Michigan. It served the Doster Lumber Company. Another went through the tiny long lost farm community known as “Argenta”, also east of Plainwell in Allegan County. By the ’60s, they were barely in use, and we kids thought it was pretty silly that the bus driver still stopped for them.
As any hiking and biking enthusiast in Michigan knows, many of those old rail lines found new life, as they were perfect for conversion to trails. One of the best-known is the Kal-Haven trail, on the old rail line from Kalamazoo to South Haven. But, the first one in Michigan was opened 50 years ago.
Ron Rademacher of Michigan Back Roads says The Haywire Grade Trail in the Upper Peninsula’s Schoolcraft and Alger counties. It opened in 1970 after the Manistique and Lake Superior Railroad, known as the “Haywire Line,” ceased operations. The line was used for hauling lumber through the U.P.'s white pine forest from 1898 to 1968. Haywire is now one of 130 rail-trails in the state that combine for 2,462 miles of recreational trails, according to Rails to Trails.
The trail runs from M-94 south of Shingleton to the Water Intake Plant in Manistique on a surface of gravel, dirt, and sand; about 33 miles. It also includes ballast from the old rail bed upon which it runs, making travel difficult for bikes and horses in some spots. The multi-use pathway is primarily used by ATV riders in summer and snowmobilers in winter. The trail is also open to mountain biking, hiking, and horse riding.
Ron says the trail traverses miles of 2nd growth forest across great distances with nothing but towering trees, wildlife, abandoned settlements, and solitude. A couple of towns are still in existence from the old days. Steuben, for instance, where there is a small store to get supplies. At one point the trail passes by the abandoned airfield, Steuben Landing Field, deep in the Hiawatha National Forest. At several stops along the trail are interpretive signs describing the structures and activities that were here and are now lost to history. One of those is a building sitting in the forest. Its walls are made of 2 x 12’s stacked to make 12-inch thick walls. The entire building is clad in metal. Ron says the building was designed to house the dynamite used by road-building and forest-clearing crews in the 1930s. He says now and then, you can find these buildings throughout the U.P.
To celebrate the 50th Anniversary, four commemorative rides are planned, each based on one of the four main trail activities. ATV/ORV riders have an event, Snowmobilers will have one, this is the backbone of the entire Upper Peninsula snowmobile system, there will be an event for the Equine enthusiasts and one for bicycles.
Parking at the north end of the trail, Shingleton, can be tricky. You have to park about a quarter-mile from the trailhead near the Tanglewood Inn. Parking is no problem at the Manistique end and there are other outdoor opportunities like a ramble on the boardwalk on the shore of Lake Michigan or go fishing at Indiana State Park or launch your kayak on the new kayak launch on the river.