The Escanaba and Lake Superior Railroad's F7A seen on 29 April 2009 while stopped in Channing, Michigan.
|Dates of operation||1898–|
|Length||347 miles (558 km)|
The Escanaba and Lake Superior Railroad (reporting mark ELS) is a privately held shortline railroad that operates 347 miles (558 km) of track in Northeastern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Its main line runs 208 miles (335 km) from Rockland, Michigan, to Green Bay, Wisconsin, and it also owns various branch lines and out of service track.
The railroad was founded as the Escanaba and Lake Superior Railway on November 17, 1898, by Isaac Stephenson, a local businessman, with seven miles (11 km) of track from Wells, Michigan, northwest. Over the next several years it built track to Channing, Michigan, where it connected with the Milwaukee Road. In 1900, the Milwaukee Road built a dock for iron ore transport near Escanaba, Michigan, and began using the ELS to access its new facility. As part of the agreement that allowed the Milwaukee Road access to its line, the ELS was reincorporated as the Escanaba and Lake Superior Railroad on February 12, 1900; it has used this name ever since. In 1902, the ELS built three miles (4.8 km) of track southeast out of Wells into the center of Escanaba.
In 1935, the Milwaukee Road moved its ore trains off the ELS and entered into an agreement with the Chicago & North Western Railroad (CNW) to jointly operate ore trains into Escanaba. Though the ELS petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) and later the US Supreme Court to be allowed to join the joint operations, it was blocked from doing so in 1938 by the Supreme Court.
In the 1940s, two major sources of traffic were developed near Escanaba--the Harnischfeger Corporation, which built large cranes, and the Escanaba Paper Company. In the early 1960s, the ELS was purchased by the Hanna Mining Company. In 1969, the ELS stopped serving the Escanaba Paper Company during a strike at the mill; in response, the mill's owners built a new connection to the CNW and Soo Line, and cut car movements on the ELS more than five-fold in two years, from 2,200 carloads in 1968 to 449 in 1970.
On October 6, 1978, Hanna sold the railroad to John Larkin, a businessman from Minneapolis who had organized a passenger excursion on the railroad earlier in the decade. He planned to return the railroad to profitability by reducing labor costs and entering the business of leasing boxcars to other railroads. Shortly thereafter, the leasing market collapsed. Additionally, with the Milwaukee Road going bankrupt in 1977, it planned to abandon its trackage in Michigan, consisting largely of a route between Ontonagon, Michigan, and Green Bay, Wisconsin. This plan would break the ELS's connections at Channing, as well as end rail service to shippers on the line. One of these shippers, Champion Paper, which operated a mill in Ontonagon, approached the ELS with a proposal for the railroad to buy the Milwaukee Road track to Ontonagon.
After opposition from the CNW, which wanted to retain iron ore transport from a mine on the route, and Hanna Mining (former owner of the ELS and owner of the mine in question, the Groveland Mine in Randville, Michigan), the ELS, backed by other on-line shippers and the states of Michigan and Wisconsin, reached an agreement with the Milwaukee Road's bankruptcy court to take control of the Ontonagon route, as well as additional trackage south. On March 10, 1980, the ELS bought the ex-Milwaukee Road between Ontonagon through Channing south to Iron Mountain, Michigan. It also obtained a lease-to-own agreement of the tracks south from Iron Mountain to Green Bay; this section was purchased in 1982.
Upon purchase, the ELS immediately began rebuilding its new trackage, which had been neglected by the Milwaukee Road in the years leading up to its bankruptcy. Major funding came from the state of Michigan, which paid $1.6 million (equivalent to $4.02 million in 2016) to install new ties on the track to Ontonagon.
In 1981, the ELS bought additional trackage, this time a branch line from Channing north to Republic, Michigan. In 1985, it bought a branch from Crivitz, Wisconsin, on the Green Bay line, east to Marinette, Wisconsin, and Menominee, Michigan. During 1987 and 1988, the line to Ontonagon had its lightweight rails replaced with new, heavier rails. In 1991, it bought a line from Sidnaw, Michigan, on the Ontonagon line, east to Nestoria. The following year, the line from Channing to Wells was taken out of service, with access to Escanaba retained via a new trackage rights agreement with the Wisconsin Central Railroad, under which the ELS was granted access the WC's line from Pembine, Wisconsin, to North Escanaba. In 1995, it bought a short branch line between Stiles Junction, Wisconsin, just north of Green Bay, to Oconto Falls from the CNW. In 2005, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation provided a $2.01 million (equivalent to $2.43 million in 2016) grant to rebuild trackage from Crivitz north to the Michigan state line. This was the last section of mainline track that had not seen a complete rebuild since it was bought in 1980. The various branch lines are often used by the railroad to store rolling stock.
After closure of the Smurfit-Stone Paper Mill in Ontonagon in 2009, the 15 miles (24 km) of track between Ontonagon and Rockland was abandoned in 2011, and the railroad no longer reaches Lake Superior. The remaining trackage between Rockland and Sidnaw is used for car storage and there are no remaining customers between Sidnaw and Rockland.
When it began operations, the ELS used steam locomotives purchased second hand from other railroads in the Midwest. It bought a new Shay locomotive for logging service in 1904, followed by various locomotives from Baldwin. Its first diesel locomotive, a Baldwin VO-1000, was purchased in 1946. The railroad continued buying new and used Baldwins for the next several decades. In 1985, the first EMD diesel, a GP-38 was purchased, followed shortly by additional GP-38s and SD9s. In 2003, the railroad bought two SD-40-2s, and, unusually, an FP7 two years later.
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