In the early 1900’s a lumberman named Robert Hunter purchased 15,000 acres at 5 cents an acre. He needed a way to get the harvested timber from his land to market. During the days of log drives, lumberjacks harvested trees in the winter and stacked them on the river bank until the spring thaw came. Once river was swollen by the runoff from melting snow, the logs were rolled into the river and floated downstream and over the Upper Tahquamenon Falls toward Lake Superior.
During these log drives, many logs become waterlogged and sink to the bottom or were damaged going over the Tahquamenon Falls. Hunter decided he would build a sawmill on the banks of the Tahquamenon River, shortening the distance logs had to travel. Once the trees were cut into dimensional lumber, he needed a way to transport them to market. The Duluth South Shore and Atlantic Railroad (DSS&A) was hired to build a railroad spur from Soo Junction MI. to the saw mill on the bank of the river some 5 ½ miles away. The spur was completed in 1910. This standard gauge railroad was named the Hunter and Love line.
The logging operation continued until 1925. With the harvest of the trees complete, the sawmill was shut down and the railroad sat idle. A man named Joe Beach who was serving as a conservation officer and stationed at the McNearney farm on the Tahquamenon River had an idea. Joe’s job was to run daily river patrols from Newberry to the falls and back, a 14 hour trip. Back in those days the Upper Tahquamenon Falls were only accessible by river. Often time’s dignitaries from Lower Michigan would ask Joe to join him on his patrol, so they could see the falls.
The Upper Tahquamenon Falls is the second largest waterfall in the Eastern U.S., by volume flow. Over 200 feet across and 50 feet high, the Tahquamenon Falls is often called Michigan’s Niagara. His idea to start a tour business was born. Joe often had trouble navigating the upper river due to its twists, turns and shallow spots. The trip was very long and Joe was looking for a way to shorten it. Since the Hunter and Love railroad was no longer being used, Joe arranged to lease the railroad tracks and land at Hunters Mill for his trips to the falls. This would allow passengers to reach Soo Junction by car then travel by rail to the river to board the boat.
He bought and fitted a model “T” truck and trailer with train wheels. This contraption was used to transport passengers on the standard gauge track to reach the dock. A boat was purchased that would hold 30 passengers. She was named the Betty B after Joe’s daughter Betty Beach. The first trip was made in 1927. After a few years the trip became so popular that a way to haul more passengers was sought. This was when Robert Hunter and Joe Beach became full partners.
Plans were made to convert the standard gauge track to a 24 inch narrow gauge track. The 24 inch railroad equipment was readily available from mines and logging operations at a reasonable price. To convert the track while continuing to use it, the 24 inch rail was laid inside the standard rail which took several years to complete. In 1933, the new 24 gauge track was complete and a Plymouth friction drive locomotive and 4 WWI surplus flat cars made up the first Toonerville Trolley train. A barge was built to tug alongside the Betty B and the trip could now take up to 100 passengers.
The tour continued to gain in popularity and the partners made plans to build a bigger boat. A ship builder from Saginaw named Ed Trombley was hired for the job. The new boat was built right on the river bank with materials brought in on the train. This new boat was named the Tahquamenon. She was 75 feet long and 30 feet wide and seated 400 passengers. There was even a dance floor and jukebox onboard. The Tahquamenon was launched in 1938. She was the largest vessel to ever travel the river. The total trip took over 9 hours.
In 1940, another boat was needed to replace the aging Betty B and Mr. Trombley was again put to work building the riverboat Paul Bunyan. She was a wooden vessel measuring 65 feet long by 18 feet wide and held 200 passengers. Two trips a day were run in the busy part of the summer to accommodate all the people who wanted to see the falls. At times they would take as many as 700 people a day.
In 1963, plans were made to replace the riverboat Tahquamenon. The Vinette Boatworks in Escanaba, Michigan were hired to build a 72 ft long x 21 ft wide steel riverboat. The boat was built in 4 sections and trucked to a site north of Newberry where an ice road had been built all the way to the river. A bulldozer was used to skid the boat’s sections to the river bank. A welding crew put the sections together on the bank. The shell of the boat was pushed out onto the river ice where she finally broke through and launched. After the ice had melted, she was towed to the dock where the motors and running gears were installed. This new vessel was named the Hiawatha and ran her first trip in 1964. The Hiawatha is much faster than the old boats making the round trip in only 6 ½ hours.
In the fall of that same year, the riverboat Paul Bunyan was retired as her wooden hull had worn out. The riverboat Tahquamenon was dry docked, stripped, and cut down by 10 ft in width and 5 ft in length and a new wooden upper structure was put in place. This refurbished boat was renamed the Paul Bunyan II and could seat 300 passengers making the trip nearly as fast as the Hiawatha. For over 30 years, the Hiawatha and the Paul Bunyan II passed each other on their trips up and down the river. The Paul Bunyan II was retired in 2001 and kept on hand for a couple of years, then was cut up for scrap as the old hull was no longer usable.
In the early days our name was Tahquamenon Boat Service. Then over the years our passengers started calling our train the Toonerville Trolley after a popular cartoon strip called Toonerville Folks. This cartoon strip, written by Fontain Fox, appeared every week in the Sunday newspapers of the day. The name Toonerville Trolley stuck.
The train today is run with two Plymouth 5 ton diesel locomotives. The 5 ½ mile Toonerville Trolley line is the longest 24 inch railroad in the USA. The train is still needed to transport passengers from Soo Junction MI. to the dock at the Tahquamenon River where the riverboat is boarded. The track runs through a wilderness area that has no road access. Wildlife and birds are often spotted along the way. In 1998 we started offering a separate tour that gives passengers the opportunity to take the train ride without going on the riverboat.
In the early 1980’s, the Beach family sold their interest in the business to Robert Hunter's Grandson, Hugh Stewart. The Stewart family has owned and operated the tour ever since. Hugh passed away in 2012 and today Hugh’s son Kris Stewart is the captain of the Hiawatha. He enjoys passing along his lifetime of knowledge to passengers via his narration, while cruising the river. In 2014, the Hiawatha celebrated her 50th birthday.
Today our tours are a step back in history. Back to the time when the white pine was king and roads were few and far between. Our passengers still enjoy a private view of the Upper Tahquamenon Falls after a 5/8 of a mile hike on our nature trail. The 21 mile stretch of river the boat travels is still scenic and pristine, offering our passengers a view of this breathtaking wilderness from the comfort of their seat. The riverboat’s galley serves up a nice selection of sandwiches, freshly prepared right on board. Beverages and snacks are available too and all at reasonable prices. Our tours are a “must do” for bird watchers and nature enthusiasts. Our family is waiting to serve you. Join us for our 91st season.