Houghton has grown dramatically since 1861, when its two thousand residents, wood frame commercial district and few industrial buildings were incorporated as a village. By the time of the copper districts peak production, 1900-1920, the population of the village and surrounding township had reached nearly ten thousand. Not surprisingly, Houghton was forced to expand and change to meet the needs of this growing community.
At first, the city expanded southward up the hill from its original waterfront core. Over time, a cycle of destruction and construction stratified Houghtons central section into clearly identifiable zones. A section of docks, warehouses and industrial buildings comprised the zone of property adjacent to Portage Lake. Above this, Shelden Avenue formed the core of a second linear zone including hotels, saloons and retail businesses. Further up the hillside, beginning along Montezuma Avenue, a residential neighborhood developed, with homes, schools and churches.
The city also pushed east and west from its original core. To the east, houses for many of Houghtons successful merchant and mining class lined College Avenue. At the end of the road, the Michigan Mining School, begun in rented space in downtown Houghton in 1885, established permanent roots on property donated by local state senator Jay Hubbell. Fraternities and sororities now inhabit many of East Houghtons larger homes and college students form a significant portion of the citys population.
The west side also developed residential housing in the 1880s and 1890s, but saw more active growth following the formation of the Copper Range Company in 1899. As this company constructed railroad and shipping facilities along the western waterfront, workers and businesses scrambled to construct warehouses, commercial buildings and residential units. More recently, Houghton has annexed large blocks of property from surrounding Portage Township for retail and commercial developments.
Throughout this history of outward geographic growth, Houghtons central core experienced great change and renewal. Retail and commercial businesses grew to serve the increased population, as larger stores and impressive office blocks were constructed. Social organizations flourished, encouraging larger buildings such as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows hall at the western end of Shelden Avenue, constructed in 1910. Houghtons streetscapes were also altered by a number of fires. Some were confined to individual buildings, such as a 1914 fire that razed the Carroll Foundry on Franklin Street, while others were more destructive, as one that destroyed seven Shelden Avenue buildings between Quincy Street and the bridge in 1959.
The end of local copper mining in the late 1960s, the loss of scheduled ship and rail service, and many other changes in Houghtons business and manufacturing industries have had a dramatic effect on the citys downtown area. With its population and economy now focused upon a mix of service, education and tourism industries, many historic buildings have outlived their original functions. Although some have fallen into disrepair, many others have been transformed for new uses, helping to preserve an important record of the citys long and rich history.