Municipal Houghton

By the 1890s, Houghton had developed from a small lakeside village into a bustling regional hub for transportation and commerce. During this same period, necessary and desirable government infrastructures were funded through taxes at the local, county, state and federal levels. Municipal services were designed to provide structure and system to the growing town, not only through ordinances and community utilities, but also by encouraging cultural institutions such as public libraries.

Although Houghton incorporated as a village in 1861, the fire hall was its first significant municipal structure. Built in 1883, the commanding brick building was designed to house the fire department and the village offices. Houghton’s Continental Fire Department had been organized in 1860, one of the earliest volunteer fire units in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

The building’s apparent symmetry is deceiving; the two large ground-floor openings on the right provided access to a large garage housing fire-fighting equipment, while the opening on the left accessed a stairway to office space on the upper floor. Originally, the building was topped with a small tower. In addition to housing four clock faces, which could be seen throughout the city, the tower provided necessary space to hang and dry the fire department’s hoses. An addition was constructed in 1916 to house two additional fire engines.

Over subsequent decades, the city’s growth affected the size and location of municipal facilities. The city moved many of its offices to the former Houghton Club building on Shelden Avenue in the 1930s and moved again in 1989 to the former Masonic Temple building. Both moves assisted in the preservation of important historic buildings in the city. The fire hall continued its original mission for the Houghton fire department until 1974, when the city was forced to build a new fire hall further up the hill for larger, modern equipment in a more central position in the growing municipality.

The municipal fire hall also played a pivotal role in local education. In 1861, Michigan Governor Austin Blair signed a bill to start the Michigan Mining School in Houghton, but the start of the Civil War made it impossible for the State to finance the project. It was not until 1885 that the State finally appropriated the necessary funds to actually start the School. In 1886, with a faculty of four and an enrollment of twenty-three, the first classes of the Michigan Mining School were held in rented space in the Houghton fire hall. Over a century later – and after three name changes – the mining school survives today as Michigan Technological University.

The fledgling school also made use of additional space in an armory on the east side of Huron Street, on the site of the current library. This corner was home to several community-oriented structures, including an ice rink, the armory and an opera house. Perhaps the best known of Houghton’s community recreational facilities was the 1902 Amphidrome, located along the city’s waterfront, which included an ice rink and well-appointed ballroom. Through such structures, families and other members of Houghton’s resident community could enjoy entertainment alternatives to the often-rowdy billiard halls and saloons along Shelden Avenue.

In 1908, John Doelle, Superintendent of the Portage Township School District, led a successful effort to establish a public library in Houghton. Turning to steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, the school district secured a $15,000 grant to construct the building. Carnegie funded more than 1,500 libraries throughout the country, hoping that these buildings might steer young minds "clear of low fellowship and bad habits." The Houghton Public Library was completed in 1910 and was operated by the School District for many years. In more recent decades, the library has been funded through a cooperative of municipalities which value the presence of public library services in their community.

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Houghton County Courthouse