Houghton stands at the center of the worlds largest deposit of native copper. Unlike copper mining in other parts of the world, the deposits along the Keweenaw Peninsula were of pure metallic copper. Steeply pitched ore bodies discouraged modern open-pit mining techniques, so local mines used deep shafts to develop underground mines. Michigan native copper mines produced over 10 billion pounds of refined copper between 1840 and 1969 and several local mines operated more than a mile below the surface.
Copper was not evenly dispersed along the 80-mile length of the Keweenaw Peninsula, however, and different sections of the mineral range were developed during different eras. The earliest success stories were found in fissure mines located at the north and south ends of the peninsula. Mines such as the Minesota (its name misspelled through a clerical error) and the Cliff were the first to return dividends to East Coast investors and encouraged the early development of lakefront towns such as Ontonagon, Eagle River and Eagle Harbor, shipping points for incoming goods and outgoing copper.
Early mines working thick fissure veins of copper played out relatively quickly and attention soon shifted to poorer, but more widely dispersed, mineral lodes near the center of the Keweenaw. Mines such as the Atlantic, Huron, Grand Portage and Shelden & Columbian began south of Portage Lake, while discovery of the rich Pewabic lode spurred the success of the Franklin, Pewabic and Quincy mining companies north of the lake. Further north, the Calumet conglomerate lode would prove the richest of all Keweenaw copper deposits guaranteeing the prominence of the Calumet & Hecla Mining Company in Michigan copper production. The inland waterway connecting Portage and Torch lakes to the shipping lanes of Lake Superior became increasingly important, with stamp mills, smelting works and dock facilities lining the available coastline.
Although Michigan copper mining companies became widely known for the housing and community buildings provided to their employees, they rarely built or operated their own stores or commercial enterprises. In most cases, companies set aside blocks of property adjacent to their mines to be platted off into townsites and commercial districts. With lake frontage as the draw, the Quincy Mining Company sold land to encourage the growth of the village of Hancock. On the south side of the lake, merchant and mining entrepreneur Ransom Shelden laid out the town of Houghton to support his mineral properties further inland. Sheldens log store became the towns first building in 1852.
Houghton was incorporated as a village in 1861 and its location on the protected inland waters of Portage Lake made it an ideal shipping port. A variety of merchants, retail outlets and wholesale warehouses soon put down roots in the town. Its placement on the south side of the lake became increasingly important with the 1876 construction of a bridge across Portage Lake and the arrival of rail service from Marquette, Michigan, in 1883. Although Houghton itself was never a hugely successful mining town, its activity as a commercial and transportation hub placed it at the center of the Michigan copper district. For thousands of immigrants, tons of supplies and millions of dollars, Houghton was indeed "Gateway to the Keweenaw."
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