Transportation

Three words describe the source of Houghton’s success: location, location, location. The movement of people and goods via ships, wagons, trains, streetcars, horses, snowmobiles, bicycles, and carriages has driven Houghton’s growth and has left a discernable imprint on the city’s architectural landscape.

Portage Lake provided vessels a safe haven from Lake Superior’s notorious storms. Ships delivered people, consumer goods and raw materials to various docks and landings along Houghton’s waterfront. In turn, copper, timber and other manufactured goods were distributed by outgoing vessels to the industrial cities "down below." Today, the city’s waterfront still provides moorings to the occasional lake freighter or tour boat.

Although a boon to ship traffic, the lake also posed a frustrating obstacle for overland travel. Winter ice provided temporary solutions, but even the Keweenaw’s notoriously harsh winters supported reliable "ice roads" for only a portion of the season. In 1876 local businessmen – hoping to overcome high ferry tariffs – funded construction of the first bridge to link the cities of Houghton and Hancock, guaranteeing Houghton’s role as the "Gateway to the Keweenaw."

On shore, Houghton experienced successive transportation revolutions: horse and carriage, rail and streetcar, and a lasting automobile culture. In the earliest of these, Houghton catered to the needs of an active horse-driven society. Local livery stables and wagon works employed blacksmiths, carpenters, and leather craftsmen to supply carriages, horseshoes, saddles, harnesses and bridles to the community.

Railroads dominated the city’s landscape for nearly a century. The Mineral Range Railroad, a part of the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic network, linked southward to L’Anse and Marquette. This company constructed a sandstone passenger depot in the heart of the city in 1903. The Copper Range Railroad was a subsidiary of the Copper Range Company and linked westward to Ontonagon County. This company developed a large rail yard, roundhouse and depot complex west of the bridge in the early 1900s and operated an active passenger service through the 1940s. An electric streetcar line also graced Houghton’s main thoroughfare, running from Shelden Avenue northward across the bridge, linking northward through Hancock to Calumet and Mohawk.

Automobiles began to appear in the Copper Country in the early twentieth century and have had a more lasting and profound impact on the city of Houghton. A 1912 booklet produced by the Copper Country Automobile Club requested drivers to observe a 25 miles per hour speed limit in rural areas, but cautioned them to slow to 10 miles per hour "in the business portion of any village." The crossover from horsepower to gasoline engines led to changes in businesses and buildings. Horse stables, blacksmiths and carriage shops were largely gone by the 1920s, replaced with automobile-related business. Many livery stables simply transformed into garages for car owners whose homes were built without appropriate spaces.

The automobile has outlasted ship, streetcar and rail transportation. Although the last freight train pulled out of Houghton in 1982, the level railroad grades have proven ideal for pedestrian and bicycle paths, as well as important winter snowmobile trails. Regardless of mode, Houghton’s development continues to be impacted by the transportation needs of the region. In its own way, this historic walking tour is a return to the foot traffic that dominated the city’s early development.

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Delivery sleighs on Isle Royale Street