With the advent of modern conveniences, it can be difficult to appreciate the importance of Houghtons historic warehouses and wholesale merchants. Before supermarkets, shopping malls and Internet shopping, residents relied upon a delivery and sales system with active wholesale businesses that would purchase, receive and store bulk goods in the Keweenaws larger towns. With Keweenaw winters halting shipping on Lake Superior for a good portion of the year, warehouses became important storehouses for supplies. Wholesalers, in turn, sold and delivered goods to smaller retail merchants scattered across the region. Not surprisingly, Houghtons strategic location at the center of major transportation routes made it an ideal location for the handling of goods and materials.
A wide variety of wholesale merchants operated in the city, selling everything from fruit to dry goods and from coal to hardware. Warehouse developments grew in three general areas along the waterfront. To the east of the village, Joseph Croze augmented the shipbuilding income from his dry dock operation with sales of coal, wood, and other construction materials. At the western edge of the village, the M. Van Orden company operated a lime kiln and advertised as "Wholesale Dealers in Coal, Cement, Builders Materials, Flour and Feed." In addition to wholesale accounts, Van Orden also delivered coal at retail rates to homes, industries and the former Houghton County Electric Company powerhouse. The companys lakeside docks had a capacity for 65,000 tons of coal and their hoists elevated millions of tons of fuel from lake steamers over the decades. Following the development of the Copper Range Companys dock and railroad facilities in 1900, a complex of smaller warehouses and cold storage facilities grew along this western shoreline to take advantage of increased rail and ship traffic.
It was Houghtons central warehouse district, however, that handled the majority of the villages wholesale operations. Starting with Ransom Sheldens earliest store in 1852, the area surrounding the foot of Dodge, Huron, and Isle Royale streets was home to a impressive array of wholesale merchants. Groceries and produce passed through the Peninsula Wholesale Grocery, Jacob Alt Cold Storage and Roach & Seebers two-warehouse complex. Meats were brought in by the Cudahy Packing Company and Karger & Sons, often for sale to the sausage factory in the same block. Several businesses catered to the mining industry, which was the lifeblood of the copper district. The I.E. Swift Company advertised widely for its "Shelf and Heavy Hardware, Mine and Mill Supplies." The hardware company constructed a waterfront warehouse in 1911 at the same time as (and directly behind) a brick retail store that fronted Shelden Avenue. A railway spur and lakeside dock delivered bulk goods directly to the warehouse doors, while clerks filled individual orders a block to the south.
The networks of wholesale and retail trade continue today, but no longer require an active waterfront warehouse district. Changes in shipping methods and a developing automobile culture now encourage buyers to travel to centralized purchase points such as shopping malls. Most of Houghtons warehouses grew derelict through disuse or neglect and had to be torn down. A few still survive in the central waterfront district, however, saved from the wrecking ball through their conversion into commercial and office spaces.
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