The Portage Waterway has long been a place of activity and rest. As early as 1200 BC, Native Americans used this natural shortcut and to access copper pits located in the Keweenaw Peninsula and to shorten their journeys along the south shore of Lake Superior. Keweenaw" means, "place where one crosses" in the Ojibwa language. The name "Portage" comes from the French voyageur's term for the 2-mile overland stretch between the northwestern arm of Portage Lake and Lake Superior.
The larger ships navigating Lake Superior after the opening of the Soo Locks in 1855 were unable to enter the shallow and winding Portage River to reach the growing communities of the Keweenaw. In 1859, a channel was dredged through the river and Portage Lake allowing ships access to the towns of Houghton and Hancock. From 1868 to 1873, a channel was dredged between the northwest end of Portage Lake and Lake Superior. The resulting 22-mile long shipping canal saved ships the 100 miles around the peninsula and provided a harbor of refuge against Superior's infamous storms. In the mid-1870s, another channel was dredged through the constricted waters between Portage and Torch Lakes allowing ships to reach the mines and communities along Torch Lake. Comparison Map (flash)
Prior to the construction of the first bridge, ferries were used to transport people and supplies between the boomtowns of Houghton and Hancock. Increased shipping and activity on the waterway eventually created the need for a bridge. In 1875, a wooden swing bridge was built with a pivoting center span to allow ships to pass. Soon after it opened for traffic, a slide of the Quincy stamp mill sands carried away a portion of the north end closing the bridge for another year. Due to its wooden construction and the ever-increasing size of Great Lakes ships, the bridge eventually became obsolete and dangerous. In 1901, a steel bridge with a wooden swing span replaced the old bridge. In 1905, a steamer struck the bridge and toppled the center span into the lake. Once again the ferries were called into service while repairs were made. The use of two different building materials with varying expansion properties caused the operation of this bridge to be hampered in warm weather, while ice plagued it in cold. As automobile traffic increased, the slow operation of the swing span became unacceptable and the present lift bridge replaced it in1959. The present Portage Lake Lift bridge is the widest and heaviest double decked vertical lift bridge in the world, capable of allowing 100 ft. of clearance for passing ships. Since rail traffic was discontinued in the Keweenaw, the lower deck is used to accommodate snowmobile traffic in the winter.
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