Winter

It is said that there are two seasons in the Copper Country: "winter’s here" and "winter’s coming." The region’s northern latitude and unsheltered exposure to Lake Superior combine to guarantee heavy "lake effect" snowfall. The Keweenaw Peninsula regularly receives in excess of 200 inches of snowfall each year. By comparison, Minneapolis averages 47 inches, Chicago 40 inches and Detroit only 38 inches per year. Even the lake effect snows of Buffalo, New York, only average 93 inches per year.

The heaviest winter snowfall in Houghton County was recorded during the 1978-1979 season with over 350 inches falling in the county. Yet residents know that the snowfall totals tell only a part of the story. Even in below average years, the snow can be punishingly constant. In 1984-1985 snow fell for 51 days straight, yet didn’t break a Houghton County record set in the 1930s when snow fell every day for two months.

Historically, Keweenaw winters have had a dramatic impact on local communities. Winter effectively closed lake shipping from November through April. Although Lake Superior rarely froze over entirely, smaller inland lakes like Portage Lake remained impassable. Before the advent of rail and road links, winter cut the Keweenaw off from the outside world. Early Houghton mercantile businesses stockpiled huge amounts of supplies during the fall and then meted them out slowly over the winter months. The arrival of the first supply ship in the spring was an event that effectively closed all businesses in celebration.

In the village of Houghton, winter weather was both a boon and a bane for local travel. Frozen lakes afforded winter alternatives to bridges and ferries, while frozen roads also held great advantage over the mud and rock-strewn lanes that preceded modern paving techniques. That said, early snow equipment was rudimentary at best. Huge snow-rollers were drawn behind teams of horses and "panked" (packed down) the snow on top of the roads. With the advent of automobile travel, the county and city road plows became a common winter site. Rail roads added specialized snow moving cars to the front of trains to break through the deep snow drifts.

Winter weather directly affected the built environment. In the city’s residential neighborhoods, house foundations were often raised so that entrance doors could be kept above the snowdrifts. The roofs of many houses were steeply pitched to encourage snow to fall to the ground and garages were placed close to the road, to reduce residents’ shoveling burden. In more recent decades, downtown stores were interconnected through interior doors and overhead skywalks in an attempt to protect patrons from the elements.

Perhaps because of its length and impact, Houghton residents have turned the winter elements to their advantage, participating in a variety of winter sporting activities. Historically, skating, sledding and skiing have been popular attractions. Perhaps the best known of Houghton’s winter sporting facilities was the 1902 Amphidrome, located along the city’s waterfront. The building’s distinctive façade resembled a palace promoting its ice arena and ballroom. The Amphidrome was lost to fire in 1927, but its replacement survives today as the Dee Stadium. Michigan Tech’s Winter Carnival evolved during the 1920s, an annual event drawing thousands of visitors.

To some, winter remains a bothersome irritation, with snow, ice and cold inhibiting movement and activity. To others it is a bounty, with the first layer of good snow creating beautiful skiing, snow shoeing, and snowmobiling opportunities. Regardless of individual opinion, Houghton residents are destined to continue their love-hate relationship with winter.

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Shelden Avenue c.1930