Hunts' Guide to The Upper Peninsula



Region: Keweenaw Peninsula

Houghton from Mt. Ripley
Houghton as seen from Mt. Ripley across the Portage Waterway.

Built on a steep slope down to the Keweenaw Waterway, the Houghton County seat has some of the Midwest's most interesting and dramatic views for a city not directly on one of the Great Lakes. It's a visual treat to look across the wide Keweenaw Waterway (as from the interior of Hardee's on M-26 just west of downtown) and take in the panorama of the Portage Lake Lift Bridge, Houghton's twin city of Hancock, and the Mont Ripley ski hill.

On the far skyline across the waterway, the silhouette of the Quincy Mine's No. 2 shaft house pops up from many vantage points, from downtown to Sharon Avenue and the commercial strip. It's the quintessential landmark symbolizing copper's central role in the twin cities' history. Houghton and Hancock were both business centers of the copper range in the 1890s. The Quincy Hill scenic overlook on U.S. 41 has a remarkable view of Houghton and the Keweenaw Waterway.

Houghton-Hancock minimap
Click to enlarge

Before this area became a mining region, giant hemlocks, sugar maple, and yellow birch covered it. The first bridge connecting Houghton with Hancock was completed in 1876. This was three years after a two-mile-long canal was dug, creating the western outlet from the Keweenaw Waterway to Lake Superior by today's McLain State Park. The canal made an island of the Keweenaw Peninsula's copper-rich northern section, from Hancock north to Copper Harbor. The canal allowed ships to avoid the lengthy, and at times treacherous, trip around Keweenaw Point, 50 miles to the north.

The unusual PORTAGE LAKE LIFT BRIDGE between Houghton and Hancock is the only non-water crossing point between Houghton and everything north. It's a symbol of the area, and a fine place for walking. The bridge creates some spectacular traffic jams. Sometimes when the lift bridge raises near rush hour, traffic backs up all the way to the Michigan Tech campus. (The bridge, operated by the Michigan Department of Transportation, is staffed by an operator 24 hours a day in season. It's raised 400 to 500 times a year, mostly for pleasure boats or for the National Park Service's Ranger III headed for Isle Royale.) Unlike a drawbridge, the bridge's midsection rises vertically to allow freighters and tall sailboats to pass. You can count on seeing it in action four times a week, at 9 a.m. Tuesday and Friday and 3 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday. That's when the National Park Service's Ranger III supply and ferry boat to Isle Royale departs and comes back. The lift bridge takes six minutes to raise and come down.

Education is central to Houghton's identity and the area's economy. Michigan Technological University is one of the country's major state technological universities. Its campus is the first part of Houghton you see as you arrive from the south on U.S. 41. (See separate "Point of Interest" for a campus tour.) Tech started out in 1885 as the Michigan Mining School. Few buildings remain from before World War Two, however. Tech's enrollment climbed dramatically after the war, thanks to the GI Bill subsidizing the educations of returning military personnel. Recently the mining department was completely closed —a real identity shock —though a graduate degree in mining engineering and an undergraduate minor in mining remain.

Quincy Smelter
The remains of the Quincy Smelter across the Portage Waterway from Hancock. It's the only remaining copper smelter remaining in the Lake Superior region. It processed ore from 13 local mines.

Tech's Rozsa Center for the Performing Arts gave a huge boost to cultural life in the western Upper Peninsula. It's the U.P.'s best-equipped venue. Touring companies of musicals sometimes rehearse here for weeks because of the excellent stage facilities and low cost of lodgings.

Over half the MTU students involved in music and theater study engineering. Engineering and music/theater are not two separate worlds here. Programs such as theatre & entertainment technology and audio production & technology make a more direct career connection. Interest in music is quite high in Houghton-Hancock. So is the caliber of serious amateur musicians who perform.

MacInnes Drive, at the stoplight, winds up past the athletic facilities and turns into Sharon Avenue, ending up by Taco Bell on Houghton's commercial strip along M-26.

U.S. 41 is known as College Avenue as it passes between the university campus and downtown. Turn uphill at the Wells Fargo bank, and you'll see Jim's Food Mart, a well-run general grocery, priced for student budgets, that reflects Tech's diverse community. The international food section is well chosen. The spirits, beers, and wines have been tucked to one side, with helpful comments on shelf-talkers.

West of the university, College Avenue is lined with mansions of business people from the copper-mining era, often architecturally interesting, with beautiful stained glass and woodwork. They are now fraternities, sororities, and apartments, unfortunately not always well maintained.
A few blocks farther, U.S. 41 becones a one-way pair as you enter Houghton's downtown along Shelden Avenue—handsome and at times lively, with fewer vacant storefronts than many downtowns these days.

Façade improvements have restored buildings to something closer to their historic appearance. Good views pop up in many places. One or two streets up are the old sandstone churches (Methodist, Episcopal, and Catholic) that add to Houghton's townscape seen from the bridge. There's lots of parking, on decks and below near the waterfront, tucked away on either side of the one-way streets, but you have to look for the P signs. Also not obvious, the city has developed a paved waterfront pathway for four miles through downtown, popular with strollers and roller skaters. (See separate point of interest.)

At the east end of downtown is the information center for ISLE ROYALE NATIONAL PARK and the dock for its impressive 165-foot passenger and supply ship, Ranger III, which makes regular trips to Isle Royale National Park, 60 miles away to the northwest. (See separate chapter.)

Return to Keweenaw Peninsula

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