The bridges of Houghton/Hancock

Construction of the new lift bridge in the foreground and behind it the old bridge. (Photo provided by the Marquette Regional History Center)

Before the first bridge was built in 1875, the only way to cross Portage Lake was by boat. Captain Samuel Estes came to Portage Lake in about 1853 along with his yawl, a small sailboat which could also be rowed. He immediately started a business taking people across and as the sole ferry service, soon began to make money. In a few years he invested in a 40 foot steamboat and eventually a large sidewheeler.

With the increase in traffic to the Copper Country, the state granted a charter to build a toll bridge in 1871. A 1400 foot wooden bridge with a turntable at the center allowed 60 feet for vessels to pass through. The bridge was built for $47,000 and opened in 1876. Toll prices were interesting – passengers and sheep were 5 cents, however cattle and mules paid 15 cents and hogs were 10 cents. There was once hitch, the ferry boats were still operating and cutting in on the toll profits, so the Portage Lake Bridge Company purchased the competing ferries. That’s one way to insure profits!

When the Mineral Range Railroad wanted to connect with the Marquette, Houghton and Ontonagon RR, they planned a separate bridge which would have by-passed Houghton. The bridge company offered to convert the bridge to a double decker with the tracks on the bottom. After doing that, people began to complain that the bridge should be free. Responding to the community, the county board of supervisors threatened to build another free bridge. That’s when the Bridge Company called it quits and sold out to the county.

It wasn’t long before it was felt the old bridge should be replaced with a new steel version. Its replacement was completed in 1896 and for a while this seemed adequate. However, ships were getting wider and there were occasional incidents where damage occurred. Then the inevitable happened. On April 15, 1905 the steamer Northern Star struck it hard, injuring several people working on the bridge. The wreckage covered the bridge openings and cut off navigation. All freight was back to being moved across the water by barge. With no streetcars able to run, the railroad was able to anchor two scows to the pilings so that people could get across.

The cause of the accident according to newspaper accounts, indicated that the bridge mechanism had not been working properly for a while and had slowed down right at a critical moment and the ship the Northern Wave could not slowdown in time to avoid hitting the bridge. Its bow was only slightly damaged, the bridge itself was not so lucky.

The damaged turntable mechanism after the collision in 1905. The barges which had just been hauled in to allow foot traffic across can be seen in front of it, along with spectators checking out the disaster scene. (Photo provided by the Marquette Regional History Center)

Repairs included new piers and a new heavier span with a better mechanism. The two openings were each widened to 108 feet. The newly repaired bridge opened in April of 1907. This bridge served the communities for decades. At this time there were 6000 bridge openings a year and 40 train crossings a day.

In the 1950s the state began to explore new bridge options and in 1959 construction was begun on the world’s heaviest aerial lift bridge. In another close encounter, on the night before the opening ribbon cutting ceremony on June 25, 1960, a freighter coming through the canal signed for the bridge to open but the signals were not acted on. The freighter narrowly avoided disaster by dropping all it anchors, it did snag the underwater telephone lines however. During the ceremonies the next day onlookers had the unusual opportunity of seeing a freighter crossways in the canal. For 57 years that bridge has continued to serve the area.