“This place, this bearer of the chilly winter burst . . .
far from commercial in its constancy,
its threat, impact, and our recovery:
always from it.”
– Ander Monson
The downtown span of Houghton has a very urbanized feel to it, making it one of my favorite spots in the UP. Along with its twin town of Hancock across the Portage Channel, they make up a population center of around 12,000 (which is still smaller than the towns of Marquette or Escanaba) and is one of the main population centers of the UP.
My last time here resulted in an amusing freak occurrence that coincided exactly with our timed arrival. This past summer, while on a trip from my summer job on Mackinac Island to the Paulding Light in the western UP (a fascinating topic for another time), we looped up from the town of Bruce Crossings through Rockland, Ontonagon, and South Range to Houghton, hoping to use the remaining time we had to reach Copper Harbor, as Sheylyn, my travel partner, had never ventured west of Marquette, and never been to the Keweenaw.
Unfortunately for us, as we got into Houghton, we found that the Lift Bridge (again, the ONLY way to get to Hancock and beyond) had become stuck about a meter above its locking point, trapping anyone going there and creating a traffic backup through the main street in downtown Houghton and continuing down US 41 northbound for at least two miles. Luckily, we had come from the southwest on M-26 rather than the southeast, a much more traveled route, so, we drove right into town.
We waited for over an hour, wandering the downtown and waterfront on foot and stopping at the Douglass House Saloon. However, enough time passed that we couldn’t justify staying any longer, as any trip to Copper Harbor would add 3 hours round trip, plus whatever time we spent in the peninsula. Reading up on it later, they are still unsure of what caused the malfunction, which lasted until 5:30 (3 hours), with the authorities already preparing overnight shelters for those who could not get across the bridge. We left Houghton, passing miles of backed up cars on our way back through Marquette to St Ignace and our summer home of Mackinac Island.
We came back this time to complete that trip we couldn’t before. Unlike our summer trip here, there is a virgin layer of snow on the ground now, with designated snowmobile parking lots popping up on the outskirts of downtown. As it has little choice with a snowfall average near 5 meters, Houghton embraces its snowfall in the winter becoming a haven for snowmobiles and winter celebrations.
Rather than snow, our worry today is the wind though. Driving north along the Lake Superior shore on US 41, the violent winds were threatening to shake our car out of the lane at times. It eased as we turned westward away from the big lake.
One of the most interesting physical features of Houghton is that it and Hancock are built on the slopes of the valley carved out by the Portage River. This becomes very evident along the streets of downtown, where our hotel was located, which is a 3-story building and both the 1st and 3rd stories are at a street level.
After checking in, we went to have dinner at the Library Restaurant Bar Brew (quite the mouthful), a library-themed brewpub with excellent food, but for my tastes, the beer left something to be desired. We did, however, get a great view of the Portage River.
We returned to the hotel to enjoy the pool for a little while before heading out again. The highlight of the town’s bar scene is the Keweenaw Brewing Company, a brand recognized and sold around the state. Its staples include the Pickaxe Blonde, Red Jacket Amber, and Widowmaker Black, all sold in cans. Their bar also has a fantastic setting, providing a rustic, comfortable feel with their couches surrounding a wood heater. It’s also got a great outdoor terrace complete with artwork and a view of the Lift Bridge.
Other than the Douglass House mentioned earlier, the most popular bar in town is the Downtowner, which will be packed shoulder to shoulder when Michigan Tech is in session. The prices are decent, but it took up forever to maneuver around and actually get to the bar to order a drink.
For those looking for something a little more relaxing than bars packed with Yoopers and Tech students, Houghton’s walk along the waterfront isn’t something to be missed. To the south, it maintains its deceptive façade of an urbanity, complete with the almost Gotham overhang of a parking structure. While on the north, there are always docked boats and the more Keweenawesque buildings of Hancock dotting the otherwise wooded and grassy hills. From downtown, the path continues on to the Houghton Marina and a campground.
An excellent piece of reading for those interested in a darker and more offbeat interpretation of the area would do well to read Other Electricities by Ander Monson. A local of Houghton and exceptionally gifted writer and poet, Monson served as one of my professors at Grand Valley State University before moving to Arizona. While outstanding as a stand-alone piece, his influence and my own familiarity with this area has turned Other Electricities into one of my lasting favorites.