Imagine the Keweenaw Peninsula, thrusting northeast-ward out of Michigan's Upper Peninsula into Lake Superior. Then imagine a line running the length of the peninsula, with a shorter perpendicular line crossing it. Actually it's not necessary to imagine the two lines. They actually exist. The long line is Michigan's State Route 26. The shorter one is the Keweenaw Waterway.

Just to the northwest of their intersection lie the twin cities of Hancock and Houghton. Hancock was named for the signer of the Decaration of Independence. And Houghton's name is a memorial to geologist Douglass Houghton. As we've seen, his discoverey of the region's copper gave birth to an industry and to its cities.

The waterway, a lockless canal that cuts across the peninsula, is used mostly by smaller boats. The large freighters and ore boats sailing the width of Lake Superior simply pass through the middle of the lake, to the north of the peninsula. So the canal benefits mainly smaller vessels, enabling them to cut through safely rather than risk exposure to the wind-swept expanss of the Great Lake. This shortcut effectively turns the peninsula's tip end into an island. All auto traffic crosses the one and only bridge, passing through Houghton. Before highways and canals existed only small streams connected the cities with the coastal waters. Supplies for the growing twin towns aX constantly-operating mines, (the Quincy Mine was dubbed Old Reliable) had to be towed in scows up creeks that were anything but reliable. And the vessels that brought the supplies could be driven off by storms.

The two cities, lying in a hill-encircled depression, face each other across an arm of Portage Lake. It's a fairly large body of interior water and it wasn't long before someone calculated that two canals, originating at the lake, could quite easily be dug to connect with both Lake Superior to the northwest and Keweenaw Bay to the southeast. A contemporary observer, journalist John Harris Forster, descibes the accomodations endured by a businessman awaiting passage to the outside world, sleeping in, "a log house, his food of the roughest kind, his bed a pair of blankets spread on a floor, in the midst of filth and vermin. The mosquitoes and black flies tormented him day and night. His only amusement was playing cards and drinking bad whiskey, with his unfortunate fellow passengers." Their sufferings came to a halt in June of 1860, with the completion of the waterway.

Were the Hancockians and the Houghtonians pleased with the new arrangement? We'll let Forster answer that, as he succinctly describes the arrival of the first boat. "Great was the rejoicing of the inhabitants, fierce and loud the shrieking of stamp mill whistles."

For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor

© 1999 David Minor / Eagles Byte