The Copper Range railroad was relatively late to the party, having been preceded by three other railroads by the time it had begun laying track to the south of Houghton. The railroad didn’t waste any time, however, erecting itself the largest and most impressive rail yard to be found in the Copper Country. Most impressive was the fact that this sprawling rail yard was squeezed into a narrow strip of land along the Portage Lake west of Houghton – bordered on one side by the lake and on the other by a steep hillside. Within this narrow strip of land the company built itself a complex of over 37 buildings including a 15 stall brick roundhouse, two machine shops, two blacksmith shops, various storage sheds, passenger station, and a massive coal coal unloading and storage facility.
Fast forward a century and the sprawling rail complex has been replaced by town houses and single family dwellings, the old roundhouse marked only by the arching road that once circled it. After several decades of slow decay, the railroad finally closed for good in 1973. Soon after the remaining structures at the old rail yard were torn down and the land handed over to the city.
While the old round house and other buildings may have been relatively easy to erase from the landscape, that massive coal dock was something else entirely. The sprawling dock paralleled the shore for over 700 feet, and stood 40 feet high. Along its top was a trio of unloading towers that rose 180 feet into the air. Behind was an equally large coal bin, 30 feet high with a capacity of 16000 tons of material. Something this massive is not so easily erased from existence and while its towering superstructure may be gone the forest of pilings that once supported it are not. They’ve simply been covered up.
Here’s the old coal dock as it appears today. This is Houghton’s municipal boardwalk and marina, a pretty massive piece of infrastructure in its own right. The structure’s impressive size can be owed to the old Copper Range dock itself, whose old pilings form the foundation to the sweeping boardwalk. In fact, a walk along the boardwalk provides a good idea of the scope and scale of the old coal dock that once called this spot home.
Peering under the boardwalk’s modern surface reveals its much older underpinnings – the worn pilings from the Copper Range’s coal dock. These extend several dozen feet out into the lake, and stretch along the shore for nearly a fifth of a mile – almost all of which now support the city’s modern boardwalk.
In some areas the old pilings were removed to make way for boat slips, like this large one crossed by an elevated bridge.
In other areas the city choose not to cover the pilings at all, instead leaving them in place and exposed.
Continuing down the line we find even more old exposed pilings, stretching off seemingly forever along a narrow stretch of the boardwalk.
From the old dock we look next door to where the adjacent coal bin would have sat. Today that area is home to a road with no coal to be found.
No coal perhaps, but there are quite a few other artifacts scattered about along the boardwalk to remember the coal dock by. Here someone had taken more than a few of those old pieces and collected them into nice piles on the shore.
Continuing on down shore we stroll through property once belonging to the Copper Range rail yard. Besides the coal dock – now a boardwalk – nothing else remains. A century ago the view above would have been dominated by a half dozen parallel rail spurs atop of which lines upon lines of rock cars and flat beds would have sat. Today we find only a road, biking path, and some townhouses.
In addition to the rail yard itself, this section of waterfront was home to a few other commercial entities as well. Up along the hill stood the Lake Superior Produce and Cold Storage complex, along with the Twin City supply company warehouses – all served by spurs of the Copper Range. Further down we find the old Houghton Electric Light and Power company’s old turbine house, along with the Copper Range’s hearty freight dock. Then there’s the next stop on our tour, the only remaining intact structure from the old Copper Range rail yard: the Copper Range depot.
To Be Continued…