Tom Roberts was born and raised in Battle Creek, yet his heart was always in the Copper Country. His family was from Hancock and his grandmother lived in her family home on Lake Street overlooking the Portage. He would visit his grandmother often, and when he did he was sure to bring along his camera to document everything he saw. He was particularly interested in trains, capturing whenever he could the increasingly rare passing of the diesel powered beasts as they rumbled through Hancock. He spent many summers wandering around the ruins of the Quincy Mine – convenient considering his uncle lived just across the street. He would document what he saw, returning every few years to capture the gradual decay of the old buildings and structures he explored. He was there before the Quincy Mine Hoist Association arrived; he was there in their youth; and he was there upon the formation of the Keweenaw National Historic Park. He was one of the original Copper Country Explorers, a man whose photo collection resembled an anologue off-line CCE built decades before I was even born.
Last year at the age of 69 Tom Roberts passed away, leaving behind that analogue CCE that he had built during his lifetime. His legacy fell into the hands of a postcard dealer, where it came to the attention of longtime CCE reader Martin Hogan. A Copper Country enthusiast himself, Mr. Hogan purchased two boxes of Tom’s photos and then generously sent them my way so that they could be shared with the rest of the world via CCE. Now thanks to Mr. Hogan, Tom Roberts’ analogue CCE has found its way to the digital CCE – and a man’s legacy is shared via the internet to the world.
It was in August of 1975 that Tom trained his camera on the main avenue of Houghton’s downtown – capturing this photo of the old Shelden-Dee Block. This was two years before I was born, but in many ways the view is similar to what onc can find still today. The most notable difference – besides the 70s era cars – is the presence of those overhead power lines. Today those lines have been brought underground – greatly improving the scene.
Tom then turns his camera to the opposite side of the street to get the massive brick bulk of the Douglass House – which at this time was still a hotel. It was also incredibly filthy – one can clearly see the effects of decades worth of soot and automobile exhaust can have on a building. Luckily the building underwent a facelift and renovation during its conversion into senior apartments – bringing back a great deal of its former glory.
Speaking of former glory, here’s a shot from the same year of the old Houghton High School, also known as the Portage Lake High School. This massive building is no longer with us, having been demolished in 1999. I was lucky enough to be in Houghton while this beauty was still standing, and was there to see it being torn down. Now this space is just a massive empty lot.
Staying in Houghton but moving forward in time a few years we find a much different Houghton waterfront than we know today. The green spaces, docks, and biking trail that dominate this view today is gone – replaced instead by old rails, decaying buildings, dirt roads and a rugged and ramshackled shoreline. The only real constant is the parking deck, which at this time was just going up.
Tom spins around to take a look at Houghton’s western edge – a view that is even more dystopian then the first. Here we can see the ruins of the Houghton Power House on the left, along with the old Houghton Sewage Treatment plant along the water to the right. At this point Lakeview Drive is just a dirt trail making its way through the now abandoned Copper Range rail yards. Today this area has been cleaned up nicely, along with the refurbished power house which now houses high-tech businesses.
Another improvement can be found at the old Mineral Range Houghton Depot. When Tom came across the old building the tracks still graced its platform, but the rest of the building was beginning to show its age. Fast forward to to day and we find an older but much better looking depot now home to a construction business. Most notable in these two shots is the building right behind the depot – a building that has since been demolished and is today replaced by a parking lot.
Keeping with the railroad theme we now head northward to Calumet, where Tom has taken a shot of its Mineral Range depot. Amazingly the depot looks much the same as it did when first built, save for the boarded up windows. There’s even what looks to be a functioning railway in front. That’s a far cry from the shape of the old depot today – now missing those tracks, the awning, and the cupola at its peak.
Turning around Tom takes a shot down those tracks – looking off to the south towards Hancock. The bridge in the distance is the C&H Trestle, used to bring the old C&H rail line over this one on its way out to the Red Jacket Shaft. Glimpsed barely through the opening is the Osceola No.6 shaft house. Originally two parallel tracks made they way under that bridge, but by the time Tom got to the scene only one was left. By the time I got to the scene thirty years later there were no tracks left – just a dirt road. (My shot is taken from the reverse angle, looking back at the Calumet Depot and where Tom took his shot)
Leaving the railroad behind we turn out attention to some of the beautiful architecture of the village, as Tom points his camera to the impressive stone facade of St. Anne’s Church. At the time Tom took his picture the old church was empty and abandoned, uses as a flea market and antique store. The building wasn’t being taken care of too carefully, however, as evident by the trees (!) growing up out of the stonework. Today the old building is home to the Keweenaw Heritage Center, and has been painstakingly restored inside and out.
Finally we have a look at the old C&H Office Building, which when Tom took his shot, the place may well have still been occupied by Universal Oil – C&H’s eventual buyer. Today the offices are home to the Keweenaw National Historic Park, who continue on doing the work Tom started all those decades ago – preserving the Copper Country’s rich history. Its work I’ve been doing here on CCE for over a decade now as well, a modern digital version of the historic archives Tom was creating using old fashioned film and photo albums.
Those aren’t the only similarities Tom Roberts and I share. Looking through his vast collection I find myself looking at myself – as many of his photos are of the exact same subjects, taken from the exact same angle, and focusing in on the exact same detail. It was a surreal experience, one only heightened by the fact that his Gram’s house was next door to the old house in Hancock where I use to live for a few years. There’s even pictures taken of the same subjects around the same time as ones I have taken, as Tom would continue to document the Copper Country well into the 90s – a time when I was attending Michigan Tech and falling in love with the region myself. It would seem that Tom and I – though we never met – walked the same path together and shared the same love of the region – true brothers in exploration. Thus I am honored to have the opportunity to share Tom’s legacy with the world, as his work helps me to tell the story of the Copper Country in the digital age. His photos will be an invaluable resource for CCE going forward, as I will use his work to illustrate the posts I present here on CCE.
My thanks to Martin Hogan for his generosity in providing CCE with Tom’s incredible archive of photos. CCE is incredibly honored to have the opportunity to share them with other CC enthusiasts and explorers.