In its infancy, the copper empire was concentrated along the northern end of the Keweenaw peninsula. At that time the mines were being fed by the scattering of small ports along the peninsula’s western shore, namely Copper Harbor, Eagle Harbor, and Eagle River. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, prospectors began to move south and found themselves discovering rich copper lodes along the west arm of Portage Lake. As these Portage Lake mines began to sprout, a conveniently located port became necessary to bring in supplies and ship out the copper. That port would become the city of Houghton.
Unlike most other towns in the Keweenaw, Houghton grew independently from any mine companies direct influence. One of the first Europeans to settle the area was a businessmen by the name of Ransom Shelden, who moved his general merchandise business to the shores of the Portage Lake in 1852. Five years later Shelden helped incorporate the city of Houghton, who’s population had begun to take off thanks to the opening of the Isle Royale Mine. With the completion of improvements to the Portage River in 1860, large ships could finally make their way up the river to the wharfs along Houghton’s waterfront. Soon after that, Houghton would become the new county seat for the newly formed Houghton County. With these developments the city’s role as the regions center of commerce had been assured.
By the turn of the century Houghton would become the largest city in the region, a distinction it continues to hold today. The city’s main thoroughfare – Shelden Ave – would become a showcase for some of the area’s most opulent and grandest architecture including the twin-towered Douglass House, the sandstone faced Shelden-Dee block, and the impressive Masonic Temple. Some of the finest institutions of learning would be erected in the city such as the Carnegie funded library, and the Michigan College of Mines – known today as Michigan Tech. The centerpiece of it all would be the copper capped county courthouse, looking out over the valley atop its perch above the city.