A Look Back at the Bridges Over the Portage Canal

Tomorrow morning Houghton and Hancock will receive plaques commemorating the Portage Lake Lift Bridge as a Civil Engineering Historic Landmark, from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Taking a look back, there have been two other bridges that have connected the mainland to the rest of the peninsula. The need for a bridge rose as the copper industry began to grow, leading to the construction of a wooden bridge by the Portage Lake Bridge Company. The next iteration was a swing type of bridge, with a control tower in the center and two swinging arms to allow ships to pass through. Unfortunately that swing bridge met disaster in April 1905.

The steamer was named the Norther Wave. Three blasts meant you were going to dock, fur blasts meant you going past the bridge and the bridge needed to be opened. There was a miscommunication, and the bridge didn’t open, and the steamer slammed into the swing section of the bridge. The bridge operator was a man named Daniel Hardiman, he was the engineer who would’ve been responsible for opening the swing section for the steamer to go through. Supposedly he chased some people, including a bunch of kids, off of the swing section, knowing the this was imminent. – John Haeussler, City of Hancock Councilor

Newspapers at the time reported either 2 or 3 people suffered injuries. The bridge’s operator chased pedestrians off the bridge before being knocked off the swing section himself. He suffered some broken ribs, the most significant of those injured. A temporary bridge was set up for rail traffic, until the swing bridge could be repaired. It was eventually replaced by the Portage Lake Lift Bridge which finished construction in 1959. The bridge was constructed to include a lower level for trains traveling north to pick up loads from the mines. And today helps shuttle snowmobilers across the canal during winter.

Culturally we changed, the mines closed up here, and certainly you didn’t have the industrial traffic with the trains. And then passenger traffic dropped off. And as we got into the, I think it was, the late 70’s, early 80’s, it was just a once in a while train. As we got into the 80’s, you look at the lift bridge, it is the only safe way to cross the canal, and certainly it does freeze over, but that’s not a sure things, and it’s not always safe. So they started using it as the snowmobiling industry grew as a sport in the area. – Eric Waara, Houghton City Manager

Rail service under the lift bridge ended in 1982, marking a significant change in the region, and how the bridge was used. These days the Portage Lake Lift Bridge enjoys an average of 25,000 cars a day, and some snowmobiles in the winter. It’s significance in the area of connecting people and communities has stood tall for over 60 years. Bridgefest celebrates the bridge as a vital link between the two communities as it greets residents and travelers to Keweenaw. If you are interested in reading more details about the different bridges to span the Portage Canal check out thecopperrange.org.

Bridgefest Events and Activities