Wednesday, April 17, 2013


As I'm sitting here in the Portage Lake Library in Houghton looking across the canal at the smelter, the water is open and the snow is beginning its meltdown.  This would be the start of the shipping season with lots of copper ingots to send out.  

There are the pilings of the dock sticking out of the water where ships and lake boats tied up to get their cargo.  The warehouse next to the dock had lots of the copper smelted during the winter.  The warehouse is the large wood structure on the east end of the site.  It also was where the workers cleaned up on the 2nd floor after their shifts.  

Originally, copper ingots were packed in wooden barrels made by the smelter's cooperage shop.  This would have been in the twilight years of sailing ships and the emergence of the lake boats we know today.

Presumably, the ingots would have been hoisted and tightly packed into the holds (as the cargo storage area is known) of the ships.  If you've been on a small boat or ship,  you know how much everything can shift around.  If the cargo got loose or they had just piled the ingots loose in there, it could have capsized or torn a hole in the hull during a storm.  The copper went to foundries in cities along the other Great Lakes to be turned into wire, cooking utensils and many other products.  

And this was also the time when the coal ships came in.  More later...

Monday, April 8, 2013


Its hard to believe all the snow still here in the UP.  As you can imagine, the smelter is completely cocooned in the white stuff.  If you're coming into Houghton, stop at the Chamber of Commerce parking lot (where US 41 splits into two one way streets).  You'll get a panoramic view of the smelter site on the other side of the Portage Canal.  With the construction of new metal roofs a couple of years ago, the walls and interiors of most of the buildings are more protected from the ravages of nature.  It means the smelter will be here for many years.

You may also notice the "land" the smelter buildings sit on protrudes further into the Portage Canal than other properties around them.  Before there was a smelter, the Quincy Mining Company sent its ore down the hill from the mine head to be processed for copper in its mill.  First, the ore was pounded by heavy metal rods in "stamp" machines into sand, hence, "stamp sands".  Then the next step was to separate the copper grains from the sand by using large tables where the sand was floated away leaving the copper.  Since the percentage of copper was very low, the the high volume of sand had to be disposed of by the company.  The easiest way was to dump it into the canal.  By 1890, the Federal government said the company could not continue because the Canal channel was endangered.  The mill was closed.

So, that's why the smelter sticks out so far.  If you find this story interesting, post a note to let us know whether or not you would like more.