Skip to main content

Portage Lake Lift Bridge


During my visit to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I had the opportunity to see the Portage Lake Lift Bridge, or the Houghton-Hancock Bridge as it is officially known. The Portage Lake Lift Bridge is the world's heaviest vertical lift bridge and carries the highways US 41 and M-26 across the bridge. The bridge connects the cities of Houghton and Hancock over the Portage Lake section of the Keweenaw Waterway, but more broadly, it is the one bridge that connects the communities of the beautiful Keweenaw Peninsula with the rest of the Midwest.

Replacing a swing bridge that was built in 1905, the 1,310 foot long Portage Lake Lift Bridge opened to automobile traffic at the tail end of 1959 and was not officially completed until 1960. When the bridge was officially completed and dedicated, it was with much fanfare, but with some technical difficulties as well. While there were marching bands and jets that flew overhead during the grand opening, but telephone service was cut the day before to over 1000 customers in Hancock due to a ship having dropped anchor on underwater telephone cables a quarter mile away from the bridge the night before.

The vertical lift bridge generally works as intended with little problems, but in 1989, a wedding party  was trapped atop the lift span. A former bridge operator and his new bride decided to get married on the raised bridge, but a broken hydraulic line stranded them there for a few hours. Talk about a way to start a marriage.

The bridge design had to accommodate automobile traffic, but railroad and ship traffic also had to be considered, due to its proximity to both Lake Superior and nearby copper mines. As a result, the vertical lift design was deemed the most appropriate design for this bridge. Suspended between two towers, the entire main span of the bridge can rise vertically between them to provide 100 feet of clearance for ships. As long as the towers were built high enough, a vertical lift bridge accommodates just about any size ship that needs to pass beneath it. From the beginning, bridge planners stressed the importance on minimizing interruption of traffic flow across the bridge. That problem was solved by designing a railroad deck that could also accommodate motor vehicles. When raised to the highway level, the railroad deck allowed automobile traffic to continue across the bridge while small and medium sized boat traffic passed underneath, thus adequately addressing the traffic flow issue.

While the last train crossed the Portage Lake Lift Bridge in the summer of 1982, which officially ended over one hundred years of railroad service across the channel, the double deck design is still used in various ways. The vertical lift span sits in its intermediate level during the spring, summer and fall months, allowing small and medium boat access to either side of the bridge. As a result, automobile traffic crosses on the railroad deck. In the winter, the bridge is lowered and made accessible to snowmobiles and skiers, while automobiles cross on the upper deck. This is great for the snowmobile riders and cross country skiers, especially considering the heavy lake effect snow that the Keweenaw Peninsula receives each winter. Big freighters do pass under the bridge, but rarely do they three or four a year. That number has slowly declined over the years, considering that during the first three days of November 1961, 22 bulk carriers went through the lift bridge.

Today, the Portage Lake Lift Bridge is a centerpiece between the two communities of Houghton and Hancock, as well as the Keweenaw Peninsula at large. With the downtowns of the two cities being so close, the bridge is a lifeline for the people who live, work and visit the area. I think that it makes for a nice scenic view of the Keweenaw Waterway and I look forward to the opportunity to cross that bridge again someday.

Driving across the Portage Lake Lift Bridge north into Hancock.

The intermediate deck has a 14 foot clearance for motor vehicles.

A view of the Portage Lake Lift Bridge from Houghton.

Sources and Links:
Michigan Tech - Lift Bridge - Streaming Webcam
Michigan Department of Transportation - US-41 / Portage Lake
Bridgehunter - Houghton-Hancock Bridge
City of Hancock - Portage Lake Bridge History
Lost in Michigan - Houghton Hancock Lift Bridge
Lake Superior Magazine - The Changing Role of the Portage Lake Lift Bridge


How to Get There:

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Horace Wilkinson Bridge (Baton Rouge, LA)

Standing tall across from downtown Baton Rouge, the Horace Wilkinson Bridge carries Interstate 10 across the lower Mississippi River between West Baton Rouge and East Baton Rouge Parishes. Unusually, the bridge is actually named for three separate people; three generations of Horace Wilkinsons who served in the Louisiana State Legislature over a combined period of 54 years. Constructed in the 1960s and opened to traffic in 1968, this is one of the largest steel bridges on the lower Mississippi. It’s also the tallest bridge across the Mississippi, with its roadway reaching 175 ft at the center span. Baton Rouge is the northernmost city on the river where deep-water, ocean-going vessels can operate. As a result, this bridge is the northernmost bridge on the river of truly gigantic proportions. Altogether, the bridge is nearly 2 ½ miles long and its massive truss superstructure is 4,550 ft long with a center main truss span of 1,235 ft. The Horace Wilkinson Bridge is one of the largest

Sunshine Bridge (Donaldsonville, LA)

Located about halfway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans in southern Louisiana, the Sunshine Bridge spans the lower Mississippi River near the city of Donaldsonville as part of the longer Louisiana Highway 70 corridor, which connects Interstate 10 and Airline Highway (US 61) with US 90 in Morgan City. In the years following World War II, the only bridges across the lower Mississippi River in Louisiana were located in the area of the state’s two largest cities – Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Postwar agricultural and industrial development along the river in this region led to the planning of a series of infrastructure projects in southern Louisiana that were aimed at spurring this development and modernization of the Delta region. One of these projects was known as the Acadian Thruway and was developed in the 1950s as a toll road intended to connect greater New Orleans with Lafayette and points west while providing a high-speed bypass of the Baton Rouge metro area. The Thruway, which

Natchez-Vidalia Bridge (Natchez, MS)

  Located about halfway between Baton Rouge and Vicksburg near the city of Natchez, the Natchez-Vidalia Bridge crosses the lower Mississippi River between southwest Mississippi and northeastern Louisiana at the city of Vidalia. This river crossing is a dual span, which creates an interesting visual effect that is atypical on the Mississippi River in general. Construction on the original bridge took place in the late 1930s in conjunction with a much larger parallel effort by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to strengthen the area’s flood protection and levee system along the Mississippi River. One of the more ambitious aspects of this plan was to relocate the city of Vidalia to a location of higher ground about one mile downriver from the original settlement. The redirection of the river through the Natchez Gorge (which necessitated the relocation of the town) and the reconstruction of the river’s levee system in the area were undertaken in the aftermath of the Great Flood of 1927, wh