While Ransom Shelden may have given birth to Houghton, it would be a man by the name of James Dee that would transform the small port town into a glowing beacon of modern civilization. Mr. Dee was born to a miner, and spent his childhood in Eagle River before gaining work at the Western Union telegraph company. He quickly worked his way up the ranks and soon found himself the manager of Western Union’s Houghton office . In this new capacity Mr. Dee would introduce the city to the telegraph’s young successor – the telephone. And several years later he would introduce yet another modern convenience to the city – electric power.
It was 1887 when the Copper Country’s first power company was born, and endeavor initiated by Dee known as the Peninsular Electric Light and Power Company. Under his leadership, the company would build the region’s first electric power plant along Portage Lake in 1890, just west of the newly erected swing bridge. Utilizing a 250 horsepower steam engine and belt driven generators, the new plant was able to furnish enough electricity to light both Houghton and Hancock’s streets, as well as several area business and industries. Over the ensuing years the plant would be expanded several times and would go on to serve the city’s power needs for another forty years. By the 1930’s, however, cheaper and more efficient hydroelectric power ushered in the plant’s closing.
Today the old power plant continues to stand alongside the lift bridge, though most of its more industrious portions – such as its boiler house and smokestack – have since been demolished. The large sandstone structure that is seen at the site today is the old generating station’s engine house, renovated and repurposed into a business incubator for high tech companies. The massive open spaces within that were once home to steam engines and dynamos are now home to several floors of office space. Though the building’s industrious identity has been generally washed away, a few reminders of its blue collar background can still be seen scattered about inside including the massive concrete engine foundations in the basement, and a still intact overhead crane imbedded into the second floor’s ceiling.
NOTES: The Power House is currently a working office building and as such is not open to the general public. It can be viewed easily from adjacent Lake Shore Drive or form the sidewalk of the lift bridge.
DIRECTIONS: The Power House sits right at the foot of the Portage Lift Bridge at the west end of Houghton’s downtown, alongside Lake Shore Drive.