Some were old enough to remember

Copper Country's past and people

MTU Archives Until well into the 20th century, many roads throughout the Copper Country were little better than this road, photographed in 1899. Sometimes underwater, always rocky, and often strewn with stumps, many roads were not passable for much of the year, except in winter.

With the mines shut down, foundries and factories greatly reduced operations, or like the mines, simply closed. The trolleys were locked in the barn near Ethel Street in Hancock in 1932, and about the only thing of recent occurrence to remind local residents of the region’s better days was the resumption of production at the Bosch Brewing Company. An air of despair hung over Lake Superior’s Copper Country in 1933, but at least the people could once again enjoy a drink while they reminisced of old times when things were still good. It was before the big strike.

To be sure, there were many residents who could recall the days and years before the strike of 1913. But in so many ways it seemed so long ago now. So much had happened in the 20 years since the strike had occurred, it was difficult to imagine it was just two decades ago. Time moved by quickly.

While reminiscing, if a person had cared to stroll from Houghton to Dodgeville starting on Dakota (now Bridge Street), he would find a section harkening back to a time when his grandfather had been a boy road was called Military Road.

The Military Road was essentially a pork barrel project begun during the Civil War under a federal program to create a useable road from Fort Wilkins in Copper Harbor, south to Fort Howard, just north of Green Bay, Wisconsin.

In reality, however, no new road was actually created, but several sections were cut through wilderness to interconnect already existing roads. The Military Road was, for the most part, superimposed on the State Mineral Road, which ran from Copper Harbor to Quincy Hill.

In what is now Keweenaw County, much of the Military Road had been built decades earlier, by mining companies that needed access to Lake Superior harbors, or to interconnect with roads previously built by other companies. The Pennsylvania Mining Company, for example, had cut a road through the wilderness to intersect with a road to Eagle Harbor, which had been constructed by the Copper Falls Mining Company. Likewise in 1844, Colonel Charles Gratiot had had a road cut through from the Lake Superior Mining Company site near present-day Phoenix, running north to the mouth of Eagle River on the shore of the Lake. Two years later, the Pittsburgh and Boston Mining Company ran a road running east from its mine at the Cliff to connect with Gratiot’s road. Not long after, that road was extended south toward Hancock. Edwin Hulbert was surveying a section of that road when he first discovered the lode that would become the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company.

At Portage Lake in Ripley, just east of Hancock, in the summer ferries would transport people and animals across that lake to Houghton. In the winter months, although dangerous, an ice road was used.

In the village of Houghton, the Michigan legislature had granted a tract of swampland for the purpose of building a road from the village to run southwest to Ontonagon County. Nobody bid on a contract to do it, however, so Houghton County took possession of the land and sought its own contractor.

That contractor was a Houghton resident named Michael Finnegan, who was one of the original settlers of the village. Working in the logging and lumber business, Finnegan was also the county sheriff when he took the contract.

Finnegan and his crew hacked the new road out of the wilderness to the Ontonagon County line, and for years afterward, it was known as the Finnegan Road to local residents. At the county line, it would connect with a new road being built to meet it from the village of Ontonagon.

The Ontonagon County section of road had been planned in December of 1855 when two ships carrying winter provisions for the Ontonagon area could not anchor at the river’s mouth because of a storm. The two ships were forced to press on to Copper Harbor, where they unloaded the supplies. Forced with the proposition of assembling a party to go the 100-mile distance to secure the supplies, and then haul them back, a meeting was held at the great Bigelow House hotel in the village. At the meeting, the plans were made, money was raised to fund the clearing of a road from Ontonagon to Copper Harbor and a large party of men volunteered to construct the road.

Around the same time, the Minesota Mining Company partnered with neighboring mines to build a plank (toll) road from Rockland to the village of Ontonagon, which would junction with the road being built from the village to Copper Harbor.

By 1864, the Ontonagon Road was linked to the Finnegan Road, and for the first time, the Copper Country’s three mineral producing counties were connected by an overland road running over 150 miles from Copper Harbor to Rockland, where it connected with an old mail trail running from Fort Howard to Ontonagon, which had been widened into a road. It was this road which became known as the Military Road.

During the Great Depression, many Copper Country residents desperate for work found it through the Work Projects Administration, widening, improving, and making the road useable year round. Over the decades, parts of the Military Road have been relocated, but much of it is still intact, and forms much of M-26, M-35, and US 45 running from Copper Harbor to just north of Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin.