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Winter weather fun of the Copper Country changes little

Mich. Tech Archives The Portage Lake Hockey Team, 1902-1903 season, when the team became among the very first in the world to become professional. When the International Hockey League was created in 1904, the Calumet Miners defeated the Lakes to become the first champions in the league.

Christmas was not the only game in town in 1914.Whether there was a concerted effort among Copper Country residents to ensure that Christmas 1914 was far better for the region’s children than the previous year, by all accounts, the endeavors of the residents met their efforts.

What started out as the plan of a Mrs. John W. Black to form a committee to plan a municipal Christmas tree in the village of Houghton, met with overwhelming success on Christmas Eve when 2,000 children were on hand for the lighting of the tree lights at 7 p.m. and, of course, to see Santa Claus.

More than 400 colored electric lights had been installed on the tree, carefully wired by two employees of the Houghton County Electric Company, Bob McLay and Wesley Gibson. The tree, the visit by Santa, the celebration, the whole event was so popular that the village government announced it was to become an annual event.

There is no doubt that Christmas had a special place in the Copper Country during that cold December in 1914 when there were so many uncertainties facing, not only the community and its immigrant population, but the entire world, in that fourth month of the Great War. In spite of the mines shut down or operating only two weeks of every month and the companies having cut wages by 10 percent, area retailers reported very successful shopping seasons, while local charities somehow gathered sufficient funds to provide thousands of Christmas food baskets, food and fuel to households struck hard by the financial downturn.

While planning for a successful Christmas had, in many instances, begun just after the Thanksgiving holiday, the planning and appeals created a high spirit and anticipation.

It must be stated with some emphasis here, that Christmas was not alone in creating spirit and anticipation. On Dec. 13, hockey practice was scheduled to begin at the Amphidrome, in Houghton. The facility’s manager, whose last name was McNamara, and another man, Bill Beckerlegg, had begun building the ice bed on the concrete floor on Dec. 10. It was their second attempt. Upon completing the ice for the first time the previous week, a warm spell in the region caused it to melt.

Hockey was not the only sport on ice in the Copper Country. In fact, ice skating in general was an enormously popular pastime.

The Lyric Theatre, in Houghton, on Dec. 10, showed three moving pictures comprising more than five reels, while the Orpheum, in Hancock, hosted a musical comedy act by the Eddy Brothers and the People’s Theatre, in Laurium presented a two-act comedy production of “Love and Baseball.”

Plays and moving pictures were okay entertainment, but while the theaters were offering seats to their events, there was ice skating at the Palestra, featuring music for figure skating.

Whatever the admission price may have been, there were alternatives to professional ice, even if it was life-threatening.

Pike Bay, on Chassell’s waterfront, was a popular location for the area’s skaters. During the first week of Dec. large numbers of skaters enjoyed the ice while taking advantage of fair weather. While the ice was not very thick at the time, because there was a little current in Pike Bay the ice was considered safe for skating — if people skated in the designated area, that is.

On Dec. 9, four skaters ambled away from the crowded section of the bay toward the area of the Sturgeon River Lumber Company, where the ice never formed thickly. Two of the skaters, Elsie Swanson and Ralph Coffey, fell through when the ice broke in a 10-foot radius around them. They were rescued by Veva Quick and Robert Craig, who managed to get them to solid ice, saving their lives.

At Twin Lakes, cottage owners entertained hundreds of friends inviting them to skate once the ice was thick enough to support them.

For those who owned skates, the sport was a great hobby, allowing socializing with other community members. For folks without skates a play or a moving picture were more appealing, economic and warm.

At Wieders, in Houghton, skating shoes ranged from $3.60 – $6.00. Skate blades were 75 cents extra, costing another 75 cents to have them fastened to the skating shoes.

For people not particularly interested in falling through the ice by skating in known danger zones, rinks in Calumet and Laurium opened on Dec. 9, attracting large crowds.

At the Colosseum, in Calumet, skaters enjoyed the music of the Calumet & Hecla Band, while at the Palestra the Laurium Band performed for the enjoyment of figure skaters and general skaters alike. With hockey practice starting the following week prior to the start of the professional season, many hockey players were already on the ice just for the purpose of limbering up before practice.

Winter did not confine people to icy sports, however.

Bowling, a nice, warm, indoor sport was also popular, and while skating and hockey were just starting for the winter, bowling teams throughout towns and mining and mill locations were forming their seasonal leagues.

In Calumet, the YMCA was hosting indoor volleyball games, while the Sunday School Athletic Association was gearing up for the indoor volleyball season.

Cricket, an ancient game from the Saxon times of English history, was another game enjoyed by Copper Country residents to help pass the long, brutal winters.

In the end, they were not hockey.

Long a fundamental sport in the Copper Country, the Portage Lake Lakers and the Calumet Miners were among the very first teams to become professional, during the first quarter of the 20th century. While Houghton claims to be the “birthplace of professional hockey,” the claim is disputed — of course, by cities claiming their team was the first. Documents tell the story, though.

The Amphidrome was built in 1902. It was designed and built for the Portage Lake Hockey club, which played its first professional game there on Dec. 30 of that year, nearly two years before the International Professional Hockey League began in Nov. 1904.

During the Portage Laker’s first year, there were strict rules under which hockey teams or their players could receive or accept money and in 1903, according to the St. Paul Globe, Portage Lake ran into trouble when its amateur standing was called into question by the Victoria team of the Twin City Hockey League. The Globe reported, on Dec. 12, that several managers in the Twin City league presented a resolution to prohibit games against the Houghton team, should it be found to be in the professional ranks.

Another professional Copper Country team was the Calumet Miners, which, like Portage Lake, was one of the professional team members of the International league. During the first season of the league, the Miners swept the Lakes to become the first champions in the league.

The Colosseum was built as a hockey rink during the strike of 1913 and celebrated its formal opening on Jan. 1, 1914 hosting its first hockey game five days later. The Colosseum, though, was also designed and built with removable wooden floors for roller-skating, dances and conventions.

Although Portage Lake and Calumet were among the first professional teams in hockey, there were was no shortage of amateur teams on which local sports fans could play. There were, like today, thousands of games played between teams that were organized, not for a league, but just for the thrill of the game.

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