HOUGHTON - For most of the evening, Friday night's Senior Walk was a quiet celebration for graduating Michigan Technological University seniors, friends and even some alumni who'd returned for the event.
Police, bar staff and walkers themselves characterized participants as reasonably well-behaved, if a bit silly, as they made their way from the Monte Carlo Bar on the west side of Hancock to the Douglass House Saloon in Houghton, traditionally drinking one alcoholic beverage at each bar along the way.
"I've been to probably eight bars maybe," said Melissa Wright, a graduating senior who had stopped off at the Houghton side of the bridge for a free hot dog from a group of local churches and campus Christian organizations.
Dan Roblee/Daily Mining Gazette
Houghton Police Department officers direct senior walkers coming from Hancock under the Portage Lake Lift Bridge as a safe means of crossing bridge traffic lanes into downtown Houghton.
"I think the vast majority of walkers are respectful and understand the sanctity of the event," she said. "We don't want to destroy it for the future."
But before the night was through, several tickets had been issued that Houghton Police Lt. Nick Roberts believed to be walk-related, and at least two college-aged individuals were facing charges for attempting to break into the Houghton County Courthouse. Because they have not yet been arraigned, the Houghton County Sheriff's Office would not release the names of the suspects or other information on their student status or whether they were inebriated.
Still, the mayhem was nothing compared to 1997, when then-Houghton Police Chief Ralph Rafaelli was quoted in the Daily Mining Gazette saying that "someone will end up dying before Senior Walk is stopped." That year, a photo of a drunken fight graced the Mining Gazette's front page, and Rafaelli also said that "as soon as officers would break up one fight, another started right behind it."
Other issues over the years have included students jumping from the Portage Lake Lift Bridge, climbing the bridge structure or trying to cross Sheldon Avenue using the overhead sign stanchions like monkey bars.
At about 9 p.m. Friday, Roberts, a 21-year veteran of the Houghton P.D., said the last several Senior Walks have been mild affairs, ever since Tech's shift in graduation dates from late to early May pushed senior walk back into April.
"I think the cold weather affected it," he said.
Positive year-round relationships between police and Tech's Greek system have also led to mutual respect during the walk, Roberts said.
"They support us in a lot of ways, and one way we pay them back is a safe Senior Walk," he said. "In the old days they didn't really talk to cops. These days there's a friendly atmosphere on both sides."
"I don't want to see it shut down at all," he added, noting that at that point in the evening, students had remained respectful of property as well.
Chad Dickenshied, a graduating senior, said after a long, hard school year it was good to "get out and have a good time."
"The cops are making sure we're safe," he said. "There's nothing better."
His fraternity, he added, had been walking "for longer than I can remember."
The Senior Walk, which is not endorsed by Michigan Tech, actually dates back at least to the 1960s. On short notice, the Michigan Tech University Archives found one reference to the event in the 1963 Michigan Tech Lode.
Tech student Charles Solis got a tad emotional thinking about what the walk meant to him.
"It's a wonderful event, a beautiful, big idea," he said.
The Library Bar and Restaurant, which once had been one of the final stops on the walk, no longer serves walkers. But just up the street at the Douglass House Saloon, a regular student hangout better known as The Dog, veteran bartender-turned-doorman Tom Peterson said he didn't expect any issues, despite the fact most students had already had a few before arrival.
"We just try to take care of them the best we can," he said. "It's all about making sure everybody's safe."
"It's good for the business to show a good face and a good time," he added.
"We have the same problems as normal, maybe a bit amplified."