Winter and Snow
It is said that there are two seasons in the Copper Country: "winter's here" and "winter's coming." The region's northern latitude and unsheltered exposure to Lake Superior combine to guarantee heavy "lake effect" snowfall. The Keweenaw Peninsula regularly receives 200 inches of snow each year. By comparison, Minneapolis average 47 inches, Chicago 40 inches and Detroit only 38 inches per year. Even the lake effect snows of Buffalo, New York, only averages 93 inches per year.
The heaviest snowfall in Houghton County was during the 1978-1979 season with over 350 inches recorded. Yet residents know that the snowfall totals tell only part of the story. Even in below average years, the snow can be punishingly constant. In 1984-1985, snow fell for 51 days straight, yet didn't break a Houghton County record set in the 1930s when snow fell every day for two months.
Historically, Keweenaw winters have had a dramatic impact on local communities. Winter effectively closed lake shipping from November through April. Althought Lake Superior rarely froze over entirely, smaller inland lakes like Portage Lake remained impassable. Before the advent of rail and road links, winter cut the Keweenaw off from the outside world. Early Houghton merchants stockpiled huge amounts of supplies during the fall and then meted them out slowly over the winter months. The arrival of the first supply ship in the spring was an occasion for a huge celebration.
In the village of Houghton, winter weather was both a boon and a bane for local travel. Frozen lakes afforded winter alternatives to bridges and ferries, while frozen roads also held great advantage over the mud and rock strewn lanes that preceded modern paving techniques. That said, early snow equipment was rudimentary at best. Huge snow-rollers were drawn behind teams of horses and "panked" (packed down) the snow on top of the roads.
Winter weather directly affected the local architecture. In the city's residential neighborhoods, house foundations were often raised so that the entrance doors could be kept above the snowdrifts. The roofs of many houses were steeply pitched to encourage snow to fall to the ground and garages were placed close to the road, to reduce residents' shoveling burden. In more recent decades, downtown stores were interconnected through interior doors and overhead skywalks in an attempt to protect patrons from the weather.
Perhaps because of its length and impact, Houghton residents have turned the winter elements to their advantage, enjoying skating, sledding and skiing. Perhaps the best known of Houghton's winter sporting facilities was the 1902 Amphidrome, located along the city's waterfront. The building's distinctive façade resembled a palace promoting its ice arena and ballroom. The Amphidrome was lost to fire in 1927, but its replacement survives today as the Dee Stadium. Michigan Tech's Winter Carnival evolved during the 1920s, an annual event drawing thousands of visitors.
To some, winter remains a bothesome irritation, with snow, ice and cold inhibiting movement and activity. To others it is a bounty, with the first layer of good snow creating beautiful skiing, snow shoeing, and snowmobiling opportunities, Regardless of individual opinion, Houghton residents are destined to continue their love-hate relationship with winter.