The Collapse of the Portage Canal Swing Bridge, April 1905
The Portage Canal swing bridge which ran between Houghton and Hancock, Michigan was an amazing bit of engineering. Originally built in 1875, it was constructed of wood and featured a giant gear which swiveled the bridge to run parallel to the canal. It would then swing back into place after a ship had passed so the railroad could run through. The bridge was the only connection there was between the Keweenaw Peninsula and the rest of the Upper Peninsula that didn’t require a boat. Its importance can’t be understated.
In 1895 the bridge was rebuilt out of steel. The wood was replaced and the center swivel gear was now a massive piece of metal that was a marvel in itself. Hundreds of ships would pass through this waterway loaded with Keweenaw copper on its way to factories and smelters on the lower Great Lakes.
On April 15, 1905, a ship named the Northern Wave steamed up the Portage Canal. As they approached the bridge, watchmen signaled the ship. The Captain of the Northern Wave followed the signals (according to him) and collided with the swing bridge. He claimed the signals were wrong. The impact caused the bridge to come down in a mass of steel and wood. By a miracle, no one was killed, but two watchmen had to jump into the canal.
The Portage Canal was effectively blocked. Copper shipping had to be rerouted. The railroad could only reach the shore of the canal, so a large effort was made to cleanup the debris and rebuild the swing bridge. It was rebuilt in a year.
The rebuilt swing bridge was replaced by the lift bridge, the one we see today, in 1959.
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