New pier welcomes cruise ships to Houghton

When the American Queen Voyages Ocean Navigator returned to Houghton this month, the 286-foot-long cruise ship docked at the city’s waterfront pier, something it was not able to do last year during a voyage on the Great Lakes.

The new $5 million pier enabled the ship – along with another that will visit this summer – to dock at the downtown waterfront. Last year the ship had to dock on the Houghton side of the Portage Canal, just west of the Portage Lake Lift Bridge. 

Financed with a grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) with matching funds from the city of Houghton, the pier creates a year-round gathering space for walking, picnics, festivals—and of course, cruise-ship watching — along the waterfront in downtown Houghton. 

“When the pier was being designed, it was not intended as a cruise ship dock, but as a community space on the waterfront and another place to dock smaller boats, as we have a robust summer boating culture that comes into Houghton from all over,” says City Manager Eric Waara. 

With the pier's location adjacent to deep water, 
it made sense to add the ability to dock larger ships as well, he says.

The cruise ship industry along the Great Lakes is growing and Houghton is one of a handful of stops in the Upper Peninsula. 

 “There is the immediate benefit of more customers for our downtown shops and restaurants when the ship is here, but the lasting benefit is being able to give passengers a taste of our area, so hopefully they decide to return to experience more,” Waara says.

Last year was a record-breaking year for Great Lakes cruising with nearly 150,000 passenger visits to Great Lakes ports, an increase of more than 25 percent from the previous cruising season, according to Cruise the Great Lakes, a regional cruise marketing program with a goal to attract more passengers to the lakes.  Overall, Great Lakes cruising generated an economic impact of more than $125 million last year.

This season Cruise the Great Lakes expects another yearly record with nearly 170,000 cruise passenger visits to regional ports, up 15 percent from 2022. Two new ships will join the Great Lakes cruise fleet this year: Viking Polaris and Hanseatic Inspiration, bringing the total number of cruise ships on the Great Lakes to 11. This represents a year-on-year increase of more than 20 percent.

Viking Cruises has three stops scheduled in Houghton on its Undiscovered Great Lakes eight-day cruise from Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

American Queen Voyages Ocean Navigator makes Houghton a port of call twice on its 16-day Lakeside Treasures cruise. The Ocean Navigator was built in 2001 and refurbished in 2019. The five decks on the ship can accommodate as many as 202 guests, and 84 crew members.

Its second and final visit this season occurs Thursday, June 22. Passengers will step ashore to enjoy the Houghton waterfront and the city. Tour options include the Quincy Mine, the A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum and the Carnegie Museum of the Keweenaw.

Other U.P. ports included on Great Lakes cruises are Sault Ste. Marie, Mackinac Island and Escanaba.

Cruise ship representatives say passengers are interested in both big and small ports and in the history and culture of these communities. For many of the passengers, the cruises are their first on the Great Lakes.

“As a smaller, tucked-away destination, Houghton is full of history-rich stories and provides a less explored narrative in America’s saga. As an old mining town, copper has played a part in the city's economic success, starting thousands of years ago with the Native Americans,” says an American Queen Voyages representative, explaining why the cruise line chose to stop in Houghton. 

“We are thrilled to give our guests the opportunity to explore the influences of the miners, settlers, and natives in this area, whose traditions and cuisine have become embedded in its culture,” she notes. “Additionally, the town's deep rolling hills and connection to Isle Royale National Park offer breathtaking views and set the scene for unlimited outdoor recreation for our guests.”

A city of 7,622 in the northwestern Upper Peninsula, Houghton is more remote than other U.P.  destinations. It’s best known for its wide range of outdoor activities, including snowmobiling, hockey and skiing in the winter.  In the summer, camping, mountain biking, trail hiking, kayaking, sailing, and windsurfing bring visitors to Houghton.  

Houghton is also known as the birthplace of professional hockey. “Visiting the birthplace of hockey is an item on many of our cruisers' lifetime bucket lists,” the American Queen Voyages representative says.

The pier, which opened last fall, offers endless possibilities for residents. Festivals, concerts and other events will be held at the pier. 

“The place created in our downtown has been long-envisioned, and now that it has been realized, our residents and visitors will be able to gather and enjoy our downtown in new ways,” says Houghton Mayor Robert Backon. 

City and economic officials welcome the cruise ships and their business to Houghton. Port visits often allow passengers to explore downtowns and join planned excursions.

“These cruise ships are good for Houghton and the greater Keweenaw region, as they bring visitors to the area who are eager to learn about our history and Great Lakes ecology,” says Brad Barnett, executive director of Visit Keweenaw, a marketing organization for the peninsula. The Keweenaw’s history, natural beauty, and ideal location on Lake Superior make it a great port of call for the cruise industry.”

Barnett also thinks residents welcome the cruise ships docking in Houghton 

“The vast majority of residents really appreciate it when a cruise ship visits,” he says. “We have a lot of folks come down to the pier to see the ships. Plus, you can see a lot of enthusiasm on social media when people see pictures and videos of the ships entering the Keweenaw Waterway.” 

Houghton resident and city councilman Craig Waddell agrees.

“It’s great to see cruise ships docking at Houghton’s new pier,” he says. “Passengers are bound to patronize downtown businesses, which is good not only for those businesses, but also for the larger community because part of Michigan sales tax is shared with cities, villages, and townships.  Cruise ships also bring local curiosity-seekers downtown, and they too might patronize local businesses. I hope that some passengers will be sufficiently pleased that they’ll decide to visit again.” 

Lora Repp, a resident of nearby Portage Township, also sees the benefits.

“If the cruise ship passengers enjoy their introduction to our beautiful area, they may decide to return for a longer visit and stay in our hotels, dine in our restaurants, and spend money in local shops,” she says. “ These same passengers will also share their discovery of the Copper Country with friends and family who might decide to plan a visit.

“I am always excited to see the big ships, especially now that they are able to dock at the beautiful new pier by the library,” she adds. “I always head down to the waterfront if I hear a ship has arrived.” 

Jack Jobst, another Portage Township resident, says: “The cruise ships docking makes Houghton look good, and it provides income for businesses downtown. People will return home and encourage friends to visit.”

Some residents expressed reservations. 

“No doubt, the cruise ships will benefit the downtown economy. People on cruises typically like to shop,” says Heidi Bresnahan, who was raised in Houghton. “But I am not excited about the cruise ships docking here. I see them going by my house on the waterway, and I am just happy to see them headed AWAY from Houghton. I don’t want too many people to discover our unique, special corner of the world.” 

Jennifer Donovan is a reporter with more than 40 years of experience on daily newspapers, magazines and university writing and editing. She is retired as director of news and media relations at Michigan Technological University and lives in Houghton.
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