Over the years, the counties of Michigan’s Western Upper Peninsula have seen a variety of public transportation services established to serve the region’s people and economy. The region has a rich copper and iron mining history, which led to development in the late 1800s and early 1900s of rail networks serving newly developed urban areas, many of which had a much higher population then than they do today. Passenger and freight rail lines connected the Copper Country communities (those in the northeastern part of the region, namely Houghton/Hancock and Calumet/Laurium) and Iron Range Towns (activity centers farther south including Ironwood/Bessemer/Wakefield and Iron River/Crystal Falls) to major US cities such as Chicago and Detroit. Streetcars provided mobility between and within nearby communities. Visitors and immigrants arrived on passenger ferries from Great Lakes port cities, and ferry service from the southern to northern parts of the Keweenaw Peninsula was also necessary for a time to cross the Portage Canal.
As the mining industry diminished, so did the use of and investment in rail infrastructure; the street car network was paved over or removed, and rail lines were abandoned. Ferry service all but disappeared. Passenger transportation slowly came to depend on the automobile, although its adoption was slow in the Upper Peninsula. Meanwhile, private mass transit providers emerged to serve the area with buses. As a large part of the remaining population needed some type of motorized transportation, private services on a relatively large scale were profitable before the automobile became mainstream. But as the majority of the public began to drive to their destinations, private mass transit lost its luster. Providers began to cease operations, leaving a void in motorized transportation for much of the public.
By the 1970s the federal government began to subsidize public transportation and assist rural communities in developing and operating transit systems, allowing for a number of local programs to spring up. With federal capital funding, the Baraga-Houghton-Keweenaw (BHK) Community Action Agency (CAA) began providing services to senior citizens and persons with disabilities in 1971 and continues to do so today. A Baraga County Public Transit System started as a demonstration project with federal assistance in 1977; in 1978, the system carried almost 52,000 passengers annually. However, it was unable to sustain itself with available funding and never became a permanent provider. Today, Baragaland Senior Citizens provides similar service to BHK CAA in Baraga County and to a number of outlying communities.
Also in the late 1970?s, Houghton County experimented with a number of systems, beginning with on-demand service in the cities of Hancock and Houghton. The system was later expanded to include on-demand service for the Calumet area and a fixed route that connected Painesdale to Calumet. Another route connected to the Baraga County system. However, the Houghton County system also was not self-sustaining and ran its course. In its place was left a city-based system in Houghton which served Hancock as well. Later, funding arrangements made it advantageous for Hancock to operate a separate system. Currently each city operates its own bus service and transports passengers within and between the two cities; however, there is no regular route connecting the two cities.
A higher level of service and countywide coverage is seen in the west end of the region. Ontonagon County administers and operates a demand-response service, On-Tran, which also offers one monthly fixed route to Houghton. On-Tran was formed in the early to mid-1980s. Gogebic County receives demand-response and deviated route services from the Gogebic County Transit Authority, formed in 1981. Prior to that, service had been provided by the Gogebic-Ontonagon Community Action Agency since 1975, filling a gap that had existed since the demise of citywide and then private systems in 1959. Both On-Tran and the Gogebic County Transit Authority levy millages to support their services.
The current public and non-profit transit systems are supplemented by private and specialized providers. Four taxi companies provide service in the region, in Baraga, Gogebic, and Houghton Counties. However, given the wide dispersal of rural communities over a relatively large area, the region still has significant gaps in service. Iron County, in particular, has no mainstream transportation service other than that what is provided at a relatively low level by its Community Services Agency – and this county has the highest proportion of elderly residents in the region. A favorable Public Transportation Feasibility Study for Iron County was done in 1995 but did not result in establishment of public transit.
Public Transit is not standing still in the region, however. In 2011 a study on gaps and overlaps in and accessibility to public transportation in Baraga, Houghton, and Keweenaw Counties was completed, with the recommendation being to establish a transit authority serving all interested communities with an expanded service level and area. A similar study had been completed for the city of Houghton a few years earlier. From 2011 through 2013, a Michigan Technological University Transportation Enterprise Team student project examined ways to improve public transit in Houghton/Hancock and the surrounding area. Following a great deal of research and collaboration, five new bus routes were proposed, but funding issues were a roadblock to implementation. However, the project lead to a reevaluation by the City of Houghton of its routes and service hours, which were then reshaped to better fit consumer needs. Finally, this website is the primary piece of a new effort to publicize public transit access as well as promote and publicize carpooling and non-motorized transportation throughout the region.
Above photos courtesy of: