Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Houghton, Douglass

Douglass Houghton was an American geologist and physician whose efforts on behalf of the State of Michigan contributed greatly to the discovery and subsequent commercial exploitation of copper in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. While he is primarily remembered for his role as the state's first leading geologist, Houghton was also active in politics and was highly regarded for his erudition and academic knowledge. Known by his contemporaries as an intrepid and persistent explorer, his various surveys led to an enhanced knowledge of Michigan's geology, topography, flora and fauna.

Douglass Houghton was born on September 21, 1809 in Troy, New York. His father, a local lawyer and magistrate, placed great emphasis on learning and academic achievement and encouraged his five sons and two daughters to vigorously pursue knowledge from an early age. After an intellectually stimulating childhood filled with personal instruction from his father, Douglass Houghton enrolled in the Rensselaer Scientific School, the nation's premier center of technical learning at the time, where he mastered the discipline of geology.

 A year after graduation in 1830, Houghton was recommended by his academic mentor and the co-founder of Rensselaer, Amos Eaton, to travel to Detroit in response to a personal call from the territorial governor of Michigan, Lewis Cass. A small group of elite Detroiters, wishing to enhance the city's cultural prestige, had invited Eaton to come and lecture in Detroit. Despite his reputation as a nationally renowned academic, and to the surprise of all, Eaton deferred to his youthful protégée. Upon arrival in Detroit, Houghton quickly established himself as an extremely popular lecturer, especially amongst young intellectuals, and in 1833 he founded the Detroit Young Men's Society. When a virulent epidemic of cholera struck the city in 1834, Houghton, who had been a licensed physician since 1831, selflessly treated rich and poor alike at a great personal risk to himself.

 In 1837, Houghton was appointed Michigan's first State Geologist and placed in charge of organizing the State Geological Survey. Houghton enthusiastically set about his work and personally conducted many surveys of the state, which resulted in the formation of present day county boundaries, the discovery of mineral deposits, the exploitation of which would contribute greatly to the economic development of the state, and the exploration of rivers, the navigability of which facilitated the settlement of much of northern Michigan. Houghton's greatest contribution to the state of Michigan was his discovery of large, commercially productive copper veins in the Keweenaw Peninsula, a find that precipitated the largest copper mining operation in the nation's history.

In 1842, Houghton was elected as Mayor of Detroit, a post he held for two consecutive terms. In 1844, after experiencing a lack of state funding for his mineral explorations of the Upper Peninsula, Houghton travelled to Washington, D.C. and successfully lobbied congress for federal funding for his geological work. It was this federal subsidy which enabled a more complete understanding of the vastness of mineral wealth which lay beneath the Keweenaw Peninsula. By 1845, Houghton's fame and popularity had grown so much that he was seriously considered as a candidate for Governor of Michigan.

Tragically, Houghton's bright future was cut short when on the night of October 12, 1845, while completing a survey, he and two of his colleagues drowned when their small boat capsized in Lake Superior during a sudden storm. Houghton's remains were discovered the next spring and brought to Detroit to be interred in Elmwood Cemetery. He was survived by his wife and one daughter. Houghton County and the city of Houghton Michigan are named after Douglass Houghton, as well as Houghton Lake, Michigan's largest inland lake.

 


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