That one time in Michigan: When Grand Rapids lost its rapids

By Karel Vega

December 20, 2023

How industrialization led to significant changes to the Grand River.

For many Michigan cities, their names reflect an aspect of their geography. Take Detroit, for example, whose name comes from the French word for “strait”—a reference to the narrow Detroit River connecting Lake St. Clair with Lake Erie.

On the west side of the state, Michigan’s second-largest city is named for a similar feature. Long ago, the rapids of the Grand River could be heard echoing through town. And while they were so notably unique to the region, it didn’t take long to lose those grand rapids. That’s what today’s story is about—along with one group’s efforts to bring them back.

The founding of Grand Rapids

That one time in Michigan: When Grand Rapids lost its rapids

An 1831 sketch of Grand Rapids by an unknown Baptist missionary. (Source: Grand Rapids Historical Commission)

Around the year 1700, members of the Ottawa Tribe developed several villages along the Grand River, which they called O-wash-ta-nong—meaning far-away water, which was a reference to the river’s length. There, they farmed, fished, and hunted. The river was an essential part of life for the area’s inhabitants.

Roughly 100 years later, the first European settlers began trickling into the area, starting in 1806 with French Canadian fur traders Joseph and Magdelaine La Framboise. After canoeing down from Mackinac Island, the pair established a trading post—the first of many—near the Ottawas.

With the signing of the Treaty of Chicago in 1821, Indigenous leaders ceded most of West Michigan to the US government. The pace of European settlers arriving in the area began to speed up, and in 1826, trader Louis Campau arrived.

Campau set up a trading post, blacksmith shop, and cabin on the banks of the Grand River. He named his tract of land Grand Rapids, after the sight of the roaring rapids, and the people who settled alongside him quickly built up a school and other basic necessities for a bustling town of the time.

Twelve years after Campau’s arrival, Grand Rapids officially became a village. It was named a full-fledged city in 1850.

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Industry alters the rapids

That one time in Michigan: When Grand Rapids lost its rapids

(A hand-drawn survey, circa 1830. Note the “rapids” running along what is now downtown Grand Rapids. (Source: Grand Rapids History & Special Collections, Archives, Grand Rapids Public Library)

Before people began making changes to the Grand River, the rapids in Grand Rapids were turbulent, wild, and filled with rocks. As Charles A. Whitmore of the Kent Scientific Institute of Grand Rapids wrote in 1895, they made a noise “that broke the stillness of the forest and echoed from the neighboring hills.” About a mile long, the rapids also included a steep drop of about 16 feet.

But the stretch of river where the rapids lay was industrialized about as quickly as settlers began arriving. Because of this, no pictures of the rapids’ original state can be found (if you can find one, please let me know), but old surveys from the 1830s clearly show the original features of the rapids.

Early structures built along the river in the 1830s utilized its elevation changes for water power and to collect lumber that had floated downstream after being chopped down.

Rocks along the rapids were quarried for building materials, while small islands along the river were removed to make way for channels that would be used to create new building sites along its banks.

Between 1849 and 1926, four dams were built on the river—these served purposes like providing water power for sawmills, diverting water to other areas, and allowing for the transportation of log rafts. Throughout the 19th century, logging was the main economic driver in Grand Rapids.

In March of 1904, heavy rains melted a deep snowpack—which led to a massive flood. It caused more than $1 million in damages—leading the city to make preventative changes to the river, like installing flood banks.

By the 1920s, the amount of infrastructure built up along the banks created a novel issue—the river would often dry out. To respond to this, city officials began “beautification” efforts, building five low-head dams to keep water levels higher.

The transformation of the river to what city residents are familiar with today was, by then, essentially complete.

That one time in Michigan: When Grand Rapids lost its rapids

The American Can Company building as seen from the Grand River’s east bank circa 1920. (Source: Grand Rapids Public Museum Collections)

Efforts to revitalize the Grand River

That one time in Michigan: When Grand Rapids lost its rapids

A rendering by the group Grand Rapids WhiteWater shows what the Grand River could look like following a restoration project. (Source: Grand Rapids WhiteWater)

Recent years have brought increased attention from several groups to revitalize the Grand River’s rapids to their former glory. A major player in this effort is the nonprofit group Grand Rapids WhiteWater.

Their goal has been to return the Grand River in downtown Grand Rapids to a more natural environment. Along with recapturing the sights and sounds of those original rapids, their goal also includes adding designs to the river to improve fish passage and increase public safety by getting rid of the current low-head dams in the river.

In the latest update to the effort, city officials announced in March of 2023 that they were allowing efforts by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, Grand Rapids Whitewater, and the Environmental Protection Agency to design revitalization possibilities, with work beginning as soon as summer of 2024.

The revitalization efforts will likely include many changes to bring the river back to its more natural state—however, there are currently no plans to revitalize the Grand’s original rapids.

Author

  • Karel Vega

    Coming from a long background in public radio, Karel Vega strives to find stories that inform and inspire local communities. Before joining The ‘Gander, Karel served as managing editor at WKAR, the NPR affiliate in East Lansing, Michigan.

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