The people who were here just before the Europeans arrived in this thriving trading encampment called the river the "O-wash-ti-nong". The river flows through a swath cut by the retreating glaciers from the last Ice Age. The river had many boulders of Limestone and Granite; these made for swift currents and an ever-changing bottom riverscape. The river was a source of life from the eating of aquatic foods and sometimes, for non-swimmers, death. When European settlers came to know the river's power, resources, and great expanse they wanted to give it a fitting name in their own language: they decided it should be called the Grand River. Today the Grand River is still the longest river in Michigan, flowing through Jackson, Lansing, and Grand Rapids before flowing into Lake Michigan at Grand Haven. It flows south through the city of Grand Rapids and serves as a visual and physical boundary between downtown and the west side. Do not be deceived, however, when addressing your mail to buildings on the east bank of the Grand River, for the west side actually extends into the eastern bank areas of the city for a little way. The Grand River is on a 100 year flood cycle.
The Grand River once served as a transportation route and was essential to the establishment of the local furniture industry, as loggers floated their harvest down the river.
The Grand River once flowed around a large island (just north of what is now the Fulton Street Bridge). This was filled in, creating the more controlled, North-South flow. Originally there were four islands in the Grand River. One day, in a grand, sweeping, gesture of creativity, someone decided to name them: "Island Number One", "Island Number Two", ... (wink) you get the idea. Yes, really.
In the late 1800s a man named Mr. Garritt VanderMeer, who was working for Consumer's Power Company, bravely agreed to be the one to bring the electrical powerline from the downtown power plant on the eastern riverbank to the western riverbank, so that everyone there could enjoy the benefits of electricity. He walked into the river with the long cable looped over his shoulder, step by treacherous step, he made his way to the half-way point and rested at the concrete-looking "rock" in the river. (This is located across from the Grand Rapids Public Museum) Others had whispered that; "Only someone who had run away from home, joined the circus to work as an acrobat on the flying trapeze, and oh, that terrible accident, where during one performance, he had fallen, and landed on his head, would be crazy enough to risk Those waters". When he regained his breath, he continued on, one foot in front of the other, and when my great-grandpa reached the shore, the cheer went up. Soon the cable was connected to the wire systems on the West side, the power surged, and from that day forth, that "rock" has always been known as "Garritt's Piling".
Due to a set of exceptionally unfortunate weather conditions in the early spring of 1904 the Grand River flooded all of the areas that were vulnerable to the rising waters. Outhouses were flooded and "bubbled up" and people went down streets in canoes. Such was the hardship that a few years later, when residents were met with the possibility that it may happen again, they rose up and Demanded that the city officials build flood walls to prevent the river from ever flooding the town again.
The Grand River has always been included in many fun activities and events. In the 1800s and early 1900s there was the Grand Rapids Boat and Canoe Club located on the bank of the River in North Park, which is a small outlying neighborhood of Grand Rapids. One could rent a canoe and have it transported farther up river, bring all of the food for a picnic, a portable record-player, your records, and your date for the evening, and drift back down the river in the moonlight. (If you don't return until midnight, like my grandparents did, well, expect the man waiting there to be very cross with you!) In the 1970s and 1980s we had the Riverboat Races. These races were discontinued due to safety reasons.
Grand Rapids gets its name from the many sets of rapids formerly located in the Grand River at the present site of the city. These were smoothed out, during a series of "urban renewal" moves during the 1960s, by a series of small dams. When the lights shine on this smooth river, that looks like glass, it makes for beautiful view.
Currently there are Sculling competitions on the River near Riverside Park and many ArtPrize competitors seek to find every conceivable means of involving the River with their art displays.
The Grand River has had a negative reputation for pollution, given the industrialization that has occurred on its banks and Grand Rapids's combined storm and sanitary sewage system, which has historically poured into the river when overloaded. Though many anglers take their sport to the Grand, others question the quality of their catch. In the later portion of the 20th century the Grand Rapids Press was happy to report that biologists had come to them with the results of a study on the water quality of the Grand River. Scientists found microscopic lifeforms living in the river that can only be present in the cleaner, healthier, rivers in this region. In this century, our city officials are looking at better ways of managing storm water overflows for municipal projects that are set to commence in the near future. It remains wise to swim and play in gentle currents, and shallow river waters, up-stream of any city.
Art and imagery
The Grand River figures into local art and its banks are home to some of the city's public artworks:
- The Grand River is shown on one of the flags of the City of Grand Rapids
- The Fish Ladder incorporates the flow of the river.
- The River's Edge is also located on the banks.
Much of the ground around the Grand River is rocky, making it good for gravel pits and “lakefront” housing developments. See Jules Schmuker's Gravel pits and lakefront housing developments project. The beautiful boulders of the Grand River bottom and it's banks were taken out and made a part of our local buildings. This can leave dangerous currents and river conditions for those who fish while standing in the river. Before industry dominated the town, the riverbanks hosted many beautiful stone Lumber Baron mansions on both sides of the river. When industrial development first was introduced to the area, the Grand River's east and west banks had a canals cut into it to allow for water power generation. The west side water power canal started at the 4th street dam and just before the Grand Rapids & indiana Railroad “blue” bridge. The river's western edge was Front Street NW. In 1959–60, the west side power canal was filled in. The four islands of the Grand River were close to the banks. Prospect Hill's soil was used to fill in the natural channels between the islands and the eastern riverbank in order to extend the built environment of downtown. (The last of the filling in would be accomplished when the Welsh Auditorium was built, thus providing the present day riverbank.) As Prospect Hill was leveled in the early-1890s, there could be built on that site: the Klingman-Water’s Building. Today, after the ice's retreat, and thousands of years of the Grand River inundating the western river valley, “the Valley” remains one of the most fertile of soils for growing all sorts of plants. Current discussions regarding the future of our city center around a "Greenway" of green spaces lining the riverbank and linked to other parks in town. There have also been talks about whether to make the river's dams more like the orginal rapids, yet safer, or to remove the dams altogether and replace some of the boulders for white water rafting adventurers.