Grand River @ Grand Rapids

History of The Grand River at Grand Rapids, Michigan, the Water Power Canals and Hydroelectric Power.

The 1868 Bird’s Eye View Map of Grand Rapids shows a few log rafters taking part it was what the “Big Drive” which started in the summer of 1867.;xNLx;;xNLx;photo courtesy Library of Congress.

1833-12-23 00:00:00

River Wide with Great Falls

“Our river is eighty-five rods (1,400 feet) wide at this place, and the greatest water privilege there is in the Territory; here is twenty-five feet fall in one mile of the river at this place. We expect mills built here another season. I have a full set of mill irons stored in my cellar for that purpose. We have plenty of provisions here, although they come as yet by water from Detroit. Here is plenty of fish and plenty of game and the greatest country for honey that I ever saw.” — Joel Guild, letter (Baxter p. 57)

1834-03-01 00:00:00

First Limekiln

“The first limekiln here was built and operated by William McCausland, in 1834. It was on the bank of the river below Huron street.’ (Baxter p. 487) That location would be part of DeVos Place today.

1835-03-01 00:00:00

Winter 1834-1835

“Ice in the river not heavy. An early, pleasant spring.” (Baxter p. 174)

1836-10-14 00:00:00

John Ball Arrives

John Ball arrives from Troy, New York to speculate lands.

1837-07-04 21:58:57

The Governor Mason

The Governor Mason, first steamer, built here by James Short for Richard Godfroy and others, made her trial trip to Grandville, July 4. This boat was fitted out with the engine of the Don Quixote, that was wrecked while bringing round the lakes the press for the first newspaper here. Governor Stevens T. Mason named the new steamboat and presented it with a stand of colors. Captain William Stoddard was its first commander, then Captain William Kanouse for a year or tow, and afterward Willard Sibley. It made a trip up the river that season of 1837, to Lyons, with Alanson Cramton as bugler. The Mason was not a success peculiarly, but ran to Grand Haven irregularly for some years. At the time of the great freshet in February, 1838, this steamer was forced by the floating ice inland toward where the Union Depot now is, and left aground by the receding water; but was returned to the river at the expense of much labor and cash, the work being done by Howard Jennings and Captain James Short, with several able-bodied assistants. The Mason was driven ashore and wrecked, in May 1840, near the entrance to Muskegon Harbor.

1847-06-01 00:00:00

William T. Powers Arrives

William Thompson Powers (26), wife Louisa (Hall) and son William Henry (6) arrive in Grand Rapids from Troy, New York where eleven years earlier “uncle” John Ball settled here.

1849-07-01 00:00:00

Locks Installed at Basin

“Work on the canal (east side) was resumed in July, and prosecuted vigorously. The water was turned away from the east channel of the river by temporary dam, and excavations were begun for locks from the basin into the slack water below. The files of ‘Dutch buggies,’ as the wheelbarrows were called, attracted much attention. The east half of the basin was cut off by an embankment through the center, and that part of it next Canal street made dry land, and turned over for building and business uses. The proposed locks were never constructed. The work was suspended shortly afterward, and the canal rested.” (Baxter p. 93)

1849-07-01 00:00:00

First Dam Built in 1849

A rough 5’ horseshoe wing (pier) dam is constructed from about Eleventh Street on the west side to opposite Fourth St on the east side near Hastings Street. It was made of stone, gravel, logs and brush, and spanned the entire river — the first of its kind to do this on the Grand River. The construction of this dam lowered the amount of water flowing through the main channel so much that the limestone boulders in that created the rapids of “Grand Rapids” were exposed. Such a valuable building material could not be passed up, and most of the boulders were taken out of the river and used for building materials. Additional mining was done in times of low water. Charles Belknap shares what he remembers of the rapids: “Before the river bed on the rapids was cleared of its great hard-headed boulders and narrowed by the west side canal — for this canal was a part of the river and its present retaining wall is entirely in the river bed — all of the water of the river, except the small flow that passed down the east side canal, came over the dam and spread out in swirls and channels between the rocks in a combat for right of way to the foot of the rapids.” (Chrysler) (Lydens) (Bajema, Historical Analyses of the Greenway Corridor, Grand River Valley 10) (Bajema, Grand River Greenway Corridor Project, Kent County Alphabetical List of Historic Sites with Selected Descriptions 14, 55)

1853-01-01 00:00:00


Captain Robert S. Parks commanded the MICHIGAN in 1853. The MICHIGAN burned at Hovey's dock, July 11, 1860. Grand Rapids, Mich. July 12. - The steamer MICHIGAN, while lying at her dock was totally destroyed by fire last night. Her crew being asleep escaped with great difficulty. Loss over $5,000. — Buffalo Daily Republic, Thursday, July 12, 1860. At about 11:30 on Wednesday evening a fire broke out on board the steamer MICHIGAN. There were 5 men on board at the time, having retired for the night. They succeeded in making their escape, though not being able to save anything. The boilers were full of water, and lying at Hovey’s dock, fears were entertained for the safety of the warehouse, and she was cut adrift and floated down the tide, lodging on a sand bar about a mile below the city, burned to the water's edge. When in the middle of the river, and the flames having full possession of the boat, from stem to stern, the sight was truly grand and imposing. By the burning of the MICHIGAN, Capt. Gano, the popular master and owner, loses heavily. The boat was valued at $5,000; no insurance. Capt. Gano also lost his books and papers. The Sargeant's brothers also lost about $150 and the hands of the boat lost considerable in clothing, &c. The MICHIGAN arrived from Grand Haven about 10:00 that evening, and the usual precautions against fire was taken by those having her in charge, before retiring for the night. The fire broke out somewhere about the furnace. The loss of this excellent steamer will be felt all along the Grand River, and the sympathies of the community are with its gallant captain in his sad misfortune. — Grand Rapids Enquirer, July 13, 1860 — Detroit Free Press, July 14, 1860

1856-04-01 00:00:00

Forest Queen

Piloted by Captain Remington. The Forest Queen was built at Grand Rapids by Jacob Meddler, for William T. Powers and others, and launched on the first of April 1856. In August 1858 the Forest Queen was taken to Fox River in Wisconsin.

1857-03-01 00:00:00


The Nebraska was launched in March 1857 by Daniel Ball at the foot of Lyon street, and afterward put upon the up-river route.

1857-10-15 00:00:00

Pearl Street Bridge

The Pearl Street Bridge Company is organized. “President, Solomon Lewis Withey; Secretary and Treasurer, William Hovey; Directors, Solomon Lewis Withey, James W. Converse, Wilder De Ayr Foster, Lucius Patterson. In the following year, Charles H. Taylor and Henry Martin were chosen Directors in place of Foster and Patterson.” (Baxter 546)

1858-11-25 00:00:00

Pearl Street Bridge Completed

The first Pearl Street Bridge is completed. It was a 620-foot long double-Burr arch truss covered bridge and had six spans and would be used until 1885. It was built by J.W. Walton. The masonry was done by John Farr. “The eastern portion of the bridge, from the island across the steamboat channel to the foot of Pearl street (west line of Canal street), was built by Daniel Ball, and this was connected with the main structure by a high embankment across the island. The cost of the entire work was about $16,000.” (Bajema, Grand River Greenway Corridor Project, Kent County Alphabetical List of Historic Sites with Selected Descriptions 48) (Baxter 546) (Baxter 124)

1860-03-01 00:00:00


The steamer CROTON, built as early as 1847, came from Muskegon in March 1860, and ran on the river for a time. First to pilot the ship in Muskegon was Captain John Witherell, the oldest marine man at the time of his death, January 9, 1907. — Muskegon Daily Chronicle (Muskeon, MI), January 9, 1907, page 1.

1861-03-01 00:00:00

Daniel Ball

The Daniel Ball is built. (Chrysler) (Baxter p. 520) 1867 — Howard Brown, killed by a fender on board steamer Daniel Ball — Detroit Free Press, December 24, 1867 WHAT ARE THE NAVIGABLE WATERS OF THE UNITED STATES! - A case is now before the United States Supreme Court which involves the determination of the question of what are the navigable waters of the United States. The steamer Daniel Ball, which had plied on the Grand River, Michigan, was libeled in the Circuit Court for the western district of Michigan for not having been inspected and licensed under the navigation laws, and the judgement was against her. The case was brought before this court, where it is contended by the government in support of the decision below, that the common law doctrine as to the navigability of waters has its application in this country, and that the navigableness in no respect depends on the ebb and flow of the tide, but solely upon the navigable capacity of the stream. It is also insisted that the statute requiring license applier, if the voyage, though commenced and ended in the State, is a continuation of freight from one state to another. It thus forms a link in commerce among the States, and the subject so engaged is subject to navigation law, under which the proceeding was commenced. — Detroit Free Press, Detroit, Michigan, 4 Dec. 1870 (In effect, this meant that small inland freighters and passenger vessels had to be licensed, registered and inspected if they were used on any waters connected with the lakes by navigation routes, since they were potentially part of interstate commerce. Only vessels operating on isolated inland waters (i.e. inland lakes) and vessels not carrying a commodity (such as boom tugs) were exempt. The 123-ton DANIEL BALL (US#6199) was a flat-bottomed riverine packet, built at Grand Rapids in 1861 and burned on the Saginaw River in 1876.) July 1873 — Steamer Daniel Ball, got on a pile at Bay City and crushed a hole through her bottom. August 1873 — At Saginaw the steamer Daniel Ball got a log in her wheel and tore three buckets off. — Detroit Free Press, Detroit, Michigan, Dec 9, 1873 Detroit, Mich., Oct. 17. -- The steamer DANIEL BALL, of the East Saginaw and Bay City Line, was burned about 5 o'clock this afternoon while approaching Bay City. The passengers and crew were all saved, The BALL was valued at $15,000; insured for about half that sum. — Cleveland Herald, Wednesday, October 18, 1876. The W. R. BURT is the name of a new steamer which was to be launched yesterday on Saginaw River to take the place of the DANIEL BALL burned last fall. The length of the keel is 150 feet; over-all, 154 feet; breadth of beam, including guards, 39 feet. She is considered a fine specimen of marine architecture and is expected to be ready for business next month. Robert Medler will be her captain, H. W. Booth, clerk, and Homer Gregory, engineer. — Cleveland Herald, April 16, 1877 In the case of the owners of the steamer DANIEL BALL vs. the Royal Canadian Insurance Company, tried in the United States Court Saturday, a verdict of $3,155.75 was awarded the plaintiffs. In this case suit was brought by Albert M. Root, Homer Gregory, Andrew Miller and Westley Hawkins, owners of the steamer BALL, which was destroyed by fire on Lake Huron, October 17th, 1876, to obtain $3,000, the amount for which she was insured, and interest on the same to date. — Cleveland Herald, October 2, 1877 Steam paddle DANIEL BALL. U. S. No. 6199. Of 123.32 tons. Home port, Grand Haven, Mich. Of 85 nominal horsepower. Merchant Vessel List, U. S., 1871 photo courtesy Grand Rapids Public Library, Fitch Collection

1864-02-02 00:00:00

Grand Rapids Water Power Company

“The Grand Rapids Water Power Company was organized February 2, 1864 — President, G. M. Huntly; Secretary, James M. Barnett; Treasurer, William A. Berkey. The chief work of this company has been that of keeping in repair and serviceable condition the east side canal with its water power privileges, and its members have been the owners of water rights there.” (Baxter 643)

1864-06-01 00:00:00

Algoma Explodes

A boiler explosion destroys the Algoma. (Chrysler) (Baxter 520)

1865-01-17 00:00:00

Comstock, Nelson & Co. Burns Down

The furniture rooms of Comstock, Nelson & Co., located on the west side of Canal Street, south of Huron, burn down. (Baxter 189)

1865-03-01 00:00:00

Jackoboice Moves Iron Works

Joseph Jackoboice moves his iron operations to the site of the Clarendon Hotel. He remained here for two years. (Baxter, page 440) Near the present site of Hotel Rowe.

1865-03-01 00:00:00

William T. Powers Buys West Side

William T. Powers buys land on the west side of the river to build the West Side Water Power Canal. (Baxter 441, 642)

1866-01-01 16:52:12

Construction of the West Side Water Power Canal

The west side hydro power canal was completed and the water let in.

1866-02-28 02:16:48

William H. Powers Buys Fathers’ Mill

William H. Powers purchases his father’s interests in the steam sawmill on the west side of the river at the head of the rapids. (Baxter 441-442) The mill would be located north of Leonard St where Front Ave and Webster St meet.

1866-02-28 02:16:48

State Requires Chutes Upon All Streams

The Michigan State Legislature passes laws “requiring the construction of chutes in dams upon all streams which are by law public highways. Fishermen living in Ionia complained that the chutes in the dam at Grand Rapids did not allow sturgeon and other fish to swim upstream.” (Bajema, Grand River Greenway Corridor Project, Kent County Alphabetical List of Historic Sites with Selected Descriptions 18)

1866-03-01 00:00:00

1866 Water Rights Contract

The East Side Water Power Company joins with William T. Powers to tear down the rough dam built in 1835 and rebuild a more permanent wooden dam nearer Sixth Street. The East Side Water Power Company built the east half of the new dam while William T. Powers built the other half. Both worked together to build the lumber raft chute in the middle of the dam. The project cost $90,000. This dam will provide waterpower to both the west side canal and the east side canal. The new west side canal measured 3,250’ long from the dam at 4th Street to the Grand Rapids and Indiana railroad bridge just south of Pearl Street. This dam will be replaced yet again as part of the 1927 beautification project. (Chrysler) (Grand Rapids Democrat) (Hotchkiss) (Bajema, Historical Analyses of the Greenway Corridor, Grand River Valley 10) (Bajema, Grand River Greenway Corridor Project, Kent County Alphabetical List of Historic Sites with Selected Descriptions 14) (Baxter 642) From Bajema: “William T. Powers ‘stole’ part of the riverbed of the Grand River to build the west side power canal after the Civil War. The west side [of the] canal was the riverbank and the east retaining wall of the canal was built entirely in the river. Powers built the 3,250 feet long west side power canal from just above the Fourth Street dam to below GR&I Railroad bridge where it emptied into the river at what is now the site of Van Andel Public Museum of Grand Rapids and GVSU campus. The West Side Power Company completed the west side power canal in September 1868 when water was let in the entire length of the canal to its outlet between Pearl Street and the GR&I railroad bridge where the canal emptied back into the Grand River. The west side canal powered the wheels of numerous industries including the Grand Rapids Electric Light and Power Co., the Grand Rapids Brush Co., Perkins & Co., Powers & Walker Casket Co., Voigt Milling Co. also know as Crescent flour Mills and the C.A. Voigt & Co. also known as Star flour mills.” (Bajema, Grand River Greenway Corridor Project, Kent County Alphabetical List of Historic Sites with Selected Descriptions 53)

1867-03-21 00:00:00

Opening River Navigation

“Opening of river navigation. The Daniel Ball the first steamer up the river.” (Grand Rapids Daily Eagle)

1867-04-03 00:00:00

L. & L. Jenison

“Steamer L. & L. Jenison launched.” Named after Lucius & Luman Jenison the younger brothers of Hiram all founders of Jenison, Michigan on the Grand River west of Grand Rapids and Grandville. Lucius & Luman Jenison were lumbermen and knew well how to run a saw mill. (Grand Rapids Daily Eagle) Friday morning the steamboat JENISON of Capt. Gamoe's Line between Grand Rapids and Grand Haven was burned at the former city. She was laid up for the winter just below the city and was worth about $12,000 and was fully insured. — Port Huron Daily Times, Saturday, December 18, 1875 Steam paddle L. L. JENISON. U. S. No. 14825. Of 129.07 tons. Home port, Grand Haven, Michigan. Merchant Vessel List, U. S., 1871

1867-12-03 00:00:00

First Bridge Lit by Gas

“Common Council decides the Bridge and Pearl-st. bridges shall be lighted with gas.” (Grand Rapids Daily Eagle)

1868-03-01 00:00:00

Star Mill Constructed

The Star Mill is constructed on west side of river, just south of Bridge Street. (Chrysler) (Baxter 424)

1868-11-01 00:00:00

GR&I Railroad Bridge

The original Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad bridge made of wooden trestle was built in 1868. Submitted by Lyceum Learner: Marrisa M.

1869-02-01 00:00:00

Grand River and Rogue River Log Running Company Organized

The Grand River and Rogue River Log Running Company is organized. (Chrysler) William H. Powers, president

1870-01-01 00:00:00

Berkey & Gay Power Cable

Berkey & Gay complete their wheelhouse on the west side water power canal. They will attach two half-mile steel cables to drive wheels at their east side furniture factory.

1870-04-04 00:00:00

1870 April Flood

“A flood in the river reached its maximum April 4, when all the low lands on both sides were submerged, and basements along Canal street were filled with water from one to four feet deep. The freshet subsided without material damage other than the extra work required to protect property along the east side canal, and the temporary driving out of many occupants of buildings in the inundated districts.” (Baxter 129)

1871-03-01 00:00:00

Grand Rapids Brush Company Organized

The Grand Rapids Brush Company is organized. They begin operations on Mill Street, but soon thereafter moved to a location at the west end of the Pearl Street Bridge. They remained at this location until May 1873, when the building burned down. (Baxter 476)

1872-05-08 00:00:00

Squire’s Opera Hall Burns

Fire destroys Squire’s Opera Hall and Squire’s & Company, Kent Mills also known as the “Stone Castle”. Damages estimated at $55,000. (Baxter 189, 424) Located today about where DeVos Place Convention Center is just north of main concourse.

1873-05-16 00:00:00

Grand Rapids Brush Company Burns

The Grand Rapids Brush Company at the west end of the Pearl Street bridge north side burns after about a year and a half in business. They will rebuild by 1875 just north of their current location to Pearl and Front Streets. In 1880 this building will be where Wolverine Chair & Furniture Company will be established and the first use of hydroelectric power in North America will begin.

1874-03-01 00:00:00

W. H. Barrett

The W. H. Barrett is built. The most well known of the river steamers, the Barrett ran on the Grand River for twenty years. “Another boat which ran for a time was the Schuyler Colfax.” (Chrysler) (Baxter 520) Named for William H. Barrett

1875-12-17 00:00:00

L. & L. Jenison Burns

The L. & L. Jenison steamboat is destroyed by fire while moored at the Coit dock in Grand Rapids. Named for Lucius & Luman Jenison the younger brothers of Hiram Jenison. (Chrysler) (Baxter 189, 520)

1878-10-01 00:00:00

Grand Rapids Brush Company Moves West

The Grand Rapids Brush Company moves its operations to a location on Front Street near the Pearl Street Bridge. (Baxter 476) This is the building that will be Wolverine Chair and Furniture Company in February 1880.

1880-03-20 00:00:00

Grand Rapids Electric Light and Power Company Organized

“The Grand Rapids Electric Light and Power Company, the first of its kind in this city, was organized March 22, 1880, with a capital stock of $100,000, the incorporators being William T. Powers, William H. Powers, Amasas B. Watson, James Blair, Henry Spring, John L. Shaw, Thomas M. Peck, and Sluman S. Bailey.” (Baxter 215)

1880-07-24 00:00:00

First Use of Hydroelectric Power

Grand Rapids Electric Light and Power Company: “The company purchased its first dynamo (a sixteen-light Brush) and the necessary lamps and line wire, and commenced operations in July 1880, placing the dynamo in the Wolverine Chair Company's factory at the corner of Pearl and Front streets, and renting water power to propel it.” (Baxter 215)

1880-09-01 00:00:00

Moves Dynamo to Powers Sawmill

Grand Rapids Electric Light and Power Company: “The business, increasing steadily from the start, soon required more apparatus and power, and in September of the same year the plant was removed to the saw mill building at the lower end of the West Side canal, and another and larger dynamo added, until in the summer of 1881 land and water power were purchased and permanent buildings erected adjoining the leased property. (Baxter 215)

1881-04-01 00:00:00

Pearl St Bridge Lighted by Electric Lantern

The first practical test to light the Pearl Street bridge by electrical lantern.

1881-09-01 00:00:00

Permanent Hydroelectric Plant Completed

The Grand Rapids Electric Light and Power Company move into their permanent hydroelectric power plant.

1883-06-18 00:00:00

Rains Before The Log Jam

“June 18, occurred a thunder storm in which the rain-fall was 2.4 inches; and the precipitation for the month to that date was 6.46 inches — more than had been known in the whole month of June for many years. The June rains so raised the streams hereabout as to do much damage to highways, bridges, railroad culvers and crops. The river in the beginning of July, was nearly to the top of the banks through the heart of the city, and overflowed at the low lands below. The rain-fall of June and July was nearly 20 inches, and the result was a great freshet. Logs in the river above the rapids were banked against the upper railroad bridge, a heavy iron structure, and overturned three spans in the center, about one-half of the bridge, into the water below the piers. The logs thus released, estimated at about 100,000,000 feet in round numbers, went tumbling over the rapids, and carried off the other two railroad bridges near the lower part of the city. This was on July 26. The city bridges were left standing; Leonard street bridge unhurt, the others somewhat injured. Much damage was done to the mills, factories and other buildings along the canals and river banks. The entire jam of logs went through the city in about an hour and a half. Basements along Canal street were flooded, much of the lower part of the city was submerged, and generally the river intervals from Ionia to Grand Haven were overflowed. The repairing and rebuilding of bridges was accomplished as fast as men and money could do it; the upper railroad bridge was in place again August 10, and in a few weeks business proceeded as before. The direct money damages were immense, but never closely estimated. W. L. Coffinberry, from observations personally made by him, and data which he had preserved, expressed the opinion that the flood of 1852 was about 14 inches higher than this one of 1883.” (Baxter 138)

1883-07-01 00:00:00

Log Jam Under Pearl Street Bridge

1883 Log Jam rapidly moved under Pearl St bridge for more than and hour and a half.

1883-07-24 00:00:00

Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad Bridge Destroyed

Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad “Blue” Bridge (GR&I) is destroyed and travels downstream and crashes into Chicago and West Michigan Railroad bridge. This was the second GR&I Railroad bridge construction began in about November 1874.

1883-07-26 00:00:00

The Greatest Log Jam Ever Recorded

“The most notable summer flood which has occurred, was that of the last week in July, 1883, caused by a long and heavy rainstorm. This broke the boom above the rapids, and carried away many million feet of logs that were stored there, overturned the Detroit, Grand Haven and Milwaukee iron bridge, swept out the Grand Rapids an Indiana Railroad bridge, and damaged two or three others. That was the heaviest and most protracted summer rainstorm visiting this region within the memory of white men.” (Baxter 173)

1885-03-01 00:00:00

Powers Buys Michigan Iron Works and Electric Light Company

William H. Powers and his father William T. Powers purchase the Michigan Iron Works plant at the foot of Louis Street. William H. Powers assumes the management of the plant. (Baxter 442)

1886-11-01 00:00:00

Sixth Street Iron Bridge

In 1886 the Sixth Street Massillon, Ohio iron bridge will be build.

1907-01-24 00:00:00

1907 Ice Jam

In January 1907 Grand River had en epic Ice Jam.

Grand River @ Grand Rapids

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