Grand Rapids, A History
Grand Rapids has quite the history, but most people only know a portion of it. There are the popular topics, The DeVos and Van Andel families, furniture city, Gerald R Ford, and state of the art medical facilities. There are other pieces of the puzzle to be explored as well. Gypsum mines came before the furniture factories. Native American settled before the French, English, and Dutch. The Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad was a pioneer of transport through West Michigan. There is much about Grand Rapids’ history that is unique and intriguing. Let’s take a look.
In the early years, over 2,000 years ago, West Michigan was home to Native Americans. Plains Indians had settled across Michigan in their expansion from the interior plains area. These people were known through their Hopewell Culture, which flourished along rivers in the midwest. They were later overrun by a tribe from the Ottawa River area. This tribe late split up into the three tribes most commonly known in Michigan. The Pottawatomies were living in Southern Michigan. In the north, the Chippewas settled south of the upper peninsula. Central Michigan was the home to the Ottawas.
In 1806, some of the first white settlers made their way to what is now Grand Rapids. A French Canadian, Joseph La Framboise, and his wife, Magdalene set up the first fur trading post. Grand Rapids is largely known to have been founded by Louis Campau, a Detroit Native. He arrived around 25 years after La Framboise. Campau is referred to as the founder because of his contribution to establishing Grand Rapids as an official village in 1838 and a city in 1850. These contributions include the establishment of a cabin as well as a trading post and blacksmith shop, drawing in people to settle in the area.
Contrary to popular belief, mining was the first large economic growth spurt in Grand Rapids. Settlers discovered gypsum in the area, a calcium based mineral used in the making of plaster and chalk. They began commercial mining of this resource around 1841 and built up to 13 different mining operations. These companies transported and traded the material across the world, building great wealth for the city. These mines are no longer in operation, but are rather used now as storage site for documents and electronics. The Mines golf course was built on one of these old mines, hence its name.
Railroads are a little known progress point in the establishment of Grand Rapids. This is probably because of the struggles and eventual failure of the companies, as was common in the boom of railroads in the United States. In 1854 the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad was founded. The company had many financial struggles in the beginning but eventually opened a service between Grand Rapids and Cedar Springs in 1867. Over the years they expanded and eventually covered from the Mackinac Straits, all the way to Cincinnati, Ohio. This was done through continuing to build, as well as purchasing over rail companies. The largest of these was the Cincinnati, Richmond and Fort Wayne Railroad Company.
The boom of lumber industry in West Michigan drove their profits. This led to expansion of their number of cars. In 1876, lumber made up over 70% of their freight revenue. However, as the lumber industry slowed, so did the freight business, prompting the company to focus on tourism. They ran promotions for destinations along the rail line to draw in customers. This worked well, as they were profiting 24.4 cents per passenger mile in 1909. Unfortunately, this did not last and by 1921, they were losing 19.5 cents per passenger mile. The Pennsylvania Railroad purchased the company in 1918. In 1975, the Michigan Department of Transportation bought the railroad closed most of its operation by 1984.
Furniture was a huge economic boom for West Michigan, especially Grand Rapids. With the large amount of timber being harvested and transported in the area, many people took up crafts in woodworking to capitalize on the abundant resource. Logs would float down the Grand River to the mills in the city. From here they would ship them across the Great Lakes. Furniture became a staple of Grand Rapids and it was quickly known as “Furniture City.” Soon after, Grand Rapids became a world leader in furniture production. There were 44 different furniture companies in the city at one point. Today, many of these furniture factories have been renovated and turned into apartments and condos.
Gerald R Ford
Gerald R Ford, the 38th president of the United States, grew up in Grand Rapids. On the west side of the Grand River, you can find his final resting place, as well as his historical museum. Survived by a long legacy, Ford was the only person to serve as both president and vice president without the electoral college voting him in. His life was quite eventful, playing football at the University of Michigan and receiving an offer from the Packers to play in the NFL. He instead began his own law firm. After Pearl Harbor, he chose to enlist in the Navy where he spent 4 years. Upon leaving the Navy, he began his long career in politics, which was colorful to say the least. The biggest controversy was in the beginning of his presidency when he pardoned former president, Richard Nixon, from his role in the Watergate scandal.
Following the popular success of Founder’s Brewing Company, a surge of breweries has taken over Grand Rapids. There are currently over 75 local, craft breweries in and around the city. Before Founder’s, the last brewery that Grand Rapids was home to shut its doors in 1951. “Beer City” is a nickname that was given by USA Today and it has stuck through the years. Just about every restaurant in the area has a couple local craft beers on draft. Some people consider the enthusiasts to be “Beer Snobs”, but maybe it is just a good sense of taste. Who doesn’t like a good beer anyways?
I hope you learned a little something extra about Grand Rapids in reading this. If not, stay tuned for more. Feel free to add any fun facts and bits of information in the comments. Thanks.