The Grand River flows through the heart of Grand Rapids, its currents and eddies and swiftly flowing water are truly the heartbeat of our city. It has always been so for the Grand Rapids portion of the 252-mile river, the longest in Michigan, that has its source in a spring south of Jackson and its mouth at Grand Haven.
The rapids, which defined both the river and the early settlement of the region, are long gone, lost to the needs of commerce. Yet those 300 yards of 10- to 15-foot tall rapids—created as limestone beneath the river cracked and formed a series of ledges and shelves—named a city.
Reviving the rapids is part of a broader plan to continue to draw people to Grand Rapids. Doug Small, president and CEO of Experience Grand Rapids, sees the Grand River as huge asset to the city.
“Those destinations that have water as a big part of the landscape have an advantage,” he said. “The Grand River gives us the opportunity to be a city with an active waterway.”
He points to the Grand Rapids Public Museum and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum located along the river, the city’s largest hotels and multiple restaurants near the river, as well as the trail system that runs along its banks.
“When you have an asset like the river and riverfront and you can enhance that area, it gives Grand Rapids a leg up, and that excites us,” said Small.
The river drew the earliest inhabitants of the area. The Hopewell Indians appeared over 2,000 years ago and settled near present-day Grandville. There were originally 46 burial mounds attributed to the culture. The Converse Mounds, located along the river near downtown, no longer exist after being razed to make way for farms and construction. The Norton Mounds, also along the Grand River, are among the best preserved and were excavated in the 1870s and again in the 1960s. Designated a National Historic Landmark, the Hopewell Indian Mounds Park sits between the Gerald R. Ford Freeway and the Grand River.
By the late 17th century, the Grand River band of Odawa (Ottawa) Indians had created settlements along the river. They called the river “O-wash-ti-nong,” meaning “far away water” or “long-flowing river.” The Odawa, Ojibwe (Chippewa), and Potawatomi were called the Three Fires Confederacy, part of the Algonquin Nation, and were said to have fought a great battle with the Prairie Indians on the west bank of the river near what is now Fulton Street and Mount Vernon Avenue.
The first European people to come to the region were French missionaries and fur traders, followed by the English. White settlers soon came in droves, driving the native peoples away and prompting treaties such as the 1821 treaty in which the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi ceded all lands in the Michigan Territory south of the Grand River.
Rev. Isaac McCoy of the Baptist Missionary Convention established the Thomas Mission in 1824 on the west side of the river near what is now Bridge Street, with the famous Odawa Chief Noonday’s village next to the mission, according to Grand River historian Don Chrysler in The Story of Grand River: A Bicentennial History.
The City of Grand Rapids was officially born in 1826 on the east side of the river when Louis Campau settled there. By 1835, the native peoples were mostly gone from the area and the rapids were beginning to be submerged by the white settlers. By the 1850s, the Grand River was being used as a highway for the millions of trees harvested in the lumber boom of that era. The great trees harvested from the original-growth forests were brought to the Grand River and floated down to Grand Haven, and from there directed to sprawling cities such as Chicago that grew up thanks to Michigan lumber.
Moving on the river
River transportation is and always has been plentiful, with paddle wheels and steamboats sharing space with canoes, rowboats, crew boats, and, more recently, motorboats and jet skis. The Grand Rapids Boat and Canoe Club drew the city’s elite to its clubhouse, hosting crew competitions, regattas and parties. The private club was gifted to the city in the late 1920s, with the American Legion Boat and Canoe Club still there today at the corner of North Park Street and Monroe Avenue. The North Park Pavilion, positioned next to the club, was another riverside draw.
The Valley City, one of the largest steamboats of the day, launched in 1892, a time when steamers plied the river. The first steamboats—the Gov. Mason and the Owashtinong—were launched in 1837. The City of Grand Rapids, a 64-feet long, 17-feet wide stern-wheeled riverboat, was built by L.D. Clyde Curtis in 1967. With its two decks and John Deere tractor motor, the boat operated as a charter/tour boat running the 11 miles between Ann Street’s Holly’s Landing and Ada from 1967-1973. It docked near the city’s North Park Bridge.
These days it’s the Grand Lady Riverboat offering pleasure cruises on the river (see sidebar). Crew teams practice on the river, particularly in the northern sections, while fishing boats, canoes and kayaks are seen as well.
The Grand River has a long history as a center of commerce, but it’s not always an easy trading partner. Rains caused the river to rise in 1883, which the lumbermen used to float even more logs down the river. An enormous logjam ensued at the D. & M. railroad bridge, with one report saying the logs were stacked 30 feet deep and seven miles up the river. Finally, the bridge gave way, sending 100,000,000 feet of logs through the town in less than two hours, according to the 1925 Old Grand Rapids by George Fitch.
The river routinely flooded its banks, including a catastrophic 1926 flood that inundated the West Side. Floodwaters in 1892 took out the Knapp Avenue bridge, which floated downriver and slammed into the Plainfield Bridge, which buckled in the middle and broke in half. Swimmers and fishermen have drowned. The river has struggled as human and commercial interaction brought pollution and endangered habitats and ecosystems.
Organizations such as WMEAC (West Michigan Environmental Action Council) with its annual Mayors’ Grand River Cleanup and Grand Valley State University’s Grand River Campus to Campus Cleanup and many others are doing good work in the river cleanup space, helping make the river visually more appealing.
For Wendy Ogilvie, director of environmental programs at the Grand Valley Metro Council and director of LGROW (Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds), an agency of the Metro Council, cleanup begins with controlling what is going into the river when it rains. By cleaning up the stormwater runoff—whether agricultural byproducts, lawn fertilizers, urban pollutants—the river becomes cleaner.
“This is the cleanest the river has been in 40 years,” said Ogilvie, citing the separation of stormwater and sewer systems as a key factor. “We’ve improved the water quality tremendously. The city has been taking water quality measurements for years; we’ve seen the Water Quality Index rising and improving for decades.”
The river’s future
For fishing aficionados such as Aaron Gromaski, the Grand River provides a way for him to connect with nature right in the city. He dove into fishing the Grand more seriously during the pandemic, using a float setup to lure migratory species such as salmon, trout, and steelhead that swim up the river to spawn. Last year he caught a male chinook that he figured had to be 35 inches long, which he let go.
“Fishing in the Grand River connects me to my own history,” said Gromaski, who worked for the DNR but who now is an assistant manager at the Amazon Fulfillment Center. “My grandmother and grandfather both grew up here and both fished the river. My Grandma’s brothers were all big Grand River fishermen.”
He points to the opportunity for community connection the Grand River brings as people congregate there, as well as the recreational and economic boons. “When you get people to care about something like the river, that’s when you get them to preserve it,” he said, adding he’s all for removal of the dams and the return of the rapids to improve river ecology.
Ogilvie adds, “If we want to encourage people to get in the river, we have to make sure it’s clean and safe. There is a misconception that the river is polluted and your foot will melt off if you touch the water. But we encourage everyone to touch the river.”
Doug Small points to the dry portion of the river—its banks and nearby green spaces—as an important aspect of future improvements. He wants the river accessible and equitable for all, which means a trail system that connects urban areas easily to the river, as well as an enhanced trail system along the river. He has other dreams as well.
“The next thing to be talked about is a series of access points along the river. We envision a landing area near the amphitheater where people can get out and get a meal or a beer,” he said. “If we want to activate the river for our community, we need to make it safe for people to get in and out of the river.”
The Grand River remains at the core of Grand Rapids. The future of the river reflects the future of the city, a place for residents and visitors to feel the city’s heartbeat.
“People connect with nature right in the heart of downtown. The river connects the wild to the modern world,” said Aaron Gromaski.
The Grand River—as well as the Rogue, Flat and Thornapple rivers—offers a wide range of activities for all ages and interests.
Canoeing and Kayaking
AAA Rogue River Canoe Rental—Two- and four-hour trips that end at the Rockford Dam (616-866-9264).
Bill & Paul’s Sporthaus—Rents kayaks for day, weekend or week-long adventures. Call 616-458-1684 for availability.
Stand Up Paddle Boarding (SUP)
Living Water Adventures—Rents and delivers paddleboards in the Grand Rapids area for lake and river fun. Recommendations include the eight miles of the Grand River from Lowell to Ada, Mill Pond on the Flat River in Lowell, and the Grand River Heritage Water Trail (35.7 miles) on the west end of the Grand River. Call 616-340-3960 or visit website for information.
The Grand Lady Riverboat offers live music cruises, sightseeing and field trip cruises, and private charters starting at the Steamboat Park Campground, 825 Taylor St., Jenison, from May to October. Bring your own food, with all beverages purchased on board. Call 616-457-4837 for details.
Fishing takes place on all area rivers, with anglers especially excited about the spring steelhead run. Fish the Grand River in downtown Grand Rapids from the Sixth Street Dam or the concrete flood wall, with access to the river from Fish Ladder Park on the west bank and Sixth Street Bridge on the east bank. The Rogue River offers great fishing below the Rockford Dam. Check out the Michigan.gov website for the latest Michigan Fishing Guide and always purchase a fishing license.
The Grand River has several public boat launch sites: Johnson Park Boat Launch, Sixth Street Bridge Park, Riverside Park, Knapp Street Bridge Boat Access, and the Grand River Riverfront Park and Lowell Recreation Park in Lowell.
The Grand River is the backdrop for numerous county, city, and township parks. A partial list includes Riverside Park, Roselle Park, Ah Nab Awen Park, Michael McGraw Park, Chief Hazy Cloud County Park, Johnson Park.
Along the Rogue: Rogue River Park and Grand Rogue Park.
On the Thornapple: Ruehs Park, Leslie E. Tassell Park, Thornapple Riverbend Park
On the Flat River: Fallasburg Park, Recreation Park and Fairgrounds