GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Grand Rapids is known as Furniture City, but the industry’s impact stretched across West Michigan, and none of it would be possible without the Grand River. But in 1883, one of the natural sources of the thriving industry was nearly its undoing.
A logjam of unprecedented size took out bridges and threatened to dump millions of logs into Lake Michigan, suffocating the shipping lanes.
Local historian Ron Kuiper wrote a book about the logjam called “Crisis on the Grand.” In a 2008 interview with MLive, he broke down the potential impact.
“There is no question, this would have destroyed the economy of the whole area,” Kuiper told MLive. “Lumbering was the main industry at the time. Losing the logs would have shut the mills. … The mill workers would have lost their jobs. The owners of the log and the lumber companies would have gone bankrupt. It would have hurt Grand Rapids’ furniture industry.”
BEYOND FURNITURE CITY
First, the basics: The Grand River bubbles up in Hillsdale County and winds its way through Jackson, Lansing, Ionia and several other towns before reaching Grand Rapids and venturing on through Ottawa County, pouring into Lake Michigan through the Grand Haven harbor.
It has served as the cornerstone of communities for more than 2,000 years. Historians have confirmed that a tribe of Hopewell Indians settled along the Grand around 10 B.C. near what is present-day Grandville. Fast forward nearly 1,700 years and the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians had settled several communities along the river, including Grand Rapids, Lowell and Portland.
In the years after the land was ceded to the United States, the river served as the communities’ main source of power.
Not only was the river’s current used to power flour mills and other machinery, but loggers also used it to deliver logs from Michigan’s pine and oak forests to sawmills across the region. These companies built booms — barriers to help store the logs to prevent them from floating away.
But in 1883, after two months of heavy rain, the river took over.
The story starts in June. West Michigan saw several days of heavier-than-average rain. Nothing to worry about yet, assuming things die down in the stretch into summer.
According to a report from MLive, the first signs of concern arose on June 26. Loggers in Ottawa County noticed a sudden rise on the river after a day of heavy rainfall. Crews spent several days shoring up the log booms near Grand Haven, something that paid off in a big way in the weeks to come.
On July 2, the Grand Rapids Eagle reports the river had risen 18 inches. The high water levels caused logs to get stuck on bridges in Grand Rapids and Ottawa County. Again, river crews near Grand Haven kept busy, this time digging a large ditch to divert water into Stearns Bayou and take some pressure off the booms.
On July 21, another heavy rain system moved in, causing the Grand River to swell even more. By July 24, the Grand River in downtown Grand Rapids had risen another 8 inches. This time, a boom failed. Logs on the Flat River in Lowell broke free, floating down river and hitting the logjam in Grand Rapids.
Two days later, the logjam won. A bridge that carried the Detroit, Grand Haven and Milwaukee Railroads collapsed, causing more logs to flow free. Two more railroad bridges were also destroyed. The city’s three bridges — crossing the Grand at Leonard, Pearl and Bridge Streets — suffered some damage but withstood the flow.
Three things worked in the loggers’ favor: two due to their hard work and one of just pure, natural luck. The reinforced booms near Grand Haven held up to the logjam, thanks in part to the new channel that pushed some of the logs into Stearns Bayou.
The logjam could have been much worse. According to historical records, an estimated “95 million feet of logs” got trapped in a natural bend in the Grand River before reaching Grand Rapids.
A retelling of the story was published in Popular Monthly in 1901. It was written by Stewart Edward White. His father was the co-owner of the White & Friant Sawmill in what was once called Nortonville, now Spring Lake Township.
According to White, the final line of defense held tight against 150 million feet of logs, weighing an estimated 37 million tons. A essay from the Grand Rapids Historical Commission says at one point the jam was estimated to be seven miles long and 30 feet deep.
Capt. John Walsh, who worked with the White & Friant Lumber Company for many years, is considered the hero. Remember those first warning signs of flooding? Walsh is the one who helped lead the efforts to buttress the booms and dig the trench into Stearns Bayou, putting their lives on the line in the process.
White’s retelling talks about several crews who refused to go out on the river and abandoned their ships and how Walsh’s firm hand was the driver behind the effort. Kuiper described the task as “Herculean.”
“For me, what makes the logjam so interesting is the drama and courage of the river men,” Kuiper told MLive. “When those logs jammed behind this barricade, those guys were right there with their pile drivers. There was a lot of pressure and power they were dealing with. If they had let go, they faced death.”
Walsh and his crew were also able to salvage much of the lumber, saving the logging company thousands of dollars. As a token of appreciation for his bravery and hard work, Walsh was presented with a gold watch. That watch is now on display at the Tri-Cities Historical Museum in Grand Haven.
The cleanup from the logjam took several months. Logs had to pulled from the water and carried more than a mile inland to have enough room to sort through the debris. Grand Rapids sawmills had to haul its logs back by railroad. Thousands of other logs were lost, spilled out of the river into flooded fields and farms.
According to White, the Ottawa County Boom Company spent more than $60,000 to reinforce its structures and dig the Stearns Bayou channel, but in all likely saved the community millions.