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History of Grand River Boating





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There is a theory, which to many people seems plausible, that at some time in the remote past the mouth of Grand River was ten or twelve miles inland from its present locality, perhaps at or near Spoonville. It is also supposed by some that its waters may have passed into Lake Michigan further southward, near Black Lake. These impressions may be partly speculative, or in part deduced from a study of the geological structure of Michigan. In either case it is about as much an undetermined problem as is the knowledge of pre-historic man, or of the mound builders who once occupied this territory. It is undoubtedly true that a dam across the river twelve or fifteen feet high, not far below the rapids, would send its waters over into Black River; and there has been serious talk, among those interested in river navigation, of the construction of a ship canal from some point this side of Grandville direct to Black Lake. Such a work would be costly, but it would be permanent and, many think, worth all its cost.

When the pioneer settlers came into this valley, the only easy way of communication was that by Grand River; chiefly by the use of Indian canoes, the bateaux of the French traders, and the little flat-bottom skiffs which the people along the stream built for themselves. Giles B. Slocum in 1834 paddled a canoe down the river from Jackson to Grand Rapids. But within two years came the use of larger craft, scows and pole boats, and these were soon succeeded by little steamboats. At this time also began a demand for the improvement of the river navigation, and a call for public aid at certain points, notably here at the rapids, for that purpose.

The State made an appropriation in 1838 for the improvement of certain navigable streams, $30,000 of which was to be applied for "improving the harbor at Grand Rapids," for clearing the channel at the foot of Canal Street, and for removing the logs from the stream above, as far as Lyons. this was expended mainly under the direction of Rix Robinson, Commissioner; John Almy and James Lyman having charge of the survey. A considerable part of it was used in the removal of a large accumulation of boulders from the channel near the head of the islands, above where now is Pearl street bridge, the rocks having probably been dropped there from the ice during some former flood or floods. The channel from Grand Haven to the foot of the rapids, has always been navigable during the open season, except at times of very low water, for boats of not over thirty inches draft, and lighter boats have usually been able to make the passage above this place, formerly as far as Ionia and Lyons. Most of the improvement in the navigable channel, aside from the appropriation just mentioned, until within a few years, has been done by private enterprise; the only additional State aid being an appropriation in 1847 of 25,000 acres of land, "to construct a canal and locks around the rapids at Grand Rapids."

In 1835, when the men came in to dig the first canal, or mill race, a portion of their supplies were brought from Jackson down the river in flat-bottomed scows, and a considerable number of families and goods in the same way. These occasional trips raised an inquiry as to the feasibility of securing permanent slackwater navigation in that part of the river, by the construction of locks at points where needed for the purpose. The Grand River Navigation Company was organized in 1842 with the avowed object of improving the river from Jackson to Lyons, but it never did much. The State Geologist expressed the opinion that the scheme of such improvements was wholly practicable at a small expense. The distance he stated to be, by the meanders of the river, nearly 118 miles, and the descent 281 feet; a faction over two feet four and a half inches to the mile. This project ended in talk, as did also another and later one for a permanent waterway across the State, with the aid of some canal work. John W. Squire, in March, 1844, brought down a cargo of irons and a run of stone for his mill, from Jackson, in a scow. The weight of the cargo was four and a half tons. Five other boats came down the same season, with loads of goods and passengers. Commenting upon these facts, the only newspaper then here said, "No canal in the Union runs through a larger extent of fertile soil and varied resources immediately adjacent to its line than the one proposed to be constructed upon the Grand River." The interest in this project was kept up until it resulted in the organization of the Saginaw and Grand River Canal Company, whose stock subscription books were opened in this city, April 30th, 1850. Stock was not taken rapidly, and the work never went much beyond the subscription stage.


The most important early movement for improvement at this point was that first undertaken by Lucius Lyon, and N. O. Sargeant as a private enterprise, for the construction of the east side canal and locks around the rapids, begun in 1835. It was dug from the head of the rapids down nearly to Bridge street. Several years later the work was resumed, and completed to its southern terminus June 30, 1842. The contractor for this extension was D. F. Tower. The canal was at that time described as being nearly a mile long, eighty feet wide at the water line, and about five feet deep. At its foot a basin was constructed, 200 feet square, the south line of which was 70 feet north of Huron street, and the east line within eight feet of Canal street. At the upper end a breakwater, or wing-dam, was constructed, projecting up stream, and curving slightly toward the center of the river, to turn the current from the waters above into the canal. This wing was an embankment composed chiefly of loose stones, taken from the river bed. The work created a valuable mill property for nearly its whole length, along the river bank. Nevertheless it is evident from its character and the formation of the basin, from which lockage could be had to the channel below, that the proprietors were in earnest in their intent to make of it a permanent public improvement for purposes of navigation. To complete it for the latter use, however, required State aid, and they were not disposed and probably not able to undertake it at their own expense.

In 1847, as before mentioned, the Legislature made an appropriation of 25,000 acres of land to perfect the canal, to build a dam across the river at its head, and to construct locks at the foot of the basin, and thus provide for the passage of boats both ways, and complete the chain of navigation from Grand Haven to Lyons. The dam was built in the season of 1849, and at that time the Grand Rapids Enquirer spoke of it as having originated much litigation, adding, "This work was projected mainly for the increase of the water-power at this point; so far it has only exercised our hitherto undeveloped wind-power." The dam was constructed of logs, brush, stone and gravel. It was about five feet height, with a slope of about thirty degrees.

The contract for the canal was taken by James Davis, and the work was done under the supervision of Frederick Hall, Rix Robinson and Daniel Ball. His contract included the completion of the dam, the enlargement and improvement of the race and the basin, and the construction of the lockage below. The canal and basin work was completed in that year. Excavation for the lock-pit began in August, 1849, and considerable progress was made that fall, leading from the east channel of the river direct toward the basin, but the work was suspended for the season in November. That digging displaced the middle one of the three block and log buildings of Loius Campau's trading station. It was where now is Lock street; the upper end of the steamboating channel being by the foot of Lyon street at that point. The Enquirer of August 1, 1849, had the following editorial paragraph in reference to this work:

Any one may now see the "Dutch Buggies" in full operation, at the foot of Canal street. The dirt taken from the lock excavation, near the bank of the river, is used to raise a lot belonging to Mr. Davis, upon Canal street, and the files of Dutchmen engaged in transporting "the raw material," are well worth watching. These men are mostly hired "for land," and a few months labor will make each of them the proprietor in fee of a forty acre lot, which in their notion is a domain, equaling in size some of the petty Dukedoms or Principalities into which their native country is cut up. They are not only an industrious but very steady set of labourers. No rows mark their hours or days of rest, to which peculiarity their general temperance undoubtedly contributes. We notice further that buildings are going up upon that part of the Basin which has been left dry by the central embankment, the builders thus securing ready made cellars."

In February, 1850, the Legislature granted an extension of time to complete the lock, and in the spring following a little work was done; but the contractor exhausted his funds, and left it unfinished. In 1851, the Legislature provided for the appointment of a commissioner to superintend the completion of the work, the cost to the State not to go beyond the original appropriation. John Almy was appointed Commissioner, but the job never was completed, and the lock never was built. About two-thirds of the appropriation had been used; the remainder (some 7,000 acres of land) was subsequently expended for the clearing of a channel in mideam, from the dam to the foot of the rapids, for rafting purposes. Wilder D. Foster and John M. Fox were the contractors for this last work.


According to a statement in the Governor's message--session of 1845--$34,658 had been expended the previous year under the State law for the improvement of Grand and Maple Rivers. Quite liberal appropriations have been made by Congress in later years for the improvement of Grand River below the rapids and the harbor of Grand Haven. Beginning in 1852 with $20,000, the appropriations for Grand Haven Harbor up to 1888 foot up $578,751. The work there has been chiefly the building of piers, dredging, pile revetment

and repairs. For the improvement of the channel between Grand Rapids and Grand Haven,

appropriations amounting to a total of $50,000 have been made. This work has been largely surveying and dredging. It began in 1881, since which a local office has been maintained in this city. The officers in charge have been successively; D. P. Heap, F. W. Harwood, D. W. Lockwood, and S. M. Mansfield, of the United States Army; the latter being now in service, with Lieutenant Joseph Kuhn as assistant.


Captain Lockwood, in his report of the preliminary examination of Grand River, with a view to its improvement for navigation, under date of January 29, 1887, says:

"This survey extended from the foot of Ganoe's Canal to a point 11 1/4 miles down stream, and was necessarily continuous on account of the number of the shoals and their nearness to each other. The survey showed that for this portion of the river the lengths of the cuts to secure depths of 4.5 feet, 5.0 and 6.5 feet, would be 6.18 miles, 9.54 miles and 10.57 miles respectively, with several shoal places below the limit of the survey to be taken account of in securing the depth stated above. But little benefit was found to have resulted from the work done in previous years.

A contract was entered into March 20, 1885, with Robert Finch, of Grand Haven, to dredge a cut 60 feet wide and 4.5 feet deep, commencing near the upper limit of the survey and extending down stream as far as funds would permit. Work was commenced Mary 13, 1885, and closed July, 1886. This gave for the time a continuous channel 60 feet wide and 4.5 feet deep from the foot of Ganoe's Canal to the foot of Haire's Bar, a distance of 11 1/4 miles.

The greater part of the material removed was sand, and I can see no reason for anticipating anything like permanency for the channel, as the main causes that were in operation to maintain the river at its normal depth before work commenced are active now to restore its bed to its former condition. One small steamer with a maximum draft of 30 inches makes three round trips per week between Grand Rapids and Grand Haven during the season of navigation.

I have stated the above facts to show that no further examination of the river is necessary with a view to its improvement by dredging, and in considering any other plan for improving the river itself it is necessary to take account of other facts.

The stage of water sometimes reaches 16 feet, and at very low water in the summer the discharge is so small that there is a notable difference between the morning and evening gauge-readings, due to the quantity of water taken from the river by the various factories, mills, etc., along its banks.

In my opinion deep water connection with Lake Michigan can only be secured by canal, outside the river banks, using the river as a feeder. To determine the feasibility of such a plan and arrive at anything like a correct estimate of its cost will require an extensive detailed survey, covering not only both banks of the stream, but in all probability other lines with a view to selecting the most suitable.

I do not consider the river itself worthy of improvement.

Nevertheless the business men of Grand Rapids and the Board of Trade are vigorously agitating the subject, and have procured additional surveys as the basis of further action.


The regular running of steamboats on Grand River began in 1837. For several years a single boat making three trips a week was found sufficient for the transportation business. The first one was of home production, and a considerable number have been built here; also the hulls of some larger vessels for the lake trade. Several points along the rapids, and down to a short distance below the present steamboat landing, have at some time been occupied as shipyards. About 1842, the boating interest received an impetus from the increased carrying of merchandise by the lakes, from Buffalo to Chicago, thence by Grand Haven to Grand Rapids, and in August of that year there was great rejoicing over the arrival of goods from New York city in fifteen days from the date of shipment, something at that time unprecedented. Not long after, two boats were required for the increasing business, giving a daily passage each way, and later three and even four found abundant employment. Above the rapids also, for some years prior to the coming in of railroads, tow or three small steamers did a lively business. The advent of the locomotive introduced competition in the transportation of passengers, and of goods seeking quick transit, which proved too strong for the steamboating men, and after 1858 the river navigation quickly dropped away to only one or two boats, confined chiefly to local traffic, and these running regularly below Grand Rapids only.


Brief mentions are here appended of most of the vessels which have plied upon Grand River from the beginning to the present time, in chronological order:

1835-36. A pole-boat was built by Lyman Gray for Louis Campau. It was named Young Napoleon. How long it was in service the chroniclers say not. Among the early proprietors of pole-boats were Thomas D. and Francis B. Gilvert, then of Grand Haven, but who some twenty years later made Grand Rapids their home. Richard Godfroy had a pole-boat which was run by Willard Sibley below the rapids until the coming of steamboating. The Campaus also had pole-boats and bateaux.

1837. The Cinderella, a pole-boat, was launched in June at Grandville. 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. In 1837 was put afloat also the river steamer Owashtanong ( or as a Grand Haven authority calls it, the Owastanonk ); built by Robinson, White and Williams &Co., at Grand Haven. It was commanded by Capt. Thomas W. White; was a flat-bottomed freight boat, not a very stanch craft, and was sometimes call the "Poorhouse." It ran but a year or two, and not steadily, was finally dismantled and stripped, and went to decay at Grand Haven.

1838. Steamer Patronage, built at Grand Rapids. This boat was in service several years. Its engine was made at Grandville. A small steamer called the John Almy was built to run up the river, by Orson Peck. It made one or two trips and was stranded near the mouth of Flat River.

1842. Steamer Paragon, built by Howard Jennings. Willard Sibley, Master. Steamer Enterprise, built here, was launched in the spring.

1843-44. The Paragon ran to Grand Haven regularly during these two seasons. May 21,1844, two flat-boats came down the river from Jackson to Grand Rapids laden with immigrants and merchandise.

1845. The Mishawaka, G. S. Matthews, Master, and the Paragon , Willard Sibley, Master, were on the Grand Haven route. The Empire, built by Jasper Parish for Harvey P. Yale and Warren P. Mills, was launched May 31, near the foot of Canal street. Henry R. Williams was agent for a line of lake propellers, touching at Grand Haven once a month and contributing to the trade of the river boats. In August, five yoke of oxen drew through the streets a boiler for Daniel Ball's steamboat, the Great Western. This was a boat in the up-river trade, but not much appears of record concerning it. The Spy, a flat-boat, loaded with merchandise and household goods and several passengers, including two ladies, came safely down the river from Jackson in April, and was moored in the Canal basin.

1846. Paragon, Captain George C. Darrow. Empire, Captain John W. Robbins; owned by Aaron Dikeman--afterward purchased by Daniel Ball. A propeller was launched by Daniel Ball, from a yard on the bank of the canal, March 16, intended for a lake boat. This was the Odd Fellow. She made several trips on the river and to Milwaukee, and finally went to Lake St. Clair.

1847. Paragon and Empire. In August the little steamer Humming Bird, built by Henry Steele at Lamont came upon the river, and was run by Captain Sibley. She was built, as it was commonly expressed, "on two canoes with a single paddle wheel in the middle." Her engine was one that had been used at the State Salt Works, below the rapids.

1848. Empire and Algoma. The Algoma was brought upon the river by Henry R. Williams, and ran for some years under the command of Alfred X. Cary and Harvey K. Rose. It was a slow boat, much used for towing, as well as for passenger traffic.

1849. Empire and Algoma, down the river; Humming Bird, to Ionia, and Lyons, the latter having been purchased by Robert S. Parks. The Champion, that season made tri-weekly trips between Grand Haven and Milwaukee, connecting with the riverboats. Steamers during the entire season were able to come up full laden to the docks in Grand Rapids, which means to the foot of Pearl and Canal streets. River navigation closed the first week in December, and the little Humming Bird moored, the newspapers said, "in the deey of a saw log," above the rapids.

1850. Algoma, Captain A. Hosford Smith. Empire, Captain DeWitt Shoemaker. The Humming Bird was on the up-river route.

1851. Same boats as in the previous year.

1852. Algoma and Empire below; Humming Bird and Porter above. The Porter was hauled over the canal bank, near the dam from below, early in April. The Empire was commanded in the latter part of the season by Robert M. Collins. The Porter was built at Mishawaka in 1850 by Henry R. Williams, and was brought upon the river by Daniel Ball, Elisha M. Adams, John Clancy and C. B. Allyn; Byron D. Ball, Master.

1853. Empire, Michigan, Humming Bird and Algoma below; Porter above. Captain Robert S. Parks commanded the Michigan.

1854. Below---Michigan, Robert H. Smith, Master; Empire, Algoma, and Humming Bird. Above--the Porter and Kansas. Robert S. Parks in that season built at a yard near the foot of Lyon street, five boats for the Illinois Canal. September 2 the Humming Bird was wrecked by an explosion.

1855. Down the river---Empire, Algoma, Michigan, Olive Branch. The latter was a stern-wheel, upper cabin boat, flat bottomed, of light draft, and rather unwieldy. She was commanded by Robert M. Collins. Up the river--Porter, Pontiac, Nawbeck and Kansas. The water was low, making navigation somewhat difficult, and for a good portion of the season steamers from below landed at the lower island. According to an enumeration then made there were also eight barges and tows upon the river here.

1856. Line to Grand Haven---Michigan, Augustus Paddock, Master; Empire, Harvey K. Rose, Master; Kansas, Michael Shields, Master; Pontiac , Jesse Ganoe, Master; Olive Branch, De Witt Shoemaker, Master. To Ionia and Lyons---the Porter, Captain D. L. Coon; the Nawbeck, Captain Charles P. Parks; the Forest Queen, 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.

1857. Up the river--the Nawbeck and the Porter. The Empire, Olive Branch, and one or two others were running below. The Empire was hauled out this year, lay some two years awaiting repairs, and was then stripped and dismantled and the hull left to rot. The Nebraska was launched in March by Daniel Ball at the foot of Lyon street, and afterward put upon the up-river route. In March, a lake vessel, the sloop H. R. Williams, came up to the dock in this city.

1858. The Michigan, Olive Branch, Forest Queen, Pontiac, Nawbeck and Nebraska were on the river. The Porter was running above to Lowell, until the cars reached Grand Rapids in July. This boat made trips in every month for upward of a year from March, 1857. In August the Forest Queen was taken to Fox River in Wisconsin, and the Porter was lying above the dam by the Detroit and Milwaukee Railroad bridge. The Nawbeck was stripped in July, and made into a scow.

1859. The Olive Branch, Michigan and Pontiac were running to Grand Haven. The Forest Queen in that year was taken down the Fox River into the Mississippi.

1860. The Michigan and Pontiac were running. The steamer Croton, which came from Muskegon, ran on the river for a time. The Michigan burned at Hovey's dock, July 11.

In the period from 1860 to 1865, were built, the Daniel Ball in 1861, and the L. G. Mason in 1864, each of which had a run of several years. The steamer Algoma was wrecked by a boiler explosion in June, 1864.

1865-70. The Daniel Ball and L. G. Mason were making regular trips in 1865. The Petroleum was built in 1865, for a freight boat. The L. and L. Jenison was built by Jesse Ganoe and Byron D. Ball in 1867, and ran upon the river eight years.

From 1870 to the present day there have been upon the river sometimes one and sometimes two steamers, plying regularly for passengers and mixed traffic; a portion of the time other steam freight boats, and a considerable number of tugs and scows or tow boats. In May, 1873, the Daniel Ball left for Bay City. In the following winter the Wm. H. Barrett was built by Ganoe & Son, and has been a regular boat on the river ever since. Another boat which ran for a time was the Schuyler Colfax. December 17, 1875, the Jenison was burned to the water's edge, at the lower landing in this city.

Among the river craft since 1874 have also been the following:

Freight--Samson, Dr. Hanley, May.

Tows--Fanny Shriver, Wm. Batcheller, J.W. Johnston, George Stickney, V. Gray, Stewart Edward, Claude, Duncan Robertson, Arctic, Tempest, St. Mary, Miranda, Jerome, Lizzie Frank, J. T. Campbell, H. Warner, Waukazoo.

Pleasure yachts (steam)-- Capt. Tyler, Comet, Eva Parks.

There have been at various times since 1874, on the river near the mouth, and running through Spring Lake to Fruitport, the following passenger boats:

Dwight Cutler, Jr., Gracie Barker, Maud Lilley, Myrtle L. McCluer, George P. Savidge, Lizzie Walsh, Sport, Nellie, Florence.

In the early part of the "seventies," among the river craft in trade were also the Emma, A. H. Petrie, Minnie, Twilight, North Star, Valley Queen.; small side-wheel steamers.

Captain Jesse Ganoe, beginning in 1855, ran boats on the river for thirty-two years; built five and owned six.


The act of Congress creating the Customs District of Detroit authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to establish within such collection district two ports of delivery, one of which was designated by the Secretary at Grand Rapids. March 10, 1856, William H. Godfroy was appointed and stationed as customs officer here, his title being "Aid of the Revenue," with a compensation of $40 per month. As in those days there was not much work for such an officer at this port, aside from keeping watch against smuggling, the position was substantially a sinecure. Mr. Godfroy served until July 31, 1860, when the port was abolished. By act of Congress, June 4, 1888, Grand Rapids was again made a port of delivery, and August 21, 1888, Andrew F. Shafer was commissioned Surveyor of the Port.

April 2, 1890, Rezin A. Maynard was appointed Surveyor of Customs at this port, and is the present incumbent.

Source: History of the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan By Albert Baxter

Copyright 1891 by Munsell & Company 208 Broadway, N. Y.


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