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IMPROVEMENT is the order of the day, if the modern is better than the old, and if our civilization, with its numberless appliances, be really an improvement upon the primitive and savage state. One who now walks abroad in this city can scarcely realize that sixty years ago it and all the region hereabout was a wilderness unbroken. Except in the clusters of Indian wigwams and huts, and in their few rude implements, tools and dress, there was no evidence of the presence here of the hand of man. Within the lifetime of men of sixty years have been made all the changes from that condition to the present that are shown in the panorama which now fills the eye of the beholder. Three or four hundred pages of this book are dotted with details of improvements, in the descriptions of those changes, and of the works of utility and of enterprise that are seen on every hand. But the gathering, one by one, of these little threads and hints scarcely gives the reader an adequate conception of the immensity of the improvements, public, quasi-public and private, taken as a whole.
A RETROSPECTIVE VIEW.
Go back in imagination to June, 1833. Take a position on the roof of the Ledyard Block at the corner of Pearl and Ottawa streets. Imagine that you stand on Prospect Hill, the highest part of which was near that spot. Look to the north. The hill slopes off gradually to near Crescent avenue, and there at its extremity is a narrow and shallow ravine, and a little brook. Beyond is a nearly level stretch, comprising the territory between the river and Ottawa street, and extending upward of a mile northward. It is a narrow strip, varying from about twenty-five rods in width just above Bridge street, to about fifteen rods wide a little south of Coldbrook. It is dotted with maple, elm and oak woods, but for a considerable portion of the way is a miry and almost impassable black ash and tamarack swamp.
Turn your gaze eastward. Prospect Hill slopes in that direction gently down to a ravine, a large frog pond and a swamp, which were a little west of the Division street line. Beyond, and stretching from Coldbrook southward to the present line of Fulton street and farther, is a, precipitous sand-hill bluff, rising to an elevation of 160 feet above the river level, cutting off the further view in that direction. This hill is fringed with a thin growth of oak trees, most of them not very large.
Now turn to the south. Almost at your feet is the precipitous descent of the southern point of Prospect Hill, its base resting at the Indian trail (where Monroe street now is). Beyond is a gentle incline to a ravine that crosses Division street, passing near the present Union Depot grounds, westward to the river. At the bottom of this ravine is a brook. In the distance, and as far as the eye can reach, the view is that apparently of a nearly level, though slightly broken and irregular, forest landscape, some of it bearing a heavy growth of timber. In it, if you were to wander along the Division street line, you would find marshy ground, at some points very miry; innumerable springs, and a number of rivulets. Westward of that line are alternating gravel and clay hillocks, gorges, dells, swamps and quagmires; and as you approach the river, one of the finest of "God's first temples."
Look again westward. On that side first is the steep declivity of the hill from your feet to where now stands the National City Bank at its base, and thence a gradual descent to the river's edge, which is some sixty feet or more lower than where you stand. Within sight the only evidences of the presence of man are the Campau trading post with its block houses a little to your right, on the east bank of the river; the mission buildings, across the rapids in the same direction on the farther side, and slightly to your left on the west side the Indian village. In midstream are three beautiful islands. West of the river, the landscape view is that of a nearly level, wooded plain, about a mile wide, of which a strip next the river is under rude Indian cultivation; and in the distance a long range of bluffs, considerably timbered, shutting from vision the outlying country in that direction. But in that part of the picture, were they not hidden by the trees, you would see a line of swamps and lakelets in the rear ground and toward the hill. The view is a fine one in every direction, with beautiful verdure and enough of variety to please the eye of the most fastidious artist.
Remove the veil between the past and the present, and again open your eyes. Look upon the changed face of nature. Behold the straightened or waving lines, and the artistic mould of the shallow but symmetrical basin whose rim in the distance encircles you. The hill of solid clay has gone from beneath your feet. The little streams have disappeared. The springs are not in sight. The seams and the holes have been filled. The inequalities of surface have been shaven away, and it almost seems as if the hand of the polisher had finished the transformation. Streets, fine blocks and residences, factories, public buildings, and modern appliances are all about.
BEGINNING OF IMPROVEMENT.
The first notable improvement here, and that which is the most general, was begun by Louis Campau, when he set the stitches in his village plat, from which has been knitted and extended the network of streets that covers nine square miles of territory. These of themselves are illustrative of the growth of the web of progress. In no particular is the march of improvement better shown, than in the great change from the winding ways of the Indian trails and of the first wagon roads, and from the deep gullies, muddy holes and sharp hills in and about which they traversed, to the level or gently inclined grades now furnishing in every part of the town avenues of easy locomotion.
EAST SIDE WATER POWER.
The second step in important improvements was that taken by Lyon & Sargeant and their associates - the initial movement in the development of the water power here. These gentlemen, when they undertook the construction of that mill race on the east side of the rapids, had great foresight, and anticipated a profitable outcome. But they really builded [sic] wiser than they knew, in the foundation which they laid for the great industrial interests of Grand Rapids. This work was started in 1835, and in its progress marred more fortunes than it made during the succeeding fifteen years, and until its full development. Yet a considerable number of energetic and hard working men began there the struggle which led to success and prominence. A companion piece to this is the West-side canal and water power improvement made thirty years later. In connection with these is the dam across Grand River, first built in 1849 some distance above where the present dam stands, and rebuilt where it now is in 1866. The immense water power, utilized by use of these canals, which has been estimated as high as 2,400 horse-power, turns a great many industrial wheels, gives employment to hundreds of men and support hundreds of families, and contributes doubtless more largely than any other single factor to the value of our manufacturing interests.
WEST SIDE WATER POWER.
In 1865 and 1866 Win. T. Powers secured by purchase the river front on the west side of Grand River from a point below the G. R. & I. R. R. bridge in the Eighth ward, to a point just above Seventh street in the Sixth ward, and during the years 1866 and 1867 he constructed the West Side Water Power Canal and guard gates. This canal is over three-quarters of a mile in length, and cost, including the lands through which it runs, upward of $90,000. In the construction of the dam across the river at the head of the canal, Mr. Powers and the East Side Water Power Company joined, he constructing that portion west of the center chute, and the east side company the eastern part. The chute was constructed at the joint expense of these parties, and a contract was entered into to perpetuate and maintain it. The work of constructing the guard gates and dam belonging to the west side canal was done under the supervision of Silas Pelton, and the earth-work was under the supervision of W. W. France. The first factory on this canal was built by Powers & Ball, a planing mill and sash and door factory. The present owners and users of the water power are, besides Mr. Powers, who has several factories: The Powers & Walker Casket Company, Voigt Milling Company, C. G. A. Voigt & Co., Perkins & Co., Grand Rapids Electric Light and Power Company, Grand Rapids Brush Company, and one or two others.
The Grand Rapids Water Power Company was organized February 2, 1864 - President, G. M. Huntly; Secretary, James M. Barnett; Treasurer, W. 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.
CHANGES AT PEARL STREET.
Prominent among what may be classed as the general improvements of the city, is one which would be scarcely noticed by the stranger who is unacquainted with its early history, though its locality is now almost in the very center of heavy business. This was the filling up of the east channel of the river) and making business property of that and the adjacent islands. It involved the destruction of the main steamboat channel, which came up to the foot of Canal street at Pearl street. The encroachment upon that channel began soon after the building of the Pearl street bridge; but its complete extinguishment was not accomplished until about the time of the straightening and extension of Monroe street to its foot, or later, when the Island Addition Company platted Island No. 1, and the accretions by the filling of the adjacent channel were laid into lots for business property, now a portion of the most valuable real estate in the city, including nearly all south of Lyon and west of Canal street as far down as Fulton street, except that which fronts on Waterloo street.
In the spring of 1873 was completed a street change for which several years of effort had been spent. It was the extension of the southerly line of Monroe street down to a point even with the west line of Canal street. It originally came down only to a point six or eight feet east of where the east line of Canal street, if extended, would strike it, and there angled and ran due north to Pearl street, the corner at the foot being about eighty feet west of the National City Bank. Thus was formed the breathing space at the foot of Monroe street now called Campau Place.
A great general public improvement already hinted at is the sinking out of sight of nearly all the springs and rivulets and the disposal of the water therefrom by the means of a comprehensive system of sewerage which extends throughout the municipality.
In the catalogue of public and quasipublic improvements may also be placed the Government Building, the City Hall, the Soldiers' Home, the engine houses, the churches, the school houses, the U. B. A. Home and several other benevolent institutions, all of which are in sight of even the casual observer, though not easily grouped as a whole without considerable travel. In all they compromise nearly one hundred handsome edifices, and to them may be added the county Court House, the St. Mark's Hospital, and other buildings now (1890) under process of construction.
Improvements of a private and business character are in all parts of the city. Tasty dwellings have multiplied from the beginning, and beautiful and stately residences are to be seen on every hand. Fine brick business blocks and mercantile houses, from two to seven stories high, line the centrally prominent streets. Large factories and mills are all about. Millions of dollars are invested in these improvements, which in turn are destined to yield millions on millions to the general sustenance and increase of wealth.
To this estate has the city grown from the conditions existing when the first Yankee settler swung his ax here. Of its material interests it may be said, generally, that their growth has been healthy and strong, and during the last quarter of a century rapid. The contrast of its present beautiful buildings with the humble rough-board pioneer dwellings is but a fair illustration of the advance in less than sixty years of our beautiful valley from its primitive state, as the home of the untutored Indian. Fifty years ago railroad lines were infantile, few and short. The steam giant was in its childhood. The street railway was undreamed of. The telegraph was unknown. The lights by night were chiefly those of sperm oil and the tallow candle. The man who should have imagined the telegraph, the electric light, and the telephone, had he given utterance to his thought, would have been looked upon as a visionary lunatic. Looking at these now common and indispensable conveniences, looking at the palatial blocks and business houses and banks and the buzz of enterprises commanding and using millions of dollars annually, looking at our splendid schools and churches, and then looking at the time only fifty years back in the lives of many who are still among us, at the pioneer huts and cabins, at the primitive and economical ways and habits, the toil and struggle of those days - on this picture and then on that - bow like a miracle seems the great change, the wonderful growth! And yet it is one that can only be half appreciated by such an exercise of the eye and the mind; only those who have lived it, and been a part of it, can fully realize all the lights and shadows and processes in the progress from what this valley and city were to what they now are. What shall be the story of the next half century?