Grand Rapids in 1846

This brief record of the decade 1837-1847 may well be wound up with another extract from the volume by Professor Everett, who came here in 1846 as the principal of the Grand Rapids Academy, then partly housed in the old court house in the Public square, now Fulton street park. He declares that when he came in 1846 hope had nearly died out and real estate was scarcely considered property. Then he continues:

"Improvements---and some of them great ones--had been made, but in almost every case they had ruined those who had invested their capital. The fact was, at the start there was too much enterprise--a throwing away of capital in works that should have awaited their demand. In attempting to do business where there was not the business to do, the capital was sunk. Abram S. Wadsworth had bankrupted himself in developing water power; and Daniel Ball the same by running good steamboats when only the cheapest craft would pay. Lucius Lyon had sunk a fortune in developing various interests too soon. And the natural consequence of the whole was, a general abandonment of the enterprises begun, and the beginning of new ones. Discouraged, some of the leading spirits had withdrawn; and capital, seeking investment, was not to be found."

The year 1846 is selected as the time when expectation was at its lowest point and values at a minimum. Those who had tried before to do business, had been ruined. If remaining, they were struggling to place themselves again on their feet. In the few following years hope revived, business improved, immigration and settlement increased and the dark days were over.

The attempts of the young state of Michigan to go too fast had ruined her credit in the east. Her name was in bad odor; her soil was decried, and she was passed by those who sought homes for themselves, or for a chance to invest their money. Of late, the state had been taking more judicious measures to revive and sustain her credit as a state. The wild cat system of banking had given place to a better system. The eastern public had been disabused as to the worth of Michigan lands, and immigration was taking that direction. An examination of the census reports will show that from about this time the course of the state has been steadily onward.

It was emphatically "a story and a half" village, with a population of 1,500. Taking the region enclosed by Fulton street on the south, Division street on the east, Bridge (Michigan) street on the north and the river on the west, we have all that has the appearances of a village. A few scattering houses were outside, on Bostwick's addition, and on the west side of the river. Several very good residences were on Fulton street, east of the limits given; and far out of town Mr. Bostwick had his cozy home. The extreme house at the northeast was at the corner south of the Central school house. The buildings, with very few exceptions, were of wood, the residences, and a good part of the business places, a story and a half high. The buildings, whether for residences or businesses, were simple structures, for use and not display. The exceptional buildings were five stone stores and two brick ones on Monroe street, two stone blocks or double stores up Canal street, near Crescent; two stone stores at the foot of Monroe street, where now is Campau place. To these we may add the wing of the Rathbun house, the residence of Mr. Turner on the west side of the river, and the Alma house, on Crescent street. There were besides, seven brick or stone houses.

As regards the appearance of the village and its surroundings, there was a primitive air to the whole. Enterprise had been checked, and had not recovered from the shock. Capital was woefully lacking. The streets of the village were simply horrible. Canal street was little better than a quagmire. From Bridge street down it has been filled to the depth of from five to fifteen feet. It was then not much of a business street. West of Division street and north of Monroe street was a fine musical frog pond.

Trade was a round about concern. The mercantile interest was represented by about a dozen general merchants; one drug store, two hardware stores, and eight or ten groceries. The stocks of goods were small--from $3,000 to $5,000--generally bought and sold on credit. The Winsors and Roberts combined lumbering with their mercantile business. The other merchants---Kendall, Lyon, Lyman, Morrison, Finney, Peirce, Sinclair, Bemis, Evans, Noble, Rose & Covell, and Waring---did business as they could; getting some cash and trusting extensively, especially those who were carrying on such business as required the employment of others. As most of the business men had little capital, they were obliged to make arrangements with the merchants to give orders on their stores, they themselves to pay when they got their returns. Of course, to do business in this way, goods must be sold at a high figure.

During 1846-7 the two lots forming the corner, north of Lyon street at its junction with Canal street, were sold for $400. A lot below Waterloo street, on Monroe street, with a building on it, for $400; and a lot on the north side of Monroe street, nearly opposite, for $400. Lots on Division street, between Fulton and Crescent, were held at $200. Lots on the west side, from $10 to $25. On the hill, on Dexter fraction, they were offered, but not sold, for $10. On Bostwick's addition they were sold for $25.

The village of Grand Rapids had three public and three private schools. At that time the private schools completely overshadowed the public ones, and the teachers in the public schools had no enviable position in consequence. There was no facility in the Grand river region for higher education, except what was offered by the three schools in Grand Rapids, and of these the people liberally availed themselves.

The three private schools mentioned were the Grand Rapids Academy, under the charge of Professor Everett, just quoted; the Catholic Academy at Monroe and Ottawa and a young women's school on the opposite side of Monroe taught by Miss Janes, the last named, however, being given up in the fall of 1846 when Miss Janes was married.


Transcriber: Ronnie Aungst
Created: 14 December 1999