The City of Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids city charter, which had been granted by the state legislature, was adopted by popular vote of the village May 1, 1850. It fixed the location of the city in four sections of land in the townships of Grand Rapids and Walker---Grand Rapids west. The boundaries were what are now Wealthy avenue, Easter avenue, Leonard street, Alpine and Straight avenues, including so much of the river and its islands as were comprised within the four sections. The population at that time was only 2,686 and the city was not altogether out of the woods, for six years later on September 15, 1856, Simeon L. Baldwin shot a wild bear at Monroe avenue and Fulton street. And it was a big bruin, weighing 324 pounds.

The charter divided the city into five wards:

First--South of Lyon street, west of Division avenue and east of the river.
Second--North of Lyon street, west of that part of Division avenue north to its intersection with Michigan street, and all north of Michigan street and east of river.
Third--South of Michigan street and east of Division avenue.
Fourth--West of the river and north of Bridge street.
Fifth--West of the river and south of Bridge street.

The charter provided for the following city officers: Mayor, recorder, one alderman for each of the five wards, clerk, treasurer, marshal, five assessors, surveyor, four justices of the peace, not less than three nor more than five constables, solicitor, two school inspectors, and two directors of the poor. It prescribed that the mayor, recorder and five aldermen should constitute the "common council of the City of Grand Rapids." It set forth the powers and duties of the common council, giving to that body control of affairs relating to public order, public safety and the general health, with authority to create a board of health; also to organize and establish fire companies and to provide apparatus for their use; to regulate the sale of malt and spirituous liquors, to construct and maintain sewers and drains, streets and alleys, water courses and bridges, and to pass ordinances deemed necessary for the above mentioned purposes.

The charter further established a mayor's court, composed of the mayor, recorder, and aldermen, or any three of them, the mayor or recorder being always one of the number. This court was given jurisdiction over all actions arising within the city under the charter or ordinances. There was right of appeal to the circuit court.

The common council was empowered to levy a capitation or poll tax and taxes on real estate and personal property, but not to exceed two mills on the dollar of the valuation of the property, unless authorized by a vote of two-thirds of the actual freeholders.

The mayor was allowed a salary of $1 a year, the aldermen $1 each, the treasurer not to exceed $10, the solicitor not to exceed $100, and the recorder such fees as might be taxed in his favor by the mayor's court, against persons charged with offenses before that body. The mayor's court was given the use of the Kent county jail. The mayor was to exercise the powers and duties of supervisor.

No time was lost in organizing the city government, for on May 11, 1850, an election was held at which the first officers were chosen as follows: Mayor, Henry R. Williams; recorder, Leonard Bement; clerk, Aaron B. Turner; treasurer, Erastus Hall; marshal, Alfred X. Cary; aldermen, Amos Roberts, Charles W. Taylor, Lovell Moore, Joseph Penney, Isaac Turner.

The first informal meeting of the city council was held May 18, when the bonds of the city officers were fixed. On May 20, the council organized, adopting the rules of order of the Detroit common council for the time being.

On June 25 a city seal was adopted as designed and engraved by Aaron B. Turner, then city clerk. The motto, Motu Viget, ("Strength in Activity") was suggested by Joseph Penney. Incidentally, this original design for the city seal was slightly changed July 17, 1857, but the chief features of the original were retained. A description of the new seal was placed upon the records, as follows:

"Having as a device a hand holding a pair of scales, and underneath the eagle with a shield and the figures 1850, the motto being 'Motu Viget' and inscribed 'City of Grand Rapids, Mich.' "

Having organized itself quickly and well, the new city government began functioning smoothly and effectively. The common council at once tackled the problem of making public improvements, which had been sadly neglected during the years of depression.

March 24, 1851, an amendment to the original charter was enacted by the state legislature, repealing the portion which made the mayor a supervisor and providing for the election annually of two supervisors, one for each side of the river.

At the charter election of April, 1851, 558 votes were cast. Seemingly the people wanted to pass public offices around, for many new names appear among the officials chosen that year, who were: Mayor, Ralph W. Cole; recorder, Franklin Everett; clerk, A. Hosford Smith; treasurer, Wilder D. Foster; marshal, Abram W. Pike; aldermen, Amos Roberts, Martin L. Sweet, George Kendall, William C. Davidson, Loren M. Page.

Every year thereafter a number of new names appeared in the list of city officers, and there was a healthy and spirited rivalry among the worthy citizens to serve the public.

The records show that the common council continuously dealt with questions of public improvements, but only a few of the council's acts can be recorded here.

In the spring of 1853 the council rented Attorney Cole's office at $20 a year, and there held its meetings.

June 20, 1853, at a referendum on the adoption or rejection of the "Maine" prohibition law, the vote in the city was: Yes, 482, no, 145.

In 1853 a contract was made with William Presser by which he rented a cellar in which to keep two fire engines at $10 a year for two years.

November 30, 1853, a committee was authorized, under the "Maine" law previously adopted, to purchase for the city 100 gallons brandy, 75 gallons port wine, 75 gallons gin, 75 gallons Madeira wine, 135 gallons whisky, 120 gallons alcohol and 74 gallons rum. Charles Shepard was appointed liquor agent.

In 1854 a council room was engaged of Withey & Eggleston for $20 a year, including light and fuel.

In that year a fire district was created of Monroe and Canal from Division to Bridge.

In 1856 the river bank at the foot of Pearl street and the west line of Canal was wharfed.


Transcriber: Ronnie Aungst
Created: 16 January 2000
Created: 14 December 1999