HISTORICAL OVERVIEW OF THE CITY OF BIG RAPIDS
by DR. RICHARD SANTER
The contemporary attractive natural landscape setting for Big Rapids
can be traced to the most recent Ice Age melt-off of the Saginaw and Michigan glacial
lobes about 13,000 years ago. Their retreat provided the Citys undulating hill
terrain, the upland terminal moraine vistas to the east and west, plus the intervening
economically important flat outwash plain of the mighty Muskegon River on which is located
so many important land use activities such as the airport, Central Business District,
industries, general hospital, elementary, and high schools.
It is scientifically speculated that the earliest humans came through
the area about 11,000 BC based on the dating of relics found north and south of here. In
historic times it was the Anishnabeg -- "original" or "first" people
of the Three Fire Ojibway/Chippewa, Potawatomi and Ottawa tribal groups with which the
successive European French-British-American fur traders (especially for beaver pelts)
maintained economic contact between the mid-1600s to mid-1800s. Most active
here were the Ottawa (variant spelling) who regularly camped each early spring near the
Muskegons big rapids to tap the sap of the abundant maple tree for syrup and sugar.
Although most of the pre-permanent settlement features have been lost, a few sites with
their relics it is surmised, lie below the surface guarded by a few inches of soil and
The early history of Big Rapids was associated with the logging
industry in the Lower Peninsula. The Muskegon River, whose headwaters come from Houghton
Lake, was used as a transportation artery moving logs downstream to the mills located in
Muskegon. Swift currents near the Citys present location were referred to by early
lumbermen as "the big rapids" and was adopted as the name of the City. The year
1855 is considered to be the year that permanent settlement of Big Rapids began with
construction of homes and the establishment of families. During the first few years the
community, including the surrounding township, was known as "Leonard", the
postal address for the area.
In 1859 the first recorded plat created in Big Rapids was named the
Village of Big Rapids plat by Mr. Warren and Mr. Ives. The City never was a legally
incorporated village, however, and up until 1869, when the City of Big Rapids
incorporated, affairs of government were conducted by Township Officials. The village of
Big Rapids plat comprised about 100 acres of land located south of Maple Street. The
second plat created in Big Rapids was originally named the Village of Glen Elm plat and
included the present North State Street area. The Glen Elm plat was recorded in 1860 by
Margaret and Zerah French, and eventually become known as Frenchs Addition to Big
Rapids. Most of the present-day downtown thus lies between the two early
The post Civil War years witnessed the arrival of many Scandinavian and
German people, the construction of new wooden homes and stores as growth occurred in
response to the continued logging of the pine forests. Three railroad companies began
operations during the growth of the lumbering era, each with a round house to expedite
their operations. The expansion of the City prompted citizen action towards the adoption
of a City form of government. A resolution was introduced in the State Legislature and
passed in April 1869, and the City Council met for the first time on April 22, 1869.
In May 1884, Woodbridge Nathan Ferris arrived in Big Rapids and
prepared to organize a school which opened in September of 1884 with an enrollment of 15.
The student body steadily grew and by 1906, enrollment reached 2,000 with students ranging
from 14 to 65 years of age. The school suffered through several severe slumps in
enrollment during World War I, the Depression, and World War II. In 1950 Ferris Institute
suffered a major blow when a fire destroyed its main buildings. Ferris Institute managed
to survive the setbacks and is now a major state university offering a wide variety of
academic and trade courses and serves a growing global student body. Mr. Ferris went on to
become Governor of Michigan in 1912 and a U.S. Senator in 1922. Today Ferris State
University is the leading employer in the Big Rapids area.
During the early part of the twentieth century, construction of two
dams provided electricity to the area and people began to describe Big Rapids as Water
Power City. The two concrete dams were built to harness the hydro-electric power of the
Muskegon River, one located at Rogers Heights (1906) and the other in Big Rapids (1914).
The availability of energy enabled the City to diversify its economic base to produce a
variety of manufactured products. The dam in the City was eventually removed in 1966, but
the Rogers Heights dam continues to produce hydro-electric power for customers of
Consumers Power Company.
Mercy Hospital, opened in 1879 by the Sisters of Mercy, was the first
hospital in Big Rapids. After a third major fire, the Sisters of Mercy were unable to
recover from the financial losses, and the history of Mercy Hospital in Big Rapids came to
an end in 1919. The Community Hospital opened its doors in 1927 with 10 private rooms and
7 doctors. The hospital was part of the City administration until 1975 when it became
Mecosta County General Hospital, and came under the jurisdiction of Mecosta County. Today
Mecosta County General Hospital has 74 beds with approximately 25 doctors on active staff,
and is the second largest employer in the area.
Oil and gas were discovered by W.C. and James Taggart in 1933 in an
area five miles southeast of the City and is referred to as the Austin Field. This
discovery was of great importance to the Big Rapids community, providing a new source of
energy and creating new employment opportunities. The Austin Field has since been
converted into a huge underground natural gas storage facility operated by American
Natural Resources. Natural gas pipelines crisscross the State running to and from this
underground storage facility. As an underground storage facility, the Austin Field
continues to provide employment opportunities for residents of the Big Rapids area.
In spite of the City growing smaller in area since the 1930s,
during the 20th Century the citizens of the Big Rapids community have established a record
as an early adopter of progressive ideas such as the City Commission / City Manager form
of administration(1914), school district consolidation (1950 & 1965), income tax vs.
property tax (1965) and the creation of many parks during the post-Vietnam war era.
"The Past is Prologue"