History of the West Side of Grand Rapids

Many factors have influenced the development of the WestSide as we know it today. For much of the early 1800’s, the WestSide of Grand Rapids was isolated from the east side because of the natural separation by the Grand River. There were no bridges and it was difficult to cross the rapids by boat. In 1842, a footbridge was constructed across the river at Bridge Street. Two years later, it was replaced by a plank bridge. In 1858, the Leonard Street Bridge was constructed; however travel was still restricted because of the limited modes of transportation at the time. During the 1800’s, people tended to confine their daily activities to places that were close to their homes. This included work, religious events, school, and social activities. Because of the high density of residential homes on the WestSide, commercial corridors naturally emerged. The area was also home to many close-knit ethnic communities including Lithuanians, Polish, Germans, Irish, and the Dutch.

In 1866, William Powers financed the construction of a canal on the west side of the Grand River, between Fulton Street and Seventh Avenue. The canal brought many industries into the area between Front Street and the river. These industries included sash and door factories, casket companies, and mills. In 1870, two major railroad lines were constructed, just west of Elizabeth Avenue, encouraging even more industry to locate in this industrial corridor. Many furniture companies began to locate close to the river and railroad tracks.

The river played a key role in Grand Rapids’ development during the remainder of the 19th century. Even after the arrival of railroads, steamboats continued to ply its waters, and each spring lumber companies sent millions of board feet of logs downstream to sawmills and furniture factories on the West Side. On more than one occasion, spring log drives broke loose and roared away until they jammed against downriver bridges. In 1883 a log jam of gigantic proportions roared through the city. For over two hours, a solid river of logs over five miles long went through the city, tearing out bridges and destroying everything in its path. National newspapers covered this event, calling it the greatest log jam in the nation’s history.

Logs were not alone in causing trouble to those who lived along the river. In spring, melting snow, early rains and ice jams often combined to flood homes and factories on the WestSide. The worst of these spring floods occurred in 1904, when thousands of people were forced from their homes. Damage estimates ranged above $500,000 (more than $10 million today), and city leaders voted to build flood walls to hold back future floods.

By the early 1900’s, the street car system was growing rapidly in Grand Rapids and expanded across the river and westward along Leonard Street. This system of connected street car routes enabled workers and residents to travel freely about the City. For the first time, access to the WestSide was convenient for those residents living on the east side of the river. Between 1910 and 1920, many commercial buildings were constructed close to the river. Generally, development of the WestSide started at the Grand River and worked its way westward, continuing until after World War II.

Along with the rest of Grand Rapids, the WestSide saw its population drop or stay stagnant during the suburban housing boom in the mid to late twentieth century. With no population to support businesses, this exodus led to disinvestment within the commercial corridors.

Targeted investment within these aging commercial corridors by local stakeholders and City representatives began to bring new life to the WestSide. In 1991, Grand Rapids West filed a report for the entire WestSide called “A Profile of Opportunity.” This report was a response to the anticipated growth of the Business Districts and Grand Valley State University. All WestSide Neighborhood Associations and Business Associations came together to give their input on the growth and sustainability of the West Side in this profile.

Today, we continue this mission to embrace and support the continued growth of the WestSide. The CID brings together businesses, organizations, and residents to support the improvements and growth of the WestSide. Feel free to include your WestSide business in our directory, add your events to our community calendar, and get involved. Stay connected with us via social media or join our email list so you won’t miss a thing.