The village of Kalamazoo was named after the river that flows through it, and the destinies of the two entities have always been intertwined. The origin of the name of the Kalamazoo River is an interesting story all its own. The river runs about 150 miles along a northwesterly track from its various springs in Hillsdale and Jackson counties to its mouth at Lake Michigan near the village of Saugatuck. Its basin drains about 2,200 square miles of land, and has a very gentle fall of about two feet per mile.
Throughout its history the Kalamazoo River has shaped the fortunes of the communities along its banks. In the years before railroads and highways, it was a major artery for transportation in southwestern Michigan. The river has provided power for gristmills and hydroelectric dams and water for agriculture. Over the years anglers have tried their hand at catching an abundant variety of fish, bathers have used its waters to cool off on hot summer days, and boaters have enjoyed many quiet mornings paddling downstream while taking in its natural beauty. Lastly, the abundant supply of water and the ease with which the river could be used to dispose of wastes brought many industries to the communities along its shores.
There is evidence that the Potawatomi tribe used the river for transportation and had at least one small village at a point on its banks where several overland trails converged. This was also the location of one of the best fords of the river for many miles in either direction. It is no surprise, then, that when Titus Bronson platted the village that would soon become Kalamazoo, he did so on the west bank of the river near that same spot. Nathan Harrison, another early settler, ran a ferry shuttling settlers and their goods from one side of the river to the other. The first bridge over the Kalamazoo River was built near what is now East Main Street in 1835.
Shipping and Transportation
The Kalamazoo River also enjoyed a brief period as an important corridor for shipping. Although Native Americans and trappers had doubtless been traveling the river for centuries, the first recorded instance of river navigation took place in 1834. Oka Town and Abijah Chichester, two men from Allegan, sailed a raft of lumber down the river to Saugatuck. The goal of the river trade was to transport finished goods from the Great Lakes ports to inland settlements and return downstream with the produce of the settlers. Soon afterwards many other rafts and flatboats were built by enterprising traders to carry goods up and down the navigable stretch of the river between Allegan and Saugatuck. In 1838 the flat-bottomed steamboat Trowbridge was put into service on the river. However, river transportation was slow and often inconvenient (especially when traveling upriver), and Kalamazoo, the largest settlement on the river, was above the shoals near Otsego, so goods traveling to and from the village were usually hauled the last few miles overland. When the railroad finally reached Kalamazoo in 1846, traffic on the river began to decline.
“The woods around them were the unpeopled forest of Michigan, and the small winding reach of placid water that was just visible in the distance was an elbow of the Kalamazoo, a beautiful little river that flows westward, emptying its tribute into the vast expanse of Lake Michigan.”
These days the only boats you will see along the Kalamazoo River are the canoes, kayaks, and small fishing boats of people seeking a quiet afternoon of recreation. Accounts from early Kalamazoo residents tell of a river that was quiet and beautiful. Young couples could canoe for miles in solitude. The fishing was good, and anglers could often catch enough bass, salmon, or catfish for several meals.
Youngsters cooled off in swimming holes up and down the stream. One of the more popular places to swim in the early 1900’s was known as “the box” and was located right in the city just upstream from the old East Main Street bridge. Older residents can remember days when dozens of children would gather there to swim and play.
As time progressed and Kalamazoo grew, the river became more and more polluted. Many of the chemicals dumped into the river by the paper industry were especially destructive to the river. By 1945 the Stream Control Commission proclaimed “The condition of the river, a source of industrial cooling water, is such that agricultural uses have been severely impaired, fish life is largely non-existent, and the value for industrial processing purposes has been heavily impaired…” Most people who lived in Kalamazoo in the 40s, 50s and 60s avoided the river if at all possible. They report that it exuded a foul odor, was devoid of fish, and was too toxic for swimming. In short, the Kalamazoo had become an ‘industrial river.’
Since the environmental movements of the 1970s, the Kalamazoo River has been making a slow comeback. Gradual reductions in pollution have allowed some types of fish to return to the river, although the State of Michigan has a website that issues limitations on the quantity of Kalamazoo River fish a person should eat. The smell of the river is almost gone in many places and canoeists can once again enjoy the water. Boat launches and picnic areas are scattered along the river’s banks as recreational uses of the river gradually overcome industrial ones. Some important decisions remain. Citizens must decide what to do about the carcinogenic PCBs that remain buried in the river sediment and behind dams. Perhaps, if this is done, the future of the Kalamazoo River will continue to brighten.
History of Kalamazoo County, Michigan
Durant, Samuel W.
Originally published by Everts & Abbot in 1880. Reprinted by Unigraphic in 1976, page 57.
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Built on the Banks of the Kalamazoo
Lane, KitDouglas, MI: Pavilion Press, 1993
H 387 L265
Douglas, MI: Pavilion Press, 2006
H 977.41 L265
Kalamazoo River, Mich., Kalamazoo and Vicinity: Letter from the Secretary of the Army
Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1955
H 977.41 U58.1
The Kalamazoo River: A Local History up to the Civil War
Williams, Owen W.
History Seminar of Kalamazoo College, typescript, 1948
H 977.418 W72
Kalamazoo River Superfund Site
Kalamazoo River Watershed Site
State of Michigan Fish Advisory document PDF