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Rising Floodwaters

Seasonal Flooding in Kalamazoo Since 1850


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Postcard view of Porter Street, dated 19 March 1908. Courtesy, Kalamazoo Valley Museum

Early Widespread Flooding

Heavy spring rains and runoff from melting snow have wreaked havoc along rivers and in low lying areas since the beginning of time. Early accounts of rising floodwaters in Kalamazoo date back to the 1850s. Unusually heavy rains in late May 1858 washed out railroad tracks west of Kalamazoo while rapidly rising waters in Arcadia Creek swept away sidewalks, damaged the foundry on the west edge of town, and forced several families from their homes.

“Arcadia creek and the flats adjoining appeared to be the receptacle for the greater part of the water falling, and cellars and basements were soon flooded, in some instances causing damage… There was also quite serious damage to dwellers on the low lands along the Kalamazoo and Portage rivers.”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 6 April 1880

In January 1880, unexpected heavy rain and melting snow took out several bridges north of Kalamazoo on the Grand Rapids & Indiana and Lake Shore & Michigan Southern railroad lines. Flash floods from heavy summer rains in July 1896 covered many of the celery fields on the south side of Kalamazoo and ruined crops for dozens of growers. In March 1897, floodwaters from the Kalamazoo River and Portage Creek covered the lowlands along River Street, Mill Street, and Ampersee Avenue, one of the many times that high water devastated that portion of the city.

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Postcard view of East Avenue (East Michigan), just east of the Main Street (Michigan Avenue) bridge, postmarked 10 April 1908. A similar view of the same dwellings was published in the Kalamazoo Daily Telegraph, 26 March 1904. Author’s collection

The Historic Flood of 1904

One of the worst floods ever recorded in Kalamazoo occurred during the early months of 1904. Heavy rains and melting snow in early March caused the Kalamazoo River to rise some two feet in 36 hours. The Kalamazoo Gazette declared it the “worst flood ever known in the history of the city” as workmen dynamited ice dams near the Gull Street, East Main, and Michigan Central Railroad bridges to prevent them from being swept away by the raging river. Water levels continued to rise, swelling to several feet above flood stage. Railroads and electric interurbans were forced to stop service as the water rushed across their tracks.

“When the pall of darkness overhung the city last evening, the Kalamazoo river had reached the highest mark in its history and all flood records for this section of Michigan were broken by the raging stream, which has overflowed its banks and spread over the lowlands of Kalamazoo valley until it resembles a veritable lake, whose shores are constantly shifting as the river continues to rise.”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 26 March 1904

By Saturday, 26 March 1904, Portage Creek, Axtell Creek, and Arcadia Creek had all overflowed their banks as the water level in the Kalamazoo River rose at a rate of 5 inches per hour. Many major manufacturers in the city were forced to close, leaving some 1,300 souls out of work. Most railroad traffic in and out of Kalamazoo was either delayed or had stopped completely. The Van Bochove & Brothers’ greenhouse on East Vine Street was under more than a foot of water while portions of a Grand Rapids & Indiana freight train had been derailed by the flood waters. At its peak, the river crested at some 9 feet above its normal level, 11 inches above its previous record high-water mark, shattering  the former record established in 1887.

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Riverside Foundry, Willard Ct. near Harrison Street, looking north from the MCRR bridge, 1904. Courtesy, Kalamazoo Valley Museum

As the floodwaters slowly receded, Mayor Sam Folz met with the city council to plan relief efforts. Hundreds of homes had been damaged and nearly 250 families were left homeless. Relief efforts were soon underway. Boats were brought in to help reach those who were stranded by the rising waters. By mid-week, the Kalamazoo Paper Mill and the King Paper Company were able to resume operation, while other factories remained closed and under water.

By April 3rd, more than a week after the flooding began, most of the remaining 15 or more factories were able to resume work after an 8-day shut down. Repair work on damaged railroad lines was underway and rail traffic was beginning to see normal service. Keeping in mind that Kalamazoo’s population in 1900 was just over 24,000, conservative estimates placed the damage within the city at more than $50,000 (some $1.7 million today).

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Postcard view, likely looking eastward along East Avenue near the intersection of Ampersee Avenue, just east of the Main Street (Michigan Avenue) bridge. Postmarked 8 April 1908. Author’s collection

More Historic Flooding in 1908

In the early months of 1908 Kalamazooans feared a repeat of 1904 as the area again faced potentially catastrophic flooding. Heavy February snowfalls followed by an early March thunderstorm saw a deluge of water pour into the Kalamazoo River. Although flooding was widespread, the river crested during the evening hours of Tuesday, March 10, some five inches below the record set in 1904.

“On Ampersee avenue it is impossible to go any place without the aid of a boat. The entire portion of land lying between East avenue and the river resembles one vast lake.”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 10 March 1908

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Postcard view of East Vine Street, 1908. David Kohrman postcard collection

Still, hundreds of homes were left isolated as the floodwaters covered an area equal to, if not larger than, the coverage four years earlier. Homes in the southeast portion of the city along Harrison and Seminary streets saw water levels rise to their second story windows. Nearly a dozen factories were forced to close, including the Kalamazoo Spring and Axle Company, the Riverside Foundry, Kalamazoo Paper Mills, Kalamazoo Stove Company, Lull Carriage Company, and others. Thankfully the floodwaters receded quite rapidly, and damage was said to be minimal. Most of the cleanup was confined to basements and factories in the eastern portion of the city.

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Postcard view of a Michigan Central RR train approaching Kalamazoo from the east, 1908. Courtesy, Kalamazoo Valley Museum

Kalamazoo River Flood Control Project

The catastrophic flooding of 1904 was nearly equaled again in April 1947 when torrential rain left a downtown area some seven blocks long and three blocks wide under 1 to 4 feet of water. At least 1,100 homes in Kalamazoo were flooded and more than 1,500 families were forced to evacuate.

In 1949 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed a multi-million dollar “Kalamazoo River Flood Control Project,” which sought to “provide flood protection to the City of Kalamazoo, Michigan and adjacent areas both upstream and downstream of the city.” The project included “deepening, widening, and straightening” a 10-mile section of the Kalamazoo River and improving another 1.7 miles of Portage Creek. The proposed project saw both support and opposition for the better part of four decades. Environmentalists feared such an undertaking would damage the riverfront ecology and strongly opposed the project. Meanwhile, funding became an insurmountable issue. According to a 1982 Kalamazoo Gazette article, “When first proposed in 1947, the work would have cost around $900,000. The 1970s version of the plan was pegged at $15.1 million.” The 1980s “restudy” failed to revive the project and it was ultimately tabled, although Kalamazoo River cleanup and flood control efforts continue.

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Arcadia Creek Festival Site, 8 January 2024. Courtesy, William Dolak

Arcadia Creek Project

After record floods washed through the city during the 1970s and 1980s, the $7 million Arcadia Creek storm sewer improvement project “freed” the creek from its aging undersized culvert and helped alleviate some of the flooding along its route. The reconfigured stream through the northern portion of the downtown area is now able to handle storm water more effectively. The project spurred major redevelopment in the area, as well.

“Record-breaking flooding is predicted for the Kalamazoo River at Comstock, the National Weather Service Grand Rapids reported Thursday. Runoff and water from smaller tributaries will continue to run into the river and raise it to an estimated 11.4 feet by late Saturday night. The Kalamazoo River was recorded at almost 10 feet Thursday afternoon. The last time the river in Comstock Township was at such levels was in 1947, when it reached 10.9 feet. ‘Frozen ground is making the situation worse.’ When the Kalamazoo River crested at 10.43 feet in 2008, severe flooding damaged Kalamazoo businesses and disrupted traffic south of downtown.”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 23 February 2018

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Riverview Drive north from East Michigan Avenue, February 2018. WWMT photo

Continuing Flood Control Efforts

Unfortunately, areal flooding (flooding over large areas) in Kalamazoo is not a thing of the past. Severe flooding was experienced in 2008 and again in 2018. The City of Kalamazoo is currently working on a plan for an estimated $120 million pump system to move stormwater from troublesome areas into the Kalamazoo River, although that project is in its early stages.

 

Written by Keith Howard, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, January 2024

Sources

Articles

“The freshet”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 28 May 1858, page 3

“All under water”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 28 July 1896, page 4

Only $8,000 left”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 12 February 1897, page 3

“The roaring Kalamazoo”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 19 March 1897, page 13

“Rain ruined celery”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 23 March 1897, page 1

“After us is the deluge”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 5 March 1904, page 2

“Floods are numerous”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 8 March 1904, page 2

“High water continues”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 9 March 1904, page 2

“Mill Street flooded”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 11 March 1904, page 2

“New lake”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 11 March 1904, page 7

“Kalamazoo River swelling”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 25 March 1904, page 1

“Still rises”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 25 March 1904, page 3

“Kalamazoo valley raging flood”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 26 March 1904, page 1

“Flood at its height in Kalamazoo”
Kalamazoo Saturday Telegraph, 26 March 1904, page 1

“Down some. Flood is receding gradually”
Kalamazoo Saturday Telegraph, 2 April 1904, page 1

“Fast melting show may cause flood”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 26 February 1908, page 5

“City now battles with much water”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 5 March 1908, page 8

“City threatened by another flood”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 6 March 1908, page 3

“Snow going; flood result”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 March 1908, page 1

“Floods menace many towns”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 8 March 1908, page 1

“Railroads tied up; flood in city past”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 8 March 1908, page 10

“Crest of flood reaches city”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 10 March 1908, page 1

“People petition for relief from flood”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 10 March 1908, page 3

“Flood waters are receding”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 11 March 1908, page 1

“The flood”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 12 March 1908, page 4

“Flood strikes Kalamazoo, area”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 5 April 1947, page 1

“Flood danger believed passing”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 8 April 1947, page 1

“Kalamazoo river flood control proposal: a case study”
Land Economics, University of Wisconsin Press, February 1972, pages 57-61

“‘Restudy’ may revive flood control project”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 6 February 1982, page 3

“Record flooding expected this weekend”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 23 February 2018, page A1


Documents

“Kalamazoo River flood control project, Kalamazoo, Michigan”
Environmental Impact Statement
United States Army Corps of Engineers
February 1971

 

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