The Story of Owashtanong

Before it was the Grand River, it was named Owashtanong. The Anishinaabek were the original inhabitants of our city, which was known as Boweting. The river was a mode of transport and source of sustenance, providing water and food, but just as importantly embodied a spiritual connection to Mother Earth.

The river has been and remains home to many Native American tribal communities across the region since the end of the Ice Age, including the People of the Three Fires, an alliance of the Ottawa (Odawa), Chippewa (Ojibwa), and Potawatomi (Bodewadi) tribes. During this time the Grand River provided a primary travel and trade route, and the valley was used extensively for hunting and growing food. The native communities that have lived here have a deep relationship with the river and land around it.

Around 1700, the People of the Three Fires established villages in what is now Grand Rapids, with their main gathering place in present-day downtown. The People of the Three Fires called themselves the Anishinaabek or The Original People.

The lives of these indigenous people changed in 1821 when the Treaty of Chicago gave the United States control of the land south of the Grand River.

The area was opened up to settlement, and Native Americans were increasingly displaced, and often forcibly relocated to make room for new arrivals. The new European fur traders established trading posts with the Ottawa tribes and primarily traded European metals for textiles and fur pelts.

The Anishinaabek people continue to live in this region of their ancestors and the river continues to hold cultural and historical significance to them.

Logging Times

About a century before Grand Rapids was known as Beer City, it was known as Furniture City.

By the late 19th century, Grand Rapids was becoming a major center for lumber production, thanks to the vast pine and oak forests across the region and all along the Grand River. The logging industry supported the production of the high-end furniture that Grand Rapids would later be known for.

The growth of the logging industry resulted in the installation of the river’s first dams in 1847. The riverbed was scoured of structure for logging and industrial usage. The river changed from the center of the community to a tool of industry.

Industrial Times

By 1880, the Grand River, now used for moving logs and large boats and producing power, had become contaminated by logging waste, mixed oil and gas, and human and industrial waste.

For nearly the next 100 years, the Grand River was used as a sewer for the city and its industries. 

You can still see reminders of the river’s former status as an eyesore: the façades of many older buildings facing the Grand River don’t have windows. Some tenants of the day viewed the Grand River as a nuisance and didn’t want to look at it; some even deposited their waste in the river.

In 1972, the federal Clean Water Act helped introduce limits on pollution and began to improve the conditions of the river with the help of the community. The City of Grand Rapids spent $400 million over 30 years to separate the combined sanitary sewer system to eliminate raw sewage spills.

New Urban

Today the Grand River is enjoying a rebirth. The river’s health has improved greatly; riverwalks, parks and new buildings facing the river have helped revitalize it as a community centerpiece.

But to truly restore the river as a connection to our past, our future, and to each other, we must do more. River for All aims to restore the Grand River corridor as the iconic center of Grand Rapids to serve as a natural asset, public space, equitable neighborhood connector and healthy ecological system, connecting and uniting current and future generations.

Our Future

Just like the Grand River never stops flowing, the region won’t stop planning for the future of the river. Restoring the river is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and we want you to be a part of it.

The Green Grand Rapids plan in 2011, the 2015 GR Forward Plan, the 2017 Parks and Recreation Strategic Plan, and many others have expressed a common desire: to create a River for All. We’re excited to make it happen with your help.