I enjoyed walking through Grand Rapids, Michigan early each morning before most people crawled out of bed. It offered opportunities to explore quiet corners at my own pace and discover sites that I bet most visitors never would have noticed. Naturally I put my own geo-oddity spin on things, observing peculiarities that fit the offbeat themes of Twelve Mile Circle.
Why Grand? Why Rapids?
Long before I arrived I wondered how Grand Rapids got its name. I couldn’t see rapids, grand or otherwise, as I scanned satellite images of the city. It took a little searching although I uncovered an explanation eventually from the Grand Rapids Historical Commission, quoting from a 1913 source.
This sharp fall or decline in the river bed at Grand Rapids is disguised because of the power canals on each side of the river which take up the water and carry it through many factories and out through numerous tail races, so that the name "Grand Rapids" is not suggested any more by the present appearance of the river.
The Grand River running through downtown Grand Rapids fell about 17 feet between current-day Sixth Street and Wealthy Street, a distance of about 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometres). Modern controls masked the drop with a series of terraced ledges. Nonetheless, the elevation truly dropped. I observed this for myself at Fish Ladder Park, a brutalist contraption that let migrating fish push upriver past one of the higher drops (map).
I didn’t realize that Grand Rapids placed so much pride in its logo until I walked around town awhile. I noticed it everywhere.
Lots of street signs included the emblem on their left sides, placed before to the name of the street. It seemed to be a geographic representation to me. I interpreted the blue line as the Grand River, perhaps with the squiggled portion noting the "rapids." Maybe the yellow circle represented a larger metropolitan area radiating from the city center in all directions?
That red blob became a Rorschach test. My geo-centric brain figured it could signify the original historic city boundaries or something. My son the animal lover thought the left knob could be a fish tail symbolizing fish swimming through the rapids. Notions like that filled my mind during those early morning walks. I daydreamed little non sequiturs, a wonderful way to get away from everything mentally and clear away the complexities of modern life.
Look, the logo even appeared on manhole covers, trash cans, and city vehicles. I tried to ignore them after awhile even though it became increasingly difficult as it appeared in even more places. Also I learned that maybe I had a thing for manhole cover designs, following on my discovery last year in Nantucket (photo). I’ll have to pay more attention in the future.
The whole mystery could have been solved if I’d simply searched on the Intertubes where the answer hid in plain site. Instead I preferred to wander around the city hoping to figure it out on my own, only to forget all about it as soon as I got near a computer. Silly me.
La Grande Vitesse by Russell Sekeet on Flickr (cc)
The city clearly said,
The City of Grand Rapids’ logo was designed by Joseph Kinnebrew, an internationally-recognized sculptor and painter. It incorporates a yellow sun, blue river, and a red representation of the "La Grande Vitesse" sculpture by Alexander Calder, which was erected in downtown Grand Rapids on Calder Plaza in 1969.
I let that be a lesson to myself. Next time I will act on my curiosity immediately instead of waiting until I returned home to research an article. I passed within maybe two blocks of the Calder sculpture (map) and never saw it. That became a big missed opportunity. I would have made an effort had I known about it.
The Original Boundary
Grand Rapids remembered its past. I didn’t find the entirety of its original 1850 boundaries during my morning strolls although I discovered a couple of them. One ran down Eastern Avenue Southeast (map). From its name and placement relative to downtown, I assumed it must have been the original eastern boundary although I couldn’t see a street with that name on an 1853 map that I found online. Wealthy Street also featured similar boundary signs and that vintage map did reference it by name as the city’s southern border.
Wealthy Street seemed oddly named. It was nice although it hardly seemed wealthy. Certainly other streets in Grand Rapids featured many more stately homes constructed during the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Grand Rapids Magazine provided the answer.
Jefferson Morrison was a merchant in the early days of Grand Rapids. He named two streets in the city: one to honor himself (Jefferson Avenue) and one to honor his wife, Wealthy (Wealthy Street). Mrs. Morrison’s unusual first name proved to be somewhat ironic, as the family went into serious debt after building an extravagant house between modern-day Ionia and Monroe avenues.
Wealthy didn’t describe a street as much as it described a woman who stayed Wealthy even if she no longer remained wealthy, and the street remained Wealthy long after people forgot about Wealthy Morrison.
Why would parents name their child Wealthy? That mystery, alas, remained unsolved.
The Inexplicable Sign
Then I found the inexplicable sign on Eureka Avenue, a short one-way street through a suburban neighborhood (map). Residents couldn’t park on the eastern side of Eureka Avenue on odd days during the winter months, except for several hours in the evening. A similar prohibition applied to the western side on even days. I figured it must have been related to snow removal. Hopefully most people living on Eureka Avenue had driveways. Moving parked cars from one side of the road to the other every day for five months of the year would get old after awhile. Also, no other street seemed to have this prohibition. I pondered that one for awhile too.
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr
I selected Michigan for our summer holiday this year. I won’t pretend that the drive was fun or easy although depriving greedy airlines of revenue certainly enhanced the appeal. I described my distaste for airlines before and I reveled in the many hundreds of dollars I denied them with this trip and several others over the years. We loaded the Family Truckster and pointed our sights northwest on a track towards Lake Michigan.
I considered multiple factors before choosing Michigan. I always want to go someplace I haven’t covered in depth before. It needed to have interesting hooks. It needed to be low-hassle, with room to stretch out. It needed to interest the rest of the family while indulging my geo-geeky curiosity. The southwestern corner of Michigan met many of those criteria, and I will describe what we found in subsequent articles. County Counting always fell high on my list and that may have been the most important factor this time around. I’d skirted edges of Michigan previously although I’d never pushed deep into its interior.
Maybe it was the second most important factor. I’ll save that for next time. Subscribers to the 12MC Twitter feed probably already guessed the other major reason based on my frequent tweeting as I rolled along.
Grand Rapids became our home base for the week. We took the fastest route available on the way up, shooting along the Pennsylvania and Ohio Turnpikes into Michigan, and staying overnight in Cleveland along the way. I gained no new counties during this initial leg until we passed Detroit. We arrived in Grand Rapids the second day and radiated from there on side trips, filling in much of southern Michigan with county captures.
Only once did I make a specific effort to prevent a doughnut hole. I noticed that none of our daily excursions went through Barry County (map), southeast of Grand Rapids. It fell within a ring formed by Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek and Lansing with no major highway running through it. I got up early one morning for a half-hour drive to fill the void. I spared the rest of the family. I’m sure sure they appreciated sleeping more than the possible irritation of leaving a stranded county behind. Somehow they didn’t feel the same pain.
We came home via a longer route, swinging south and staying overnight in Columbus before cutting through West Virginia. I picked up a bunch of new counties. I’d also never seen Ohio’s Appalachian corner either. Who knew Ohio had mountains? I plan to keep Ohio’s Hocking Hills on the list of places I want to see again someday, and them visit in a more proper manner.
Schoolcraft and Cabinets
Two distinct forces contributed to the designation of Michigan counties. Henry Schoolcraft named many of them in the mid Nineteenth Century, a curious case I discussed in Schoolcraft Daze. He made them up, drawing from pseudo-Native American etymologies blended with Latin, Greek or whatever else came to mind. The Schoolcraft counties included Alcona, Allegan, Alpena, Arenac, Iosco, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Lenawee, Oscoda and Tuscola. I captured Lenawee and re-visited Allegan.
Michigan also contained the Cabinet Counties. The Michigan Territory hoped to curry favor with President Andrew Jackson in a border dispute with Ohio involving the Toledo Strip — I’ll talk about the Strip a little more in a future installment so hang on — and named a bunch of its southern counties for Jackson and his Cabinet:
- Barry: Postmaster General
- Berrien: Attorney General
- Branch: Secretary of the Navy
- Calhoun: Vice President
- Cass: Secretary of War
- Eaton: Secretary of War (prior to Cass)
- Ingham: Secretary of the Treasury
- Jackson: President
- Livingston: Secretary of State
- Van Buren: Secretary of State (prior to Livingston; later Vice President and President)
My final count of Cabinet Counties lacked only Cass by the time I finished the trip. I’d captured Berrien and Van Buren previously, and hit the other seven for the first time during this latest excursion. Incidentally, while Jackson signed a bill making Michigan a state in 1837, the Toledo Strip went to Ohio. The county name pandering failed to produce its desired result although Michigan did get the Upper Peninsula as a consolation prize.
Grand Rapids in Kent Co., MI (my own photo)
I did well during this exercise, tallying initial visits in three different states.
- Sixteen in Michigan (Barry, Branch, Calhoun, Clinton, Eaton, Hillsdale, Ingham, Ionia, Jackson, Kalamazoo, Kent, Lenawee, Livingston, Muskegon, Oakland and Washtenaw)
- Seven in Ohio (Athens, Delaware, Hancock, Hocking, Marion, Washington and Wyandot)
- Three in West Virginia (Doddridge, Ritchie and Wood)
That came to a respectable Twenty Six new counties.
The Counties that Got Away
I could have visited more, and in fact that had been my original plan. Several years ago I visited Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and I thought the kids would enjoy it. However they were simply too tired from our relentless touring to drive another six hours in a single day. We hung around Grand Rapids that day instead. I willingly abandoned the opportunity to capture seven counties to preserve family peace. I took that as a sign I needed to visit again someday!
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr
Bridges? Not another article about bridges gasped a sizable portion of the Twelve Mile Circle audience. Yes, I decided to feature more bridges, all from my latest journey. This time I added a bit of a twist. The first two bridges were more interesting than usual. Then I segued back to my standard fare of covered bridges that one should feel free to read about or simply look at the pretty pictures and move along. I won’t take it personally.
Steve from CTMQ and I continued trading tweets as my path finally hit Connecticut and we approached our in-person visit. I’d made it as far as Willimantic for lunch at Willimantic Brewing and would see Steve that evening. He noticed my lunchtime tweet and suggested I see a nearby geo-oddity. It was a bridge. He cited a Wikipedia page on the subject:
Willimantic Footbridge: Willimantic is the home of the Willimantic Footbridge (established in 1907), which is the only footbridge in the United States to connect two state highways, as well as crossing all three major forms of transportation (road, rail, and river).
It sounded fascinating and it was an easy walk so I strolled there after lunch (map). Wikipedia didn’t have a completely accurate listing however, a billionth example of why one shouldn’t place complete confidence in its claims. A marker at the base of the bridge said,
A landmark since 1906, the 635-foot-long footbridge connects the city’s commercial core with a residential area to the south. It is the only such structure east of the Mississippi to span sidewalks, vehicle traffic, an active railroad and a river…
The Willimantic Footbridge represented something remarkable either for the United States or for some portion thereof, I supposed. I walked from one end and back, then headed to my car for the onward journey towards Hartford. I never figured out why Willimantic even had a pedestrian bridge. It didn’t seem like it offered much of a shortcut. Maybe the larger crossings came later.
Walkway Over the Hudson
I debunked the Willimantic Footbridge claim the very next day. The-Very-Next-Day. I hadn’t planned to poke a hole in the pride and joy of Willimantic, it just happened. The Walkway Over the Hudson first appeared on 12MC in an article I called Impressive Pedestrian Bridges. It began as a railroad bridge, fell into decay, and blossomed again when preservationists converted it to pedestrian use, a linear park over the Hudson River. Guinness World Records proclaimed its 1.28 mile (2.06 kilometre) span "the world’s longest pedestrian bridge." I’d hope to see this ever since I started planning my trip. I knew we’d go there once we got to Poughkeepsie, New York (map).
Thoughts of Willimantic came to mind as I walked over the mighty Hudson. I passed above streets, several residential and even a highway. I passed over two sets of train tracks on either side of the river including one that serviced Amtrak. Of course I passed over the Hudson River itself, considerably more imposing than the diminutive Willimantic River. I supposed the marker in Willimantic must have been posted before 2009 when the Walkway Over the Hudson opened as a pedestrian passage. They needed to change it to read "the only such structure east of the Hudson," or something like that, although it wasn’t nearly as impressive. Or maybe they could qualify it by calling it the only such structure designed as a pedestrian bridge. Or maybe they could just pretend the Walkway Over the Hudson didn’t exist, which is probably what actually happened.
Days fell into themes. There was a day of geo-oddities, a day of history, a day of county counting, and a day of breweries. Our drive between races in Maine and New Hampshire was particularly brief so we had plenty of extra time to explore the countryside. Ironically, there wasn’t much to see besides the scenery. There were plenty of covered bridges though, all in close alignment while our path seemed followed the Contoocook River. I’d never hear of the Contoocook. It flowed for about 70 mi (110 km) through an attractive stretch of southern New Hampshire popular with anglers and boaters, a perfect backdrop for covered bridges.
Four bridges could be visited easily in less than an hour.
Contoocook Railroad Bridge
With a river called Contoocook, one might naturally expect a town called Contoocook, and so it came to pass. A railroad came through that town and over that river, and it needed a bridge. This was the first time I’d seen a covered bridge built specifically for trains (map). An historic marker at the site explained,
Built in 1899 on the granite abutments of an older span, this is the world’s oldest surviving covered railroad bridge. It was probably designed by Boston & Maine Railroad engineer Jonathan Parker Snow (1848-1933) and built by carpenter David Hazelton (1832-1908). Under Snow, the Boston & Maine utilized wooden bridges on its branch lines until after 1900, longer than any other major railroad…
Remembering once again that Willimantic marker, I didn’t know whether I could trust the longevity claim or not. Who was I to doubt it though?
Next came Hopkinton and Rowell’s Covered Bridge (map). This crossing was old, built in 1853, and still stood strong. We drove across it a couple of times and it seemed quite sturdy.
At the complete opposite end of history stood the Henniker Bridge, taking the name of the town where it stood (map). Its modern construction reflected traditional techniques so it was hard to tell that it dated only to 1972. This was more of an architectural statement than a utilitarian structure, a footpath between the main campus of New England College and nearby athletic fields on the other side of the Contoocook. It could be difficult to find parking on a busy campus although it wasn’t a problem here. The college dedicated a couple of 15-minute parking spots near the base of the bridge, behind Colby Hall, one of its residential buildings.
The final covered bridge on this brief excursion along the Contoocook River fell along our direct route without even a minor detour (map). We couldn’t have missed this bridge if we’d wanted to because we drove right across it on the way to our race at Greenfield State Park. Here the Contoocook marked the boundary between the towns of Hancock and Greenfield so that added slightly to my interest. This was a "newer" bridge too, albeit not quite as new as Henniker, being built in 1937.
New England articles:
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr