Grand Rapids' streets of old still tell stories

From “bricks” made of cedar wood and soaked in creosote to sturdy but expensive cobblestones, GR's oldest streets are rich with history.
Motorists who drive down Grand Rapids’ oldest streets may not realize they are textured with more than asphalt or brick. They are also layered with a history that intertwines the area’s Native Americans with European settlers, which helped to transport the city into an industrial and commercial hub.

When it was a village, Grand Rapids’ early roads were carved along Native American trails, according to the Grand Rapids Public Museum. That pattern is still evident today with streets such as Monroe in downtown Grand Rapids and Stocking on the West Side.

By 1850, when the village became a city, street arrangements became more methodical, developing in more or less square blocks, except where the Indian trails had already been set by traffic habits.

Grand Rapids’ earliest European settlers often named streets for plat owners, early settlers, or landscape features, according to the Grand Rapids Historical Commission.

Campau Street, for instance, was named for fur trader Louis Campau, as was Louis Street. Two streets near Butterworth Street, Gunnison and Deloney, recognize Lt. John Gunnison and his son, who was named for his mother, Martha Deloney. Bridge Street’s moniker was not named for the span that crosses the Grand River, but for Henry P. Bridge, a pioneer.

Materials used to pave streets changed as well, according to the GRPM. In the late 1800s, Grand Rapids experimented with different road surfaces, including cobblestones, which were durable but loud and expensive.

“Bricks” made of cedar wood and soaked in creosote to prevent decay were used for several paving projects from the 1870s to 1890s. A section of these wooden bricks were uncovered in the summer of 2017 near the intersection of Fountain Street and College Avenue during road construction that unearthed precisely laid wooden bricks.

There are more than 100 roadways paved with red bricks, originally between 1891 to 1911, according to the Grand Rapids Historical Commission. Its list can be found here.

A blend of new and old brick can be seen east up Cherry Street from Commerce Avenue.

Here are before and now photographs of some of Grand Rapids’ oldest streets. Historical photos are from the GRPM’s digital archives.

Corner of Monroe and Division. By 1928, the downtown streets were paved and automobiles lined the streets as they do today. Traffic then was busy enough to require a police officer at the intersection prior to the installation of traffic lights. Many multi-storied buildings appeared along Monroe Avenue and most of them still exist today.

1928 Construction workers working on the Moose Lodge, looking north on Division from Cherry Street.

1923-1925 A bird's-eye view of Campau Square. The small wooden structure on the left served as a tourist information booth. The Grand Rapids National Bank is pictured to the left. Stores were added to the first floor of the building circa 1915. The Widdicomb building on the corner of Monroe and Market is pictured on the right with the tower. The Grand Rapids Press building is located in the center of the street in the background. The spire of the Westminster Church can be seen behind the Press building.
Circa 1915 or 1925 Campau Square, at the intersection of Monroe and Pearl Street. The Grand Rapids National Bank is pictured in the center. Several storefront shops are pictured along with people, automobiles, and streetcar tracks.

Cedar “brick” pavement circa 1900. Three round cedar blocks, approximately 2 inches thick, with pieces of tar and asphalt still stuck to all three pieces. These rounds were originally used to pave South Division Avenue near Burton Street.

Fulton Street by US 131 entrance.

1930s An exterior photograph of the Family Circle Store’s building located on North Ionia and Fulton Street.

View of buildings looking across Monroe Avenue to the block between Monroe Center and Fulton Street, on the west side of Division Avenue. Buildings include the previous location of Herpolsheimer’s, which is now the Grand Rapids Police Department.

In the 1890s, there were streetcars all around Grand Rapids, with tracks from downtown out to Reeds Lake before East Grand Rapids became a city, according to the Interurban Transit Partnership (The Rapid). A San Francisco-like cable car once went up and down the Michigan Street hill. In the late 1920s, electric streetcars were a common sight along Monroe Avenue, the city’s main hub. By 1935, the streetcar era officially ended in Grand Rapids, making it the second city in the nation to abandon electric rail service entirely. Pictured is a Cherry Street streetcar; Grand Rapids was famous for personalizing its streetcars, such as the Spirit of St. Louis, named in honor of a visit to Grand Rapids by aviator Charles Lindberg.

Whether you find yourself stuck in traffic on a newly paved corridor or strolling on foot down a street still charmingly bumpy with original brick, there's history there. These streets demonstrate that Grand Rapids shares a common bond with its past and present by blending its commercial, industrial, and residential milieu with a collaborative spirit that embraces change.

Photography and photo captions (edited) courtesy Grand Rapids Public Library, and Bud Kibby of Bird + Bird Studio.

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