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A Look Back: The Flood Of 1904

Posted at 6:52 PM, Apr 22, 2013

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.–  They call it the “100-year flood,” and back in 1904 was really the last time we saw record-breaking numbers along the Grand River in Grand Rapids.

“I’m sure if they were living today they would look at what’s happening on the grand river and say. ‘Well that’s pretty bad, but nothing like what she had in 04,” said Gordon Olson, the city’s retired historian. The Grand Rapids Public Library and Public Museum have hundreds of remarkable pictures from that flood.

It was on March 28 of 1904 when the river reached a record-breaking 19.6 feet, and more than half of the entire population of the west side of Grand Rapids underwater. “I’ve seen estimates of several thousand people who were out of their homes on the west side and couldn’t get back in for several days,” Olson says.

Water surrounded 2,500 houses, an estimated 8,000 people lost work, and 50 factories were forced to shut down. The water nearly reached what is now the John Ball Zoo.

It was after that flood in 1904 and a few others later on that led the city to build the flood wall in 1911. Since then, they’ve perfected it and built it up to where it sits now, a barrier that has withstood another 100-year flood and something Mayor George Heartwell says everyone in the community should be proud of. “People have sacrificed in the city to make those investments,” he says. “We’ve invested in our flood walls, in our storm sewer system. That doesn’t happen for free. That takes sacrifice for every person living in the city of Grand Rapids. Today we can say that has paid off. It has paid off enormously, and we can be proud of that.”

It’s estimated the monetary loss in that flood from 1904 is just under $2 million. Accounting for inflation, that would add up to more than $45 million in damage today.