Grand Haven History

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For centuries, Potawatomi and Ottawa Indians called this area home and used Grand River as a trade route into the interior of Michigan.  The city was founded by French colonial settlers. Madeline La Framboise and her husband established the first fur trading outpost called Gabagouache, a Potawatomi term for the area. John Jacob Astor and the American Fur Company obtained rights to Grand Haven area lands in a U.S. Patent dated December 2, 1833 and took over the trading post, creating a monopoly on the fur industry and bringing economic success to the city. More Americans began settling after the War of 1812. William Montague Ferry was the first permanent resident. Ferry was a Presbyterian minister and in 1834, he founded the first area church and neighboring town of Ferrysburg. The town was renamed to “Grand Haven” in 1835 and the Sheldon Tannery was founded in 1838. Lieutenant G.J. Pendergrast was appointed by the Board of Navy Commissioners to examine and select sites for lighthouses on the Great Lakes in 1837. Messrs. Rogers and Burnett of Milwaukee were hired to construct the lighthouse on the south pier, marking the most navigable channel into the river. Stone used to complete the dwelling and tower were quarried in Green Bay and stone for the steps came from Cleveland. In August 1839, Nehemiah Merritt was hired as the first lighthouse keeper. The lighthouse stood 30 feet tall and had four oil lamps, backed by fourteen-inch reflectors, being used to produce a fixed white light. On December 17th, 1852, poor craftsmanship and materials led to the wall in the dwelling collapsing early the next morning, and the tower later that day during a storm. The lighthouse was operational again by 1855. Another church was organized in 1850. Ferry founded the city’s first bank in 1851 in the Ferry & Son building on Harbor Drive and the first school, Ferry Elementary, which is still open. In 1867, the city was incorporated. Leading up to the late 19th century, Grand Haven developed as a logging, lumber mill and shipping town. The early 20th century marked industrial growth in Grand Haven.  The city produced furniture, lighting, and pianos; eventually manufacturing automobiles and car parts.

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