RADTKE: A treasured icon reveals its secrets

Tradition plays an important role in the Tri-Cities, and history and tradition often go hand in hand.
Jun 27, 2014

Here at the museum, we are always looking for ways to link the two together for our visitors.

One of these summer traditions has earned a place in the history of the area and has become an icon of the City of Grand Haven. That icon is the Musical Fountain on Dewey Hill. The Musical Fountain has enchanted area visitors and residents alike for over 50 years.

Billed as the “World’s Largest Musical Fountain,” the complex mechanical basis behind the fountain remains a mystery to most people who see its performances. The miles of piping, pumps, nozzles and lights are largely hidden from view.

Because of the similarities in construction between the large fountain and its diminutive relative on display at the museum, the exhibit “Dancing Waters” can help to remove some of that mystery and allow visitors to the exhibit to see firsthand how the fountain is designed and get a look at the intricate layout.

In the exhibit, there is an archival photo of the big fountain showing the entirety of the works from above, juxtaposed with the miniature nearby. It is striking how similar they are.

The Musical Fountain’s genesis came about because local resident Dr. Bill Creason had seen something similar in Germany and envisioned the fountain as a way to revitalize Grand Haven’s waterfront, which at that time — in the late 1950s — was a far cry from the beautiful and useful place we know today. In the 1950s, the waterfront was a mess of abandoned or marginal warehouses, coal yards, and heavy industry as the community was undergoing a transition from a primarily industrial town to the mix of retail, industry and tourism we see today.

The decline of shipping and the railroads, both of which were located largely along the waterfront, was another factor in the problem of an increasingly underutilized community asset.

The Dewey Hill fountain is 230 feet long and contains over a mile and a half of piping and 1,300 nozzles. It was, and remains, a community effort. The original budget was a modest $17,000. But, by the time the project was completed a total cost — which included donated goods and services — was closer to $150,000.

The fountain made its grand debut on Memorial Day weekend 1963 — and, 50 years later, the fully restored fountain was unveiled on the same day.

The restoration effort was a community effort, and it was enthusiastically supported by area residents and visitors whose generous donations of time, funds and services ensured that the fountain will continue to provide enjoyment for the next 50 years. From the local newspaper and radio stations that supported the fundraising efforts, to local contractors who donated goods and services (such as paving, plumbing and mechanical), to students at university who helped to develop the software and programming which makes the fountain work, the restoration was a collaborative effort.

None of this could have been possible, of course, without the outpouring of generosity from local residents during the fundraising drive, or the support of the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation, and the commitment on the part of the city in seeing that the fountain was secured for future generations.

The museum’s exhibit focuses on the creation of the fountain, both real and replica, and the recent restoration project. The story is told through archival photos, interviews with the major players, memorabilia — including parts of the original fountain — and, of course, a working replica fountain.

An exact 1:48 scale model miniature fountain built by Detroit-area resident Dennis Page gave the museum the idea for the exhibit and serves as the focal point for the gallery. The fountain, which is as authentic to the original as possible, actually operates using the same software and programming as the big fountain, and has all of the same music and choreography.

“Dancing Waters: 50 years of Grand Haven’s Musical Fountain” is on display at the Akeley building, 200 Washington Ave. in downtown Grand Haven. The miniature fountain performs regularly scheduled showings at 10:30 a.m., 12:30, 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. during normal museum hours Tuesday through Saturday (10 a.m. to 8 p.m.) and 12-5 p.m. Sundays. The museum is closed on Mondays.

For more information of this or other museum exhibits or programs, you can call 616-842-0700 or visit us at www.tri-citiesmuseum.org.

— By Steven Radtke, director of the Tri-Cities Historical Museum

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