During the past few years, I have browsed through numerous images of downtown Grand Haven, with dates ranging from the late 1800s to the present. Together, these images represent the different purposes our downtown area has served and the ways that it has been transformed over time.
Grand Haven’s pioneers settled at the mouth of the Grand River to take advantage of its location near Lake Michigan. The river allowed fresh-cut timber to be driven, sorted and processed into lumber that would eventually be delivered by schooner to various ports throughout the Great Lakes.
If one were to visit downtown Grand Haven in the 1850s, they would notice warehouses such as Clark Albee’s freight forwarding at 1 N. Harbor, the Ottawa House and Washington House hotels, and several saw mills including Butts & Hathaway. These structures, composed mainly of wood, were concentrated near the river for easiest access to the lake as well as the train depot at the foot of Dewey Hill (formerly known as the Village of Muir), making the arrangement one that was clearly focused on benefiting commercial interests.
By the 1870s, rail service moved to the east side of the channel, Muir had given way to a series of commercial fishing shacks and Grand Haven became one of the busiest ports on the Great Lakes.
The health craze of the late 19th century drove countless city dwellers away from large metropolitan areas to small, lakeside communities far from the smog and pollution of the inner cities. Travelers could board a Goodrich Transit Co. passenger steamer in Chicago and arrive in Grand Haven at the Goodrich dock located at the west end of Washington. He or she could continue their journey by rail via the Grand Trunk, or remain and stay at the Kirby House Hotel (Kirby Grill). Those in need of more advanced healing methods could lodge at the luxurious Cutler House Hotel (224 Washington) after a day of spa treatments at the W.C. Sheldon Magnetic Mineral Springs (Fifth Third Bank).
By the end of the 19th century, Washington Street in Grand Haven featured a variety of businesses and services including grocery stores (Van Lopik at 206), hardware stores (Bottje at 108), dry goods stores (Ball Brothers at 201-03), restaurants, and livery stables (Sprik’s Livery, corner of Washington and Second).
With the arrival of the Grand Rapids, Grand Haven and Muskegon Railway (the Interurban), downtown Grand Haven had evolved into a thriving transportation hub that offered a variety of goods and services for the convenience of visitors as well as local consumers.
Like most small communities, downtown Grand Haven remained a central shopping location through the 1940s and ‘50s. The shipyards and lumber mills were long gone. Automobiles had replaced passenger steamship and rail service.
And, although larger supermarkets began replacing smaller downtown groceries, 1950s Washington Street had just about anything a person could want or need. Clothing stores (Steketee’s at 200), furniture and appliance stores (Floto’s at 123), jewelry stores (Riemer’s at 128), banks (People’s Bank at 300 and Grand Haven State Bank at 223), doctors’ offices, bars and restaurants (Green Mill at 100), news stands (Hostetter’s at 135), and a church (First Reformed) all combined to make the area a type of one-stop shop.
Additionally, drug stores (Wheeler’s at 216 and Steiner’s at 136) and five-and-dime stores (McLellan’s at 224) featuring soda fountains, combined with one or two movie theaters (The Grand and the Robin Hood), and nearby entertainment venues (Arcadia Lanes at 112 Columbus), had transformed downtown into a teenage social hotspot.
By the 1970s, shopping mall complexes and “big-box” stores in nearby communities began competing with independently owned local businesses, and downtown drug stores slowly disappeared. Although some businesses remained (Fortino’s, Clothes Loft and Hostetter’s), consumer buying habits were changing.
By the end of the 20th century, the area had added more special events to draw more buyers to the downtown.
Currently, downtown Grand Haven hosts a number of special events throughout the year. Coast Guard Festival is certainly the most well-known — but even outside of the summer months, events like Art Walk, Salmon Festival, Winterfest and Frozen in Time give visitors and residents the opportunity to gather with friends and family and participate in unique experiences. And, while perusing one of many downtown specialty stores, they have a good chance of finding that one-of-a-kind item they’ve been searching for.
Jane Ladley is the director of curator services for the Tri-Cities Historical Museum.