1883 : Nation’s Largest Logjam Threatens Grand Rapids

July 26, 2018 all-day

During June and July of 1863, heavy rains caused the Grand River to rise nearly twenty inches. Lumbermen took advantage of the high water to bring their logs down river where they were held by booms located above the rapids. But the logs broke loose and 150 million board feet of timber went tumbling down the river toward Lake Michigan. This event created one of the biggest jams in US logging history. Logs piled up and created a jam thirty-feet deep and seven-miles long.

Flood Waters from West Bridge St.
Flood Waters from West Bridge St., July 26, 1883

For four days and nights, brave loggers worked tirelessly under treacherous conditions. One wrong step and the worst could be anticipated. The unstable mass of logs constantly creaked and heaved under the immense pressure, at times causing single logs to suddenly break loose and shoot straight up into the air.  John Walsh, a one-armed marine engineer, led an emergency crew driving piles in the main river to channel to block the logs from proceeding haphazardly down the river to sink in Lake Michigan and also creating a new thirty-five foot channel so the logs could progress orderly to lumber mills for processing. This allowed workers to untangle and guide the timber to its downriver destination, but not before two railroad bridges above Fulton Street and Wealthy Street were completely destroyed by the pressure of the jam.

Detroit, Grand Haven & Milwaukee RR Bridge Looking West Detroit, Grand Haven & Milwaukee RR Bridge Looking West, July 26, 1883.

His employers gave Captain Walsh a gold watch for his bravery and his ability to work fast and well enough to build the dam in time. By saving the timbers, he saved the company many thousands of dollars. John Walsh was a long-term employee of the White & Friant Lumber Company.

Sources :

Grand Rapids Historical Commission Podcast #5, Logjam.

Grand Rapids Historical Commission, Grand River: Friend and Foe, February 28, 2007.

Stewart Edwar White, “The Great Log Jam”, Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Vol LII, no. 3, July 1901.

Crisis on the Grand : the log jam of 1883 / by Ronald E. Kuiper. Spring Lake, Mich. : River Road Publications, Inc., 1983.

Colleen Burcar, It Happened in Michigan (Guilford, CT : Globe Pequot Press, c2010).



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