MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Every culture has lost valuable pieces of its history to time. That includes the people of West Michigan.
Grand Rapids is known for the burial mounds that have provided so much knowledge about the Hopewell Indians who called this area home 2,000 years ago. The ones that are left standing are just a small fraction of the mounds that were built across the state. The same can be said for some of the geographic formations that help shape the places we love. Grand Rapids hasn’t seen its rapids in more than a century. In Muskegon, the backdrop of the lakeshore used to be much different. It was home to a giant dune called Pigeon Hill.
The slowly shifting dune was a mainstay in Muskegon, nestled in the Beachwood and Bluffton neighborhoods. Though it has been gone for decades now, it still lives on as part of the community. Several businesses, including the Pigeon Hill Brewing Company and The Pidge Inn, use the name. The sprawling development of condominiums that stand where the dune once sat includes a street called Pigeon Hill Court.
There are countless photos and postcards of Pigeon Hill from the city’s early days, serving as a calling card. Sailors used it as a landmark to identify the Muskegon Channel. The large mound, gripping tufts of grass and greenery and littered with evergreen trees, held its own special lore. The locals always estimated that the dune was at least 300 feet tall and covered more than 40 acres. A local trigonometry class rubbed away a little of the magic in 1907 when students measured it at 217 feet.
Pigeon Hill was named for the passenger pigeons that routinely used the dune as a pit stop on their journeys. Historians say in the late 1800s, it was common to see hundreds of passenger pigeons flying overhead and taking a rest on the hill. Unfortunately, habitat loss and overhunting pushed the passenger pigeon into extinction in the early 20th century. Little did the people of Muskegon know, but Pigeon Hill was also on its last legs.
A LAND WAR
Records show that the Pigeon Hill property was bought in the 1920s by Nugent Sand Company and mined for a profit. But Pat Horn, the program manager at the Muskegon Museum of History & Science, says the dune’s fate was actually sealed decades earlier in 1879.
“There was a company called Muskegon Lake Railway Company who got rights to actually start mining out some sand and to build (train) tracks at the base of the hill,” Horn told News 8. “It was those tracks that gave Nugent access and allowed them to mine out the rest of the dune.”
A 1925 article in the Grand Rapids Press reported that the Nugent Sand Company, partnered with Robert Ferguson, had purchased the rights to the property and had developed plans to “level the dune for residential platting and commercial use of the sand.”
When those plans became public knowledge, there was immediate pushback. Several neighbors, including former mayor James Smith, worked to organize and fight against it. Eventually, they drew the support of the local chamber of commerce and the parks committee, offering to buy the property and preserve it as a park.
Those hopes, however, were quickly dashed. Within weeks of the announcement, Ferguson and Nugent had already sunk another $40,000 worth of investments into the project, and the property value skyrocketed from an estimated $20,000 to $250,000.
Organizers filed a lawsuit as a last-ditch effort to try and stop the project.
“The tracks had been used on and off over the years since the 1880s, but at this time in the 1920s, they are covered up with sand. So the residents at the base of the hill are going to court, saying that is abandoned property,” Horn said.
It advanced through the court system, eventually reaching the Michigan Supreme Court, which ruled that the lawsuit had no grounds to prevent the property from being mined.
Horn said the mining operation started off slow but picked up quickly in the 1930s. Within 10 years, Pigeon Hill was starting to fade away.
“By the 1940s, people were noticing the hill starting to slim down a bit, even 10, 20 feet. They were mining heavily on one side and that kind caused it to collapse down,” Horn explained. “From what I’ve read, by the 1950s, it was almost like a speed bump size in a lot of ways. It was pretty small by then.”
The mining operation eventually shut down in the 1960s. In 1974, Nugent Sand was ordered to remove its conveyor system from the property. Shortly after, the city seized the property over unpaid taxes.
Though there is still plenty of sand, the dune is long gone. But the stories still live on. Self-professed history nut Michael Brower is doing his part. The co-founder and chief brand officer for Pigeon Hill Brewing Company grew up in Muskegon’s Bluffton neighborhood. He knows how much the dune meant to this community.
“I basically grew up missing the sand dune that I never even got to see. You were taught how important it was. It actually got me interested in environmental issues at a young age,” Brower told News 8.
Brower returned to Muskegon after going to school in Chicago and immediately dreamed up plans of opening a brewery. Its name, which draws on a special part of Muskegon history, was there from day 1.
“I had a chance encounter with one of my business partners … and I asked him if he had ever thought about opening a brewery. He said yes and invited me to meet with his other business partner,” he said. “So I went. I was somewhat apprehensive. I hadn’t met these guys before. And the first time I met them, they said they were thinking about naming the brewery after Pigeon Hill. And I went home that night and told my wife Alana, I said, ‘I think I’m in.’”
Through the brewery, the name Pigeon Hill lives on — not just in hats and T-shirts or even the giant logo that hangs on the wall placed over a blown-up photograph of the dune itself. It lives on in the brewery’s mission to help the community continue to grow and celebrate the things that define Muskegon.
“We have tried to turn this whole place into an homage to Muskegon history, with Pigeon Hill as that overarching backdrop,” Brower said. “I think the locals appreciate that. It allows us to find pride in where we come from. A lot of people didn’t think highly of Muskegon for a long time. And that has changed a lot in the last decade. It allows us to look at our roots and feel pride.”