GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — From March 24 to 30 in 1904, Grand Rapids saw its worst flood on the Grand River.

The photo below shows Bridge Street looking west. You can see the floodwaters extend well past St. James Church. Here’s a history of St. James Church, which was built in the early 1870s for $38,000.

Floodwaters covered half the West Side of Grand Rapids, reaching west all the way to John Ball Park. A total of 2,500 houses and 14,000 residents were affected.

On the east side of the river, 50 factories were flooded, putting 8,000 men temporarily out of work. Nearly 300 businesses were closed due to flooding.

Panoramic view of the West Side of Grand Rapids during the Flood of 1904

The top six floods on the Grand River have all happened in March or April. Most floods are caused by a combination of heavy rain, a rapid and substantial snowmelt and hard, frozen ground. That was the case in 1904. There were also large chunks of ice floating down the river.

February 1904 was a very cold month in West Michigan and the cold continued into March. The temperature in Grand Rapids didn’t get above freezing from March 7 through 17. On March 14, heavy snow fell across West Michigan. Grand Rapids recorded 10.5 inches, Lansing had 10 inches and Muskegon recorded 8 inches of snow. From late February through March, 24 out of 40 days had measurable precipitation.

During the last week of March, temperatures soared into the 50s. There was rapid snowmelt. The ground was still frozen, so much of that snowmelt ran into area rivers. Warm, moist air spawned tornadoes on the afternoon of the 24th. Tornadoes hit both Muskegon and Grand Rapids. In Muskegon, five homes were unroofed or torn apart on the lake front at Harrison Street. In Grand Rapids, 10 people were injured as the tornado damaged homes, a church and several barns.

Many people were evacuated by rowboat on the West Side of Grand Rapids This is Leonard Street looking west.

The water level rose rapidly to more than 2 feet above the previous record flood. The crest on the Grand River passed through Ionia County on the 27th and through Kent County on the 28th. The river level peaked at 19.6 feet.

Families moved to the second floor of some houses.

Some good news: First, there were no fatalities due to the flood. Second, while some bridges over the river were submerged and impassible during the peak of the flood, all remained structurally sound and were usable in a couple days as floodwaters receded and debris was cleaned up. Third, some residents displaced by floodwaters were welcomed into their homes by relatives, friends, fellow members of their church and even strangers. Fourth, rainfall was light just after the flood with less than half an inch of rain in Grand Rapids over a nine-day period.

Flooding in Battle Creek during the last week of March in 1904

Significant flooding occurred throughout much of southern Lower Michigan. The above picture is Battle Creek. Lansing had its worst flooding in 135 years. Flooding inundated 2 square miles in the Kalamazoo area. Significant flooding was also reported along the Thornapple, Saginaw, Huron and St. Joseph rivers, also the Huron and River Raisin rivers. Flooding was also substantial along the Wabash River in Indiana and the Mohawk River in New York.

A 2013 file image shows historic flooding along the Grand River in Grand Rapids.

The picture above shows the high water during the Grand River flood of April 2013 (10 years ago). During the 1904 flood, the river gauge reading rose to 19.6 feet. During the flood of 2013, the river gauge level rose to 21.85 feet. However, the river gauge reading may not be the best comparison. Grand Rapids has built walls to constrain the river. Walls can cause the river to rise higher to get the same volume of water past the downtown. River gauges are sometimes moved and the bottom of the river can change (though usually by a small amount). Check out the peak volume of water each year on the Grand River in downtown Grand Rapids:

Peak volume of flow on the Grand River at Grand Rapids by year.

The 1904 flood had a peak volume of 54,000 cubic feet per second. The following year, we had another major flood with a peak flow of 50,000 cfs. In third place was 1948 with a peak flow of 42,200 cfs, then 1947 with a peak flow of 38,600 cfs. The flood of April 2013 had a peak flow of 35,100 cfs. By volume, it was not the greatest flood ever in Grand Rapids — it wasn’t even close to 1904 and 1905. Yeah, we had some ice jams and they were still running logs down the river at the turn of the century, but no jam could stop a river that covered the entire West Side to John Ball Park.

In fact, the 2013 flood was about a 25-year flood, which means there are statistically five floods of that magnitude in about 125 years.

One more thing. Note that our worst floods have come in pairs: 1904-05 and 1947-48. We could have easily had a significant flood in 2014 after the flood of 2013. We had heavy snow on the ground in early March. During the first six days of March 2014, the temperature didn’t get warmer than 26 degrees. However, we didn’t see any really warm air (the high temperature through March 30 was just 51 degrees and we had well below average rainfall (1.54 inches for the month). So the snow melted off without any significant flooding. You can have the same worldwide weather patterns for two years or more. A three-year La Nina is in the process of ending now.

The Junior League raised money to put a historical plaque in downtown Grand Rapids along the banks of the Grand River. It’s on the west side of the river in Ah-Nab-Awen Park by the Ford Presidential Museum. You can see more pictures of the flood at the Grand Rapids Public Library and the Grand Rapids Public Museum.

A plaque describing the flood of 1904 at Ah-Nab-Awen Park by the Ford Presidential Museum in downtown Grand Rapids.

The Kalamazoo Gazette’s coverage of the flood can be found on the CMU Libraries’ website:

“Floating animals were featured during the worst flood in Kalamazoo’s history. “While a crowd of people were watching the river at Augusta yesterday afternoon, a number of sheep were noticed floating down the stream. Later in the day a flock of chickens, which had evidently failed to find a dry spot, floated down the stream. Logs, railroad ties and portions of fences and bridges were also included in the collection of articles whirled along by the rushing water.

“Damage of the flood in dollars was estimated at $50,000 in Kalamazoo, and a dollar had a lot more purchasing power then than it does now. You could buy ladies’ hose for 12 cents or a men’s suit at Kalamazoo Cash and Credit for $15. Flooding was heaviest on the east and southeast parts of town. “Almost the entire area between Gull St. and the paper mills, and Pitcher St. and Lincoln Ave., is submerged, the depth varying according to the proximity to the river,” the Gazette reported. “At the Mill St. bridge the water has nearly reached the passage way and fear is expressed that the bridge, which is an old wooden affair, will be unable to withstand the force of the river, which at this point is running very swiftly.” The water was two to three feet deep on E. Vine St. A flood in the boiler room forced the Van Bochove Lumber Co. to close. Across the street, the Van Bochove and Bros. green house was surrounded by water and its floors covered by a depth of 14 inches. Many wooden sidewalks were set afloat by the flood. Several factories, including Kalamazoo Stove, Riverside Foundry, and Kalamazoo Tank and Silo, were closed by the flood. Delayed trains were among the inconveniences suffered, but some people profited by the catastrophe. Severed “thrifty foreigners,” as the Gazette called them, “stationed themselves yesterday afternoon at the (Gull St.) bridge, and with poles and hooks, have secured any quantity of boxes, driftwood, and lumber, which will constitute their firewood.” A family on First St. was among the unfortunate. They were floating goods from their house, but their “boat accidentally overturned, everything in the boat going down the river.” On March 27, Mayor Folz began a fundraising drive for the flood’s 2500 victims, and $78 was collected the first day.”

Kalamazoo Gazette, March 26, 1904