Rapidian cities – a ‘grand’ revival

Cedar Rapids - Source: cedarrapids.org

Cedar Rapids – Source: cedarrapids.org

During the European settlement of North America, cities were often founded and located along important water features in order to facilitate travel. These included bays, harbors, sounds, straits, channels, and navigable rivers.

As the population moved inland, other kinds of water features, both natural and manmade, became common sites for cities to be established. These included waterfalls, rapids, portages, fords, and canals. A quick glance at some prominent city names from across the United States and Canada permanently enshrines some of these inland water features:

  • Niagara Falls, New York and Ontario
  • Hartford, Connecticut
  • Grand Rapids, Michigan
  • Rockford, Illinois
  • Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin
  • Great Falls, Montana
  • Cedar Rapids, Iowa
  • Canal Fulton, Ohio
  • Rapid City, South Dakota
  • Portage, Michigan and Indiana
  • Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Ontario

Waterfalls and rapids were beneficial for electric power production, but they also meant goods had to be unloaded and then reloaded on either side of the falls or rapids. Portages and fords required a transfer of goods from water to ground transport or vice versa. As a result, a number of trading posts and then later communities formed at these locations. This post will be concentrating on cities which developed along and near rapids.

Rapids present a navigation challenge to all but the lightest and nimblest watercraft. Unforeseen underwater rocks, stone outcroppings, eddies, and currents can quickly destroy a vessel or steer it off course and into danger.  As a result, trading posts and communities became established along or near rapids to facilitate the movement of goods along the waterway in a safe and efficient manner. In some cases, such as Grand Rapids, Michigan, canals were eventually dug to provide a bypass of the rapids. In the case of Grand Rapids, canals were built on both shorelines. These were primarily used for power production, as was the Power Company Canal in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Separate transportation canals were built there for travel between lake Superior and Lake Huron.

As other modes of transportation such as railroads and roads grew in importance, the commercial advantages of cities set aside rapids dipped. Meanwhile as the industrial revolution started, the cheep and plentiful power potential derived from the rapids increased and helped shape the industrial dynamics and layout of a number of North American cities. Factories and other businesses who needed water and/or electricity were constructed alongside their liquid resource.

Here is a quick list of cities across North America where rapids played a critical role in the growth and development of the community.

  • Montreal, Quebec
  • Ottawa-Gatineau, Ontario and Quebec
  • Louisville, Kentucky
  • Grand Rapids, Michigan
  • Cedar Rapids, Iowa
  • Quad Cities, Illinois and Iowa
  • Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Ontario
  • Rapid City, South Dakota
  • Coon Rapids, Minnesota
  • Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin
  • Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina
  • Big Rapids, Michigan
  • Eaton Rapids, Michigan
  • Sauk Rapids, Minnesota
  • Dell Rapids, South Dakota
  • Elk Rapids, Michigan

Unfortunately, in a number of cases, the natural rapids were seen as an impediment to progress and were either removed or dams were constructed to raise water levels well above the dangerous rocks. More recently, despite its clean reputation, hydroelectric power became a less utilized option due to the estimated cost of retrofitting dated power facilities at these locations.

In the past few decades, as cities are re-adopting their waterfronts, namesake rapids are being seen as a significant natural amenity and potential attraction for econ-centric tourism, recreational activities, economic development, and urban revitalization. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, there is a $27.5 million plan to removed dams and restore the city’s namesake rapids to much of their original grandness. Here is a weblink to the complete 2009 alternatives analysis.


Grand River through Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids has already successfully invested in riverfront walkways/bikeways, art, historic bridge restoration, and the adaptive reuse of impressive historic factories and warehouses fronting the Grand River. Restoring the rapids to their original condition is simply another dynamic step in the 21st century placemaking process.  A similar, though smaller restoration plan is underway for a segment of the Grand River in Eaton Rapids, Michigan located south of Lansing.

Grand River rendering - Source: mlive.org

Grand River rapids rendering –
Source: mlive.com

From a historical perspective, rapidian cities like other waterfront communities have essentially come full circle. Once abandoned and forlorn, the historic waterfront where many cities were first established and thrived, is now seen as vital tool in the economic and environmental resurgence of the community. To this planner, the excitement and impetus created is a “grand” thing to observe, no matter the name of your community’s own water feature.

This entry was posted in Active transportation, adaptive reuse, architecture, art, bicycling, Canada, cities, civics, commerce, Communications, culture, economic development, entertainment, environment, fitness, fun, geography, health, historic preservation, history, infrastructure, land use, landscape architecture, nature, new urbanism, North America, placemaking, planning, revitalization, spatial design, sports, sustainability, third places, tourism, trails, transportation, Travel, urban planning, walking and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Rapidian cities – a ‘grand’ revival

  1. basil berchekas jr says:

    Other cities “by the rapids” would include the Carolina and other Piedmont cities like Charlotte, Columbia, Richmond, Augusta, Columbus (Georgia), Montgomery, Little Rock, Austin, and others. I believe these cities were located along waterways (many no longer navigable due to deeper draughts required for modern barges, or their rapids were put underwater by reservoirs) with rapids or maybe shoals just rough enough to disrupt river traffic. Muscle Shoals, Alabama was “in business” to afford on and off loading of riverboat-borne goods and even passengers. Alabama’s first railroad, the Tuscumbia and Decatur RR (acquired by the Southern Rwy through the Memphis and Charleston RR) was built to bypass these shoals at Muscle Shoals. Even a district of Indianapolis (an historic area that’s also an entertainment venue there) known as “Broad Ripple” was established at river crossing location where the White River had a shoals where the water “rippled” over the shoals and since the shoals were “bank-to-bank” the rippling was a “broad” event! I’ll shut up now!


  2. Informative article, but I must differ with the inclusion of Rapid City, South Dakota. The name is just because it’s on Rapid Creek, which is rapid because it’s spring-fed and comes down from the Black Hills. The location was (per the Wikipedia article) selected by disappointed miners as a sort of base town for the Black Hills. I’ve BTDT. Rapid Creek does present a real flood hazard occasionally.


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