Great Lakes resurrection: Muskegon Lake transforms from industrial dump to ‘ridiculous’ potential
MUSKEGON, MI — Cindy Larsen was in her office at Muskegon’s chamber of commerce when she heard screaming coming from the reception area.
Alarmed, she went to investigate. Turns out they were “screams of glee” from a long-ago resident who had returned for a visit and was overwhelmed by the beauty of Muskegon Lake, Larsen told MLive/The Muskegon Chronicle.
A lake crowded with industry, belching black smoke and stink into the air was gone. In its place was a serene expanse of blue dotted with sailboats.
What a difference a few decades and $80 million can make — not to mention the persistent dedication of those who weren’t going to give up on nature.
Muskegon Lake’s comeback story recently was celebrated by local, state and federal officials who declared it virtually clean of its ugly industrial past. It’s a story of “hope” for other communities that have been scarred by pollution and abuse of their lakes, said Kathy Evans, who championed the lake for years in her role with the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission.
“It demonstrates that cleaning up the Great Lakes is possible,” Evans said.
The 4,149-acre lake that is fed by the Muskegon River and its sprawling 52-square-mile watershed flows into Lake Michigan, making it one of the best deep-water ports on Lake Michigan’s east coast and therefore ripe for industry starting in the 1800s.
It has been the center of a push-pull between corporate industry, blue collar jobs and environmentalists, though the latter didn’t gain a foothold until the 1970s. Today, it has a new lease on life – and with hundreds of acres of empty shoreline, a potential to become a tourist mecca.
“There’s just a ridiculous amount of potential here,” said developer Ryan Leestma, who is planning the $250 million Adelaide Pointe mixed-use development at one of the most heavily used former industrial sites.
A toxic stew
The first sawmill was erected on the Muskegon Lake shoreline in 1837, and 50 years later there were 47, according to a history of the city by Daniel J. Yakes.
The lumber mills dumped sawdust and lumber debris into the lake so they could develop docks, starting the infill practice that eliminated beaches and wetlands and eventually reduced the lake’s size by 16%. The mills flourished, rebuilding much of Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871, until the forests were depleted.
Muskegon needed a new economic base, and once again turned to its natural resources – this time sand that was needed for foundries’ iron molds. Soon foundries and manufacturers set up shop on the shoreline, including one of the largest, Teledyne Continental Motors, which was among Muskegon’s industries that made the city one of the country’s World War II “arsenals of democracy.”
“Muskegon was a real heavy industrial town — a lot of major industries all over the place,” said lifelong resident Ray Grennan, an environmentalist and city and county commissioner in the 1970s and 1980s.
The ugly practice of dumping waste into the lake continued, and in went slag and foundry sand, industrial debris and trash. The towering Pigeon Hill sand dune on the lake’s west end was slowly eliminated, its sand sent into the foundries.
“No one enforced anything. That’s where the excessive filling in public waters happened,” Grennan told MLive. “They were concentrating on the war effort and not worrying about what they were doing to the environment.”
The practice continued long after the war ended. In 1968, the state Department of Conservation enacted a “bulkhead line” – an imaginary line in the lake to which companies could dump as much fill as they wanted and then claim the resulting “land” as theirs. In essence, they were turning public waters into private land.
With the bulkhead line, the attitude became “we fill it, in we own it,” Grennan said.
The result was a toxic stew of chemicals and sludge and an artificial shoreline built of fill that eliminated wetlands.
“It was very difficult to even get to the shoreline of the lake on the south side because of all the industry,” Evans said. “Really, it didn’t appeal to us that much… You’d come around the causeway and you’d see smoke and haziness and it smelled funny.”
As much as it stole life, industry gave it too. Muskegon was a blue-collar town, and the foundries put food on the table in many homes.
“When the foundries were going and the smokestacks were billowing smoke, people ….would say ‘that’s the smell of money,’” said Al Steinman, director of Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute that is located on Muskegon Lake.
The industrialists would say it too, Grennan said.
“I’ve heard that all my life: ‘We’re doing this because we’re … feeding your family.’ And there’s an element of truth to that,” Grennan said. “People can ignore bad things that happened. It was because they don’t want to offend somebody. In those days, they could lose their jobs.”
In 1970, startling images of trucks driving across mountains of junk to dump even more garbage into the lake were published in “Western Michigan News,” the publication of Muskegon County Labor. Though they depended on the foundries for a paycheck, the workers were getting disgusted.