Great Lakes resurrection: Muskegon Lake transforms from industrial dump to ‘ridiculous’ potential

Community News |Jul 19, 2022|8 min read

Great Lakes resurrection: Muskegon Lake transforms from industrial dump to ‘ridiculous’ potential

This is the first of a three-part series about the abuse and resurrection of Muskegon Lake, now poised to become a premier Great Lakes recreation spot. Read Part 2 and Part 3.

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.”

Watershed moment

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.

The mid-1970s brought a watershed moment for Muskegon Lake’s future as the result of a prolonged fight over plans by North Star Steel to build a plant on the shoreline in the city’s Lakeside district.

It cost Grennan his seat on the Muskegon City Commission, but he doesn’t regret the protests he and other environmentalists put up. That’s when they formed Save Our Shoreline, arguing the steel plant instead belonged in one of the new industrial parks. They filed a lawsuit and argued loudly against the project at public hearings.

Meanwhile, Muskegon building trades unions spearheaded a petition campaign in favor of the plant, gathering 10,000 signatures. They argued the plant would provide much-needed jobs during a time when the country was going through an economic crisis.

In the end, North Star Steel pulled its Muskegon plans and instead located in Monroe.

Thirty-seven years later, one of those union leaders wrote a letter to the editor of the Muskegon Chronicle, saying he had over the years come to appreciate the “wisdom” of Save Our Shoreline and those who worked to protect the lake.

The reason for his 2012 letter, was a proposal to use now-vacant paper mill property for industrial purposes – one that never came to fruition with the purchase of the “Windward Pointe” site by a group of community investors who are planning a mixed-use development of housing, lodging, retail and more.

“I would stack our Lake Michigan public access beaches, Muskegon Lake beaches, lakefront parks and Muskegon River access against any city of our size in the United States,” James Rudicil Sr. wrote. “Millions of dollars in governmental and private investments have made the change possible along with many local community groups.”


Painstaking cleanup

It has taken more than $80 million to turn around the lake – a painstaking process that included Muskegon County’s acquisition in 1983 of a lakefront foundry dump, known then as the “Weiner property.” It took 12 years to transform it, but the property is now the site of the Heritage Landing park and festival grounds.

In 1987, Muskegon Lake was designated a Great Lakes “area of concern, one of 43 areas – 12 of them in Michigan — determined to have been heavily degraded due to human activity. It would be nearly another 20 years before the first of multiple lake cleanup projects began, funded primarily with federal and state money.

Since then, nearly 600,000 cubic yards of contaminated lake bottom sediment and fill and 123,000 tons of logging era debris have been removed. Nearly 5 miles of shoreline has been restored with the removal of such debris as concrete and steel, and 134 acres of habitat have been restored, including open water, wetlands and uplands.

Now cruise ships dock near downtown Muskegon, diners at Lake House Waterfront Grille take in spectacular sunsets over Muskegon Lake and cyclists cruise the southern shore along the Lakeshore Trail.

Leestma has started his Adelaide Pointe project, hoping to begin work on a 270-slip marina next spring. Seventy Terrace Point Landing homes have been constructed at the old Teledyne site and more homes are sprouting nearby as part of the mixed-use Viridian Shores development.

Muskegon city officials are striving to improve public access to the lake while embracing a “blue economy” — one that uses, but not abuses, the lake.

“It’s certainly an exciting time,” Muskegon Mayor Ken Johnson said. “Throughout Muskegon’s history we had viewed the lake as something to be exploited. Due to many years and many, many millions of dollars, and considerable collaborative effort, our Muskegon Lake has been restored.”

Author: Lynn Moore, MLive