Kalamazoo River History

Formed by glaciers migrating towards Lake Michigan, the Kalamazoo River Valley was created nearly 25,000 years ago. Up until the coming of European trappers and settlers, the river was used as a nautical highway and was the most pronounced means of travel and sustenance for the surrounding Native American Indian tribes which inhabited the region. Before any of these tribes were the mysterious mound building cultures which left their marks in the form of ancient and sometimes enormous ceremonial hillocks. Evidence of tribes like the Sioux and Miami have been discovered in the valley. However, just prior to white settlement, the Kalamazoo area was populated by Potowatomi Indians. It is from a Potowatomi word for boiling or sparkling water that the river derived its name; the original spelling was probably "Kekalamazoo." In truth, there is some confusion about what this word means, as other native language linguists recall the meaning as "boiling pot," or even "rolling otter." Whatever the meaning, the name most likely evolved from the natural occurrence of the large ox-bow bend near where downtown Kalamazoo is located today, and the shallows created by it slightly downstream.

With European trappers and settlers moving into the Great Lakes region, the construction of a few simple river trading posts localized the concept of business utilizing the waterway. The quick rise in population among settlers once the surrounding counties became established led to many communities building upon its banks. At first a means of transportation of goods, people, and supplies, the pioneers were eventually using the motion of the meandering stream for powering mills, and then the clear, cool water itself for waste removal and industrial purposes.

Once the Industrial era began in earnest and river-bordering populations rose sharply, the Kalamazoo River was used primarily for the needs of municipal waste removal and for the various needs of business. Quickly overloaded by the needs of the paper industry's 15 paper mills dotting the valley in the heyday of gross pollution, the river was stripped of its native species and most diverse wildlife. New pollution tolerant species emerged, such as the sludge worm and the rat-tailed maggot. Finally, by the late 1960s the State of Michigan and various outraged citizen groups were able to lobby for strict pollution guidelines when it came to the handling of wastes in our water. Unfortunately, a few years later local scientists declared that DDT's and massive amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls, commonly called PCBs, were found in high quantities in fish found coming from the mouth of the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck. In 1977, a fish consumption advisory was released for various species pulled from Battle Creek down to Lake Michigan itself, testament to these chemicals adverse effects on human health and wildlife.

The modern chapter of the river's history tells of the ongoing battle to remove these PCBs from eighty miles of river sediment, banks, the impoundments of four corroding dams, Lake Allegan, and all river-habituating wildlife. The river was placed on the National Priorities List in 1990 as one of the worst toxic waste dumps in the nation, and slated for cleanup through Superfund. For the past thirty years concerned citizen and environmental groups have enjoyed the visually un-spoiled waterway, and lead the fight for removal of the dams and remediation of toxic waste they contain. Besides a small cleanup on the Portage Creek at the Bryant Mill Pond site in the late 1980s, nothing has been removed. The future of the river remains unwritten.