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Fast Horses and High Waters:

the Kalamazoo River Flats

by Mary Butler

 

On the west side of Battle Creek, between the hills of Advent Town and the rise to Goguac Prairie, lie the swampy “flats” along the Kalamazoo River. For almost fifty years after the other areas of town had been settled, these river bottom lands were empty except for a series of intersecting railroad tracks.

 

The story of the flats actually begins on the neighboring southern hill. Pioneer John Meachem owned the land between South Jefferson (Capital Avenue SW), Goguac, Meachem and Fountain streets. Born in Philadelphia, ‘Squire Meachem’ came to Battle Creek in the 1830s and was prominent in local politics. By 1856 he had platted Meachem’s Addition and opened up lots for sale. The area soon became a desirable middle class residential area as bankers, builders, industrialists, teachers, businessmen and inventors built comfortable homes on the hillside. They were proud of Fountain Street, “one of the handsomest streets in Battle Creek in a beautiful location and commanding a fine view of the city.”

 

In 1873 Meachem set aside 2 ½ hillside acres as public parkland. Later known as Prospect Park, this was only the second park established in the city; McCamly Park being the first. The park on Meachem’s hill commanded a spectacular view of the city and the terraced gardens were a favorite picnic ground for families and clubs. For many winters local youngsters thrilled as they flew down the steep snowy sides of Meachem’s hill on their sleds.

 

For recreation, many Battle Creek residents thronged to the horse track to cheer their favorite trotters. The town’s first race track was built in 1859 at Manchester and Hubbard streets. As that area became more developed the race track was crowded out. In 1878 a group of sportsmen and businessmen formed the Battle Creek Driving Park and Field Sports Association and bought 16 empty acres in the flats. The new park they built for “driving and training horses, baseball and other field sports and maintaining an ornamental park and grounds” was opened on June 4, 1879. The German Cornet Band “enlivened the proceedings with very fine music” as 38 trotters raced. With the new park nestled in the river bottom land, residents noted that the “city seems to encircle the beholder and present a most charming view” for the sports fans.

 

The Driving Park hosted meets of the Michigan Circuit and the Michigan Trotting Association as well as baseball games, track meets and bicycle races. But by the middle of the 1880s more houses were being built in the flats. In 1890 sportsmen were forced, yet again, to move their track to a new park built by Walter Clark on the Eldred farm on Goguac Prairie.

 

The residential growth in the flats during the 1880s was triggered by nearby industrial development. In 1883 the Case and Willard threshing machine company built a factory on a 50-acre site between the railroad tracks near South Kendall Street. By the time the company name was changed to Advance Thresher three years later, new streets had been laid out and workingmen’s housing was under construction around the factory.

In contrast to the middle class residential area of Meachem’s addition on the hill, the flats neighborhood was home to carpenters, molders, railroad workers, blacksmiths and boilermakers. The tracks of the Michigan Central, Chicago Grand Trunk and the Mackinaw railroads still ran down the middle of the flats, winding their way to their respective depots on North and South Jefferson streets.

 

The children of both the flats and Meachem’s hill went to Jefferson School (No. 4) built in 1886 at East Fountain and South Jefferson streets. By 1888 the brick school doubled in size as four new classrooms were added. After it burned in 1893 the school was rebuilt the next year. A modern two-story building replaced the old school in 1926-27.

 

On the west end of the neighborhood, Prospect School (No. 8) was built at Kendall and Grove streets in 1890-91. Four years later the school had grown to eight rooms. The third building for the school, now known as Wilson, was built in 1937.

 

Another, more non-traditional, school was opened in the flats in 1916. As a result of the dream of Dr. Arthur Kimball, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and other local health professionals, the city’s first open air school classroom was opened in 1914-15 in a small house at Champion and West streets. This experiment was successful and more space was necessary. The school board then purchased the residence of E. M. Brigham, the curator of the High School Museum (later Kingman Museum), opposite Prospect Park on Rittenhouse Street.

 

The open air school established in this “sunny house in the park” housed “six grades, two to a teacher, so that each [teacher] has 25 children in the two rooms connected with a wide archway.” Other classrooms scattered throughout the city brought the total number of ‘fresh air kids’ in the city to 139 in the first through sixth grades.

 

File written by Adobe Photoshop® 5.0In these experimental classrooms sick and convalescent children were outfitted with heavy felt boots and Hudson Bay blanket hooded uniforms. No matter what the outdoor temperature, windows were kept open to admit the fresh, health-restoring air. Their daily regimen included two naps, exercise, hot lunches at noon as well as regular academic studies. Open air schools continued until 1933 when new drugs were developed to treat respiratory diseases and the remodeled Ann J. Kellogg School provided facilities for students with special needs.

 

In some years the most important feature of the flats neighborhood was that it was flat – and near the Kalamazoo River. When the spring rains fell in torrents and the soggy ground could no longer absorb the deluge, the swollen river spilled over its banks and flooded the flats. The first floods of 1854 and 1855 caused little damage to the unsettled swamp land. But by the end of the century the rising waters found more victims.

 

Major floods devastated the flats in 1904, 1908, 1912 and again in 1916. The 1904 disaster was the worst, causing over $250,000 in damage to more than 800 homes. The water was high for three days, leaving behind 18 inches of mud and sludge on Hamblin Avenue. Police and fire officials patrolled the area in boats, evacuating families to higher ground. Three intrepid postmen even took to rowboats to deliver the mail to stranded householders.

 

The residents of the flats were given a few years of grace, with only one major flood in the next thirty years. But on April 10, 1947, the last great flood inundated the area. More than 7,500 people were evacuated and over 1,000 homes were flooded up to their doorknobs. In the streets the water reached the edge of the street signs as white caps were sighted on Liberty Street.

 

Consumers Power, Duplex, Ralston, Union Pump, Michigan Carton and all the railroads in town were shut down for the duration. Amazingly, no deaths were recorded, but the resources of the relief agencies were pushed to their limits. Evacuees slept in the Seventh-day Adventist Tabernacle, First Congregational Church, First Presbyterian Church and in the VFW Hall on cots donated by the Percy Jones Hospital.

 

As early as 1927 a flood control plan was developed by outside consultants. After a flood in 1937, City Engineer Mark Chambers worked out another proposal. But it took the magnitude of the 1947 disaster to add urgency to the flood control efforts. An early warning system was installed in 1948, including observation posts and weather stations upstream at Pennfield, Charlotte and Bellevue, monitored at the No. 3 firehouse on Cliff Street.

 

The omnibus flood control, rivers and harbors act which passed Congress in 1954 finally made seven years of planning a reality. The diversion of the Kalamazoo River channel and the deepening of the Battle Creek River was financed by a $4 million dollar federal appropriation. Local funding of another $3 million was used for land acquisition plus new bridges and storm sewers.

 

To enhance the river diversion proposal, the city developed the Jewell Street Redevelopment Project, an omnibus slum clearance, highway improvement and railroad relocation plan. As part of this ambitious concept to reshape the flats, South Washington Street was rerouted, while parts or all of Ravine, Liberty, Jewell, Court and Kirby streets were vacated. Dickman Road was cut through the heart of the flats and many of the railroad grade crossings were eliminated.

 

On September 30, 1961, fourteen years after the last great flood, the water flowed through the newly-cut channel of the Kalamazoo River – and the flats were changed forever.

 

Today the swampy bottom lands of the flats have disappeared, replaced by car dealerships and discount stores; Prospect Park is no longer crowned by a lovely fountain; the great factories which supported the workers who lived in the neighborhood are closed. But we can still see, in our mind’s eye, the family picnics in the park, the young students bundled up in fresh air classrooms, residents watching in despair as flood waters crept even higher, the noisy crowds cheering their favorite trotters on race day – all part of our city’s rich heritage in the flats.

 

[This article is adapted from the original version which appeared in SCENE Magazine, February 1993.]