Gettin' Gypped

February 2016. 

The Michigan County Atlas by David M. Brown states that the Grand River Valley supported fur trading activities long before white settlers arrived and built the first log cabin in Kent County, in 1820. The first post office opened in 1835, and the town that would become Grand Rapids was known as "Kent" until 1844. The rapids on the Grand River that give the city its name were once a mile long and 1,000 feet wide, but were subsequently tamed for industrial uses that included powering mills. After the Civil War agriculture, sawmills, hydroelectric power, and manufacturing made Grand Rapids into the second-largest Michigan city, and one of the most prominent in the nation as well. It was heralded worldwide as "The Furniture City" due to the number of mills based here producing fine furniture of every type, as well as the popular Boomstick. But it was mining and refining gypsum that marked the city's first major industry, as I will soon explain.

Kent County had always presented a real challenge to me for finding worthwhile abandoned stuff to explore. Grand Rapids decided to get rid of all their abandoned buildings in the 1990s I guess, and based on my several trips there in recent years the few that are left are unbelievably well-secured. The abandoned Hotel Rowe was a huge blip on my radar screen for many years but I never could manage to get in, and now it is about to be reopened. I took this photo of it in 2009:

Many other industrial sites looked promising to explore but when I came to investigate they proved inapproachable. Some might attribute the "de-ghetto-ification" of Grand Rapids to its being Michigan's bastion of conservative politics and economic policy, but in any case it sure is a spic-&-span city. Readers would do well to also note however that Grand Rapids enjoys such a beautiful image today due in large part to the fact that historic preservation won a major battle here back in 1971 when the residents of Heritage Hill fought back against efforts to wipe out the old Victorian neighborhood.

I had also always wanted to see if there was still a way into the old gypsum mines under the city, but that has proven just as difficult unless you take the tour of the active parts.

The entire geographical area along Butterworth on the southwest side of Grand Rapids looked interesting to me; it was where the ancient "Norton Mounds" burial site was located, and it was also where most of the gypsum mining had historically taken place in the city. Technically much of it was in Walker Township, but close enough. I found out about an abandoned decrepit railroad viaduct lost in the woods in this area where an old mill of some kind had lately been destroyed, which was being redeveloped as Millennium Park.

On my drive along the Grand River to the area I planned to explore, I spotted what looked to be–gasp–an abandoned building?! In Grand Rapids?! Even though it looked pretty boring it seemed like a slam-dunk, so I went for it. The presence of crappy suburban-kid graffiti assured me that I had finally found the one building left in Grand Rapids that was abandoned and accessible.

According to the c.1912 Sanborn map of the city, this was actually the "dryer house" and silos of the Grand Rapids Plaster Co. Mill #1, originally...there used to be a lot more buildings standing here, but this is all that's left. I had no idea at the time that this place was connected to the gypsum industry or could have been that old.

Infuriatingly, when I finally got up close to check it out I saw that it was actually very well-secured and there was no way for me to get in without some sort of medieval siege engine.


Heading back to my truck, I got back on the road to cruise in search of an opportune place to park to begin my hike to find the abandoned railroad viaduct.

Again, one of the things that attracted me to want to explore this particular area was the fact that a large old mill had recently been torn down here, which if you play around with Bing Maps you can still see imagery that shows it standing, or partially demolished, depending on the angle you rotate to view:

From Bing Maps
The Sanborn map says that this was the Certain-Teed Products Corporation Plant #25, "manufacturers of plaster and plaster partition blocks." The company office and lab stood at 2228 Butterworth (small square building seen at far left in above image).

As it turns out, the Fred Meijer Millennium Trail passes through along north edge of the vast wasteland I was looking to explore, and there were people jogging and biking along next to this interesting looking un-fenced brownfield that was to become Millennium Park. (Of course if you are a Michigander you should recognize Fred Meijer's name as the founder of the Grand Rapids-based Meijer's grocery store chain). I was also surprised to see that most of them had already done exactly what I was thinking about doing–park conspicuously on the side of the road and help myself.

Alongside of the road I passed by some big unearthed steel tanks, and stopped to see what was up. The sign in front of them said "U.S. Gypsum" on it, and I got excited that I might be on the right path to find some interesting mining-related stuff.

I saw a trail that led down into a wetland, and upon following it briefly discovered that a ramshackle old petroleum well was sitting here:

Well, that was unexpected. It had a bit of a ghetto lean to it...

Again, the same type of crude sign as was posted by the tanks, with what looked like locational coordinates:

From what I can make of it Goodale Enterprises, LLC operates this well, who have 189 total leases in three Michigan counties, 128 of which are currently producing. Lease #6939 is not a producer, as you can see, but according to the company has been around since at least 1985 and yielded 6,311 barrels of oil in June 2016.

I suppose then that the only reason the words "U.S. Gypsum" might appear on the sign is to denote where the well is located, i.e., Goodale's second well on U.S. Gypsum property.

Forgive me but I guess this was novel to this Yankee; you don't get much chance to see a petroleum well in Michigan, especially up close. Where's my diamond-studded ten-gallon cowboy hat?

Inside, the counterweight and the engine are visible, and it would seem that someone wrapped the entire thing in barbed-wire...for some reason. I don't think it's much of a trespassing deterrent, so maybe they just thought it looked cool.

Odd that it would be sited right in the middle of a marsh?

It looks like the engine also powered a small electric motor, via a drive belt:

This one was apparently manufactured by the Parkersburg Rig & Reel Company, of West Virginia:

They were once one of the largest oilfield equipment suppliers in the country, but have not manufactured units like this since at least 1966, according to a history on the website of the company that apparently bought them up.

I'm not quite sure what that electrical motor might be for, other than to power a light inside this shack, or maybe a signal line hooked to a remote alarm in case the well stopped pumping or started gushing?

Looks like a good duck-hunting blind to me.

I went back to my truck and got on the road to continue my search for the anything of interest. On the north side of Butterworth Road, there were plenty of disturbed-ground areas that had obviously once been used for gypsum mining, so after securing a usable parking spot I jumped into the fray and began my trek of the post-industrial barrens that was to become Millennium Park.

I cut directly south from Butterworth all the way down to the Grand River, and began following a paved bike trail. I couldn't help but notice that the path looks like it was paved on a former railroad grade, which was almost undoubtedly the case:

The aforementioned c.1912 Sanborn map of Grand Rapids that I looked at showed this area along the river to once have been littered with no less than three old plaster mills, which would have processed the gypsum mined nearby into materials that could be used in finished products. The Grand Rapids Plaster Co. Mill #1 that I showed in the beginning of this post was the northeasternmost of the group, followed by the Grand Rapids Plaster Co. Mill #2, the U.S. Gypsum Co. Plaster Mill, and the American Cement Plaster Co. All of them have apparently been demolished, although that is not to rule out that there could be some ruins or rubble still out in the woods somewhere.

As mentioned earlier, I was not only in this end of town to peruse gypsum-related ruins, I also had an interest in seeing the ancient burial mounds nearby, although they were mostly on the opposite side of the river from me. Nonetheless, I kept my eyes peeled for any unusual shapes in the woods. Some of Michigan's most important aboriginal burial sites are located here, constructed between 200 BC and 400 AD. Ancient burial mounds once existed along most main rivers of western Michigan, but they were desecrated by souvenir hunters and destroyed by development over the decades. The "Norton Mound Group" in Grand Rapids still remains however, and is one of the best preserved and most significant Hopewellian burial centers in the country.

A document at says that there were 30-some mounds originally, but due to the expansion of the city only 13 remain basically intact today. An article at says that the other main group, the "Converse Mounds," stood where downtown Grand Rapids is today and were flattened by farmers in the 1850s. I explored some other ancient aboriginal earthworks in another post.

An article on the Michigan State University Geology Department's website gives an in-depth breakdown of the history of gypsum mining. The Assyrians called it "alabaster," and the ancient Egyptians used it in the walls of palaces and pyramid tombs. The Greek word for it was "gypsos." The mineral was first discovered here in 1827 by an Ottawa tribesman, at the mouth of the aptly-named Plaster Creek, where it empties into the Grand River. It wasn't really exploited however until State Geologist Douglass Houghton came to Grand Rapids to select a site for a salt well in 1838, when he too noticed the abundance of gypsum.

Since it was valuable both as an agricultural fertilizer and as a material for making plaster, gypsum production took off commercially in Grand Rapids by 1841 when Daniel Ball and Warren Granger built a mill on the Plaster Creek (at Grandville Road).

The first gypsum quarry here on the west side of the Grand River was that of Richard Butterworth (hence Butterworth Road), and two other quarries extending into the hillsides near the river came soon after. The deposits here were not on the surface but 60 feet below layers of clay, limestone, and hard shale. In 1860 all of these holdings were consolidated into the Grand Rapids Plaster Company, while 13 other separate mine operators bored their way under the town. The old mined-out tunnels were turned into mushroom farms, using manure from the horses that pulled the mine carts.

The railroad reached Grand Rapids in 1865, and opened its gypsum market as far as California. By 1890 Michigan was among the nation's top producers of gypsum, and has remained so up to the present day. In 1893 William Powers began the first shaft mining of gypsum on the west bank of the Grand River, whereas other producers typically tunneled horizontally for the mineral. Gypsum mining was big in only one other part of Michigan, Port Alabaster, which I explored in an older post.

After traveling for quite some time without seeing anything manmade in the woods, I started to feel like I was on the wrong track.

Then, along the righthand side of this trail I began to notice some objects out in the woods...

Rubble from what definitely seemed to be a demolished building.

Most notably, I identified many chunks of white terra-cotta that had once made up the decorative architectural elements of some early 20th century building:

Whether such a building actually stood on this spot originally was not necessarily clear; it almost seemed to me as if this rubble may have been dumped here as generic landfill following a demolition elsewhere, perhaps downtown. I'm not nearly enough of a scholar of Grand Rapids history to identify what building these pieces may have belonged to, or to know what might have been demolished during a certain period to have ended up here as fill; perhaps Marty Hogan or one of my other readers could field a guess?

Here is a piece of tile flooring:

In the next shot, a sill, lintel, or cornice?

Many of these terra-cotta chunks were very substantial, and heavily damaged, but there were some nice manageable pieces too that someone could possibly lug out of here and clean up for display. I thought for a minute about adding some to my collection, but decided that I should resist the temptation.

And suddenly here was another petroleum well...

...the sign says "Certain-Teed #14, Permit #7437," which confirms to me what plaster mill used to be here. I wonder if the terra cotta rubble belonged to the aforementioned office / laboratory of the Certain-Teed plant?

I continued searching for the old railroad bridge.

By the 1920s most of the gypsum mines had been consolidated into large holdings, and the processes were modernized, which meant no more horses or mushroom farms. In 1946 Bert Kragt saw a potential in the constant temperature and humidity levels of the old abandoned gypsum mines as a place of storage. He started the Michigan Natural Storage Company in the vast vacant tunnels under downtown Grand Rapids to store bulk perishable foods. Later the facility was also used to store microfilm, paper records, and computer files, a use which is still continued today.

Downtown was a ways away from here, as you can see in this next shot:

I have read that the mines became obsolete when an alternative source of gypsum was discovered from air-pollution controlling technology installed on coal-burning facilities, and that a section of U.S.-131 had to be rerouted in the 1990s due to ground sinkage caused by the weakening of the hollow cavities of the mines in the area. This "subsidence" is usually a problem in the iron mining ranges of the Upper Peninsula.

The fact that it was already getting dark and I had not yet found the abandoned railroad viaduct that I was after began to get worrisome. I doubled back and dove into the brush to try again in the area I though it would be, and pretty soon found a path that led right to it:

Wow, this thing's really a mess, eh?

Underneath didn't look too bad.

Sanborn maps of Grand Rapids from 1888 indicate that this was most likely built by the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern RR, since that was the railroad that accessed this property, although this particular bridge was probably not built until much later.

Nearby was some quarried sandstone that surely once formed the piers of this bridge, and which actually looked like the same stone I was used to seeing on other former Lake Shore & Michigan Southern viaducts:

I have explored pieces of the old Lake Shore & Michigan Southern RR in several other posts:

Yo, Adrian
Son of the Evening Star, Osseo!
Riding the Rails

I climbed around to the other side, narrowly avoiding being sucked into the swamps of sadness. Here I was, on the opposite end:

I ventured out onto it a little ways...

The big hill seen in the background is where the Certain-Teed plant used to stand.

Downtown Grand Rapids again:

Back up at the front of the property, here is the last standing structure of Certain-Teed:

Some piece of heavy equipment was once bolted down to this giant marble slab, I would guess:

I imagine this was a utility hut of some sort:

Stay tuned for more adventures in Grand Rapids (I hope).

Sanborn Maps for Grand Rapids c.1888, Sheet 36
Sanborn Maps for Grand Rapids c.1912, Vol. 5, Sheets 543 & 544
Michigan County Atlas, 2nd Ed., David M. Brown, p. 80-83,4669,7-192-29938_68915-54607--,00.html