Muskegon County’s fortunes have been tied to the surrounding lakes since the beginning of its recorded history.
An exhibit at the Muskegon County Museum, “Coming to the Lakes,” traces the area’s history from 10,000 years ago when mastodons roamed the area to the current flow of tourists to our sugar-sand beaches.
In between, Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, French fur trappers, lumber barons and manufacturers all have used the lakes and rivers to create jobs and a lively community for their workers and their families. The lakes and rivers have been highways for birchbark canoes, Great Lakes cruise ships and ocean-going freighters.
French fur trappers exploring the Muskegon River named what is now Muskegon in the 1600s. Legend holds the name is derived from an American Indian phrase meaning “river of marshes.”
The earliest known European resident in the county was Edward Fitzgerald, a fur trader and trapper who visited the Muskegon area in 1748 and died here. Other traders also are known to have established posts here.
By 1837, the lumber boom initiated what some consider the most romantic historical period of the region. In fact, a favorite destination of today’s tourists is the Hackley & Hume site, the restored Queen Anne homes of Muskegon’s two most famous lumbermen.
The local lumber industry reached its peak in the mid-1880s when 47 sawmills surrounded Muskegon Lake and another 16 dotted the shores of White Lake just to the north. Muskegon was dubbed the “Lumber Queen of the World” when 665 million board feet were cut in 1887.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the lumber era had faded away and Muskegon was well on its way to becoming a diversified industrial center, having attracted such firms as furniture maker Shaw-Walker, bowling lane and bowling ball supplier Brunswick, Campbell, Wyant and Cannon, Continental Motors, auto supplier SPX and the Central Paper Mill to the area. The Great Depression of the 1930s undermined much of that economic development, but the area rebounded during World War II when Muskegon became an “arsenal of Democracy,” manufacturing airplane and tank engines.
Now, the county’s leading employer is Howmet Castings in Whitehall, an Alcoa company that makes casting parts for turbine engines for the aerospace industry. Other major industrial plants produce chemicals, plastics and metal fabrication.
As Muskegon looks to the future, two new facilities have been established on Muskegon Lake that will help lead the way. The Grand Valley State University Annis Water Resources Institute studies the health of the state’s lakes. And GVSU’s Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center is researching alternative energy sources.
Both buildings host community events as well as scientific lectures and meetings. They’re worth a visit when you’re in town just to see their architecture and modernistic energy generation systems.
The area also has drawn numerous students to its two home-grown colleges — Muskegon Community College and Baker College — as well as branches of state educational institutions like Western Michigan and Ferris State universities.
Today, Muskegon is the perfect place for those looking for a balance between urban amenities and easy access to recreational activities.
(Source: Official Muskegon County Convention and Visitors Bureau Visitors Guide published by the Muskegon Chronicle)