Muskegon's history reflected in the unique geology of lake

By Dave Alexander / Associated Press

Muskegon — The history of Muskegon can be told through the geological “freak of nature” that is Muskegon Lake. The lake over the centuries and generations has become the essence of the community.

The history of Muskegon has been tied to water since the earliest Native American inhabitants came to these shores about 7,000 years ago.

And Muskegon’s heart is located at Third Street and West Western Avenue on the southeast shore of Muskegon Lake because of the unique geology and geography that were created 10,000 years ago after the Ice Age, which led to the community’s development.

What makes Muskegon unique is Muskegon Lake, which has had an ever-present influence on the community. Muskegon County has 26 miles of Lake Michigan coastline with pristine sandy beaches, 400 miles of rivers with incredible fishing resources and 11,000 acres of inland lakes providing quality waterfront living.

But it is Muskegon Lake that has defined Muskegon and that has reflected all that is good and bad in the community’s history.

A body of freshwater that is 2.5 miles wide and 5.5 miles long has been the draw. Muskegon Lake attracted the first native settlers, the European fur traders, lumber barons, major industrialists and more recently tourists looking for a beach vacation, afternoon sail or fishing experience.

“It is a terrific water resource,” said Mark Luttenton, a Grand Valley State University limnologist, professor and researcher at the Muskegon-based Annis Water Resources Institute.

“Muskegon Lake has uniquely added to the recreational, social, cultural and economic aspects of the community,” said Luttenton, who as a limnologist studies the chemical and physical properties of lakes and streams.

He is researching steelhead on the Muskegon River and brown trout in the lakes.

Muskegon Lake is what sets the community apart from its other neighbors along the western coast of Michigan. Other communities have shinier images and more impressive reputations as beach towns, such as Saugatuck, Holland and Grand Haven to the south and Frankfort, Traverse City and Charlevoix to the north.

But Muskegon — with its history of a boom and bust economy and its gritty industrial nature — is still the largest community on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. The population center that has been created in Muskegon is directly tied the lure of Muskegon Lake, historians tell us. “Muskegon Lake is the result of the colliding of several processes back 10,000 years ago,” Luttenton explained.

The Lake Michigan basin was created with the pull back of the glaciers at the end of the Ice Age. The west side of Michigan has been uniquely created by the prevailing west winds and waves that deposited large amounts of sand on the shoreline, forming the region’s huge sand dunes.

The Muskegon River — a 216-mile waterway with headwaters near Houghton Lake in the middle of the state — flowed westward toward Lake Michigan. Even before Muskegon Lake was born, the river cut a path to the Big Lake through the sand dunes, creating today what is the Muskegon Channel, Luttenton said. A rise in Lake Michigan levels pushed water back up the Muskegon River to create Muskegon Lake, which has been pretty much in its current form for 2,500 to 3,000 years, Luttenton said.

The variation of depths from several feet on the north side of Muskegon to a maximum of nearly 80 feet on the south side is due to the original river, Luttenton said. The deeper portion of the lake, what is the modern shipping channel, follows the southern shore of the lake along the city of Muskegon.

The shallower areas of Muskegon Lake along the North Muskegon and Laketon Township shoreline on the north side were those areas that were dry land before Lake Michigan waters rose, the GVSU scientist said.

“You just don’t see these kinds of lakes on the other side of Lake Michigan,” Luttenton said. Nor are bodies of water the size of Muskegon Lake common in the other coastal communities on the east shore of Lake Michigan.

The natural forces created what has become the largest deep-water port on Michigan’s western coast.

The natural features of Muskegon Lake attracted the earliest Native Americans some 7,000 years ago, said John McGarry — executive director of the Lakeshore Museum Center. The more recent Native American tribes such as the Ottawa Indians have been living here for just the past 500 years, he said.

When the first European settlers came to Muskegon they were drawn to the area where the Muskegon River flowed into Muskegon Lake, as both the lakes and rivers were used for early transportation, according to Dan Yakes, retired history instructor from Muskegon Community College.