Thornapple River

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Thornapple River
ThornappleRiver MI USGS SatImage.PNG
Enhanced USGS Satellite Image, Thornapple River drainage basin.
Native nameTomba-Signe (or "river with the forked stream") [1]
Country United States
State Michigan
CountiesDrainage basin covers portions of Barry, Eaton, Ionia, and Kent Counties in Central Michigan
Physical characteristics
  locationS of Boody Lake, Eaton Township, Eaton County, Michigan
Grand River, Ada Township, Kent County, Michigan
617 ft (188 m) [2]
Length88 mi (142 km)
  average1,000–1,500 cu ft/s (28–42 m3/s) at mouth [3]

The Thornapple River (GNIS ID #1075813 [4] ) is an 88.1-mile-long (141.8 km) [5] tributary of Michigan's longest river, the Grand River. The Thornapple rises in Eaton County, Michigan and drains a primarily rural farming area in Central Michigan. It joins the Grand in Ada, Michigan, 10 miles (16 km) east of Grand Rapids.

Geographic Names Information System geographical database

The Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) is a database that contains name and locative information about more than two million physical and cultural features located throughout the United States of America and its territories. It is a type of gazetteer. GNIS was developed by the United States Geological Survey in cooperation with the United States Board on Geographic Names (BGN) to promote the standardization of feature names.

Tributary stream or river that flows into a main stem river or lake

A tributary or affluent is a stream or river that flows into a larger stream or main stem river or a lake. A tributary does not flow directly into a sea or ocean. Tributaries and the main stem river drain the surrounding drainage basin of its surface water and groundwater, leading the water out into an ocean.

Grand River (Michigan) tributary of Lake Michigan in southern Michigan

The Grand River is a river in the southwestern portion of the southern peninsula of Michigan, United States, that flows into Lake Michigan's southeastern shore. It is the longest river in the U.S. state of Michigan, running 252 miles (406 km) from its headwaters in Hillsdale County on the southern border north to Lansing and west to its mouth on the Lake at Grand Haven. Native Americans who lived along the river before the arrival of the French and British called the river O-wash-ta-nong, meaning "Far-away-water'", because of its length.



Watershed and context of Thornapple River ThornappleRiver MI USGS WaterFeatures.PNG
Watershed and context of Thornapple River

The Thornapple, a major Grand River tributary, is about 88 miles (142 km) long. Its headwaters are located about 7 miles (11 km) east of Charlotte, Michigan in Eaton County's Eaton township (only 7 miles (11 km) west of the Grand River at Eaton Rapids). It flows generally west and north through Eaton and Barry counties, before entering the Grand in Kent County. The Grand ultimately flows into Lake Michigan at Grand Haven, approximately 70 miles (110 km) down stream. [6] The Thornapple is described as "An easygoing stream that meanders through low southwest Michigan woodlands." [7] The Thornapple itself has a major tributary in the Coldwater River. [8] The Thornapple is the only major left tributary of the Grand River. [9]

Charlotte, Michigan City in Michigan, United States

Charlotte is a city in the U.S. state of Michigan. As of the 2010 census, the city population was 9,074. It is the county seat of Eaton County.

Eaton Township, Michigan Township in Michigan, United States

Eaton Township is a civil township of Eaton County in the U.S. state of Michigan. The population was 4,278 at the 2000 United States Census.

Eaton Rapids, Michigan City in Michigan, United States

Eaton Rapids is a city in Eaton County in the U.S. state of Michigan. The population was 5,214 at the 2010 census.


The major rivers and streams within the Grand River watershed were formed during the Pleistocene epoch and the subsequent advance/retreat glaciation cycle, terminating about 6–8000 years ago. [10] Prior to European settlement, the Thornapple drainage basin had mixed hardwood/conifer forest and barrens. [11] and was home to the Ottawa and Potawatomi Native Americans. [12] who called it the Tomba-Signe (or "river with the forked stream") [1]

The Pleistocene is the geological epoch which lasted from about 2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago, spanning the world's most recent period of repeated glaciations. The end of the Pleistocene corresponds with the end of the last glacial period and also with the end of the Paleolithic age used in archaeology.

Hardwood wood from angiosperm trees

Hardwood is wood from dicot trees. These are usually found in broad-leaved temperate and tropical forests. In temperate and boreal latitudes they are mostly deciduous, but in tropics and subtropics mostly evergreen. Hardwood contrasts with softwood.

Pine barrens

Pine barrens, pine plains, sand plains, or pinelands occur throughout the U.S. from Florida to Maine as well as the Midwest, West, and Canada and parts of Eurasia. Pine barrens are plant communities that occur on dry, acidic, infertile soils, dominated by grasses, forbs, low shrubs, and small to medium-sized pines. The most extensive barrens occur in large areas of sandy glacial deposits, lakebeds, and outwash terraces along rivers.

During the early settlement of Michigan, Rix Robinson, the first permanent settler of Kent County, established a fur trading post in conjunction with John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company, at the mouth of the Thornapple in 1821 to trade with the Potawottomi and conduct other business. By 1837, with the fur trade in decline, Robinson facilitated a treaty between local tribes and the Federal government that opened much of the area, including the Thornapple basin, to white settlement. [13]

Rix Robinson American politician

Rix Robinson (1789–1875) was a Michigan pioneer. He was a fur trader and the first permanent Euro-American settler of Kent County, Michigan, a representative to the state constitutional convention of 1850 and a state senator.

Trading post place or establishment where the trading of goods took place

A trading post, trading station, or trading house was a place or establishment where the trading of goods took place; the term is generally used, in modern parlance, in reference to such establishments in historic Northern America, although the practice long predates that continent's colonization by Europeans. The preferred travel route to a trading post or between trading posts, was known as a trade route.

John Jacob Astor German-American businessman

John Jacob Astor was a German–American businessman, merchant, real estate mogul and investor who mainly made his fortune in fur trade and by investing in real estate in or around New York City.

As with many rivers in 19th and early 20th century America, the Thornapple had significant logging, milling, and manufacturing activity along it. As an example:

Logging the cutting, skidding, on-site processing, and loading of trees or logs onto transport vehicles

Logging is the cutting, skidding, on-site processing, and loading of trees or logs onto trucks or skeleton cars. Logging is the process of cutting trees, processing them, and moving them to a location for transport. It is the beginning of a supply chain that provides raw material for many products societies worldwide use for housing, construction, energy, and consumer paper products. Logging systems are also used to manage forests, reduce the risk of wildfires, and restore ecosystem functions.

Mill (grinding) device that breaks solid materials into smaller pieces

A mill is a device that breaks solid materials into smaller pieces by grinding, crushing, or cutting. Such comminution is an important unit operation in many processes. There are many different types of mills and many types of materials processed in them. Historically mills were powered by hand, working animal, wind (windmill) or water (watermill). Today they are usually powered by electricity.

Manufacturing industrial activity producing goods for sale using labor and machines

Manufacturing is the production of products for use or sale using labour and machines, tools, chemical and biological processing, or formulation, and is the essence of secondary industry. The term may refer to a range of human activity, from handicraft to high tech, but is most commonly applied to industrial design, in which raw materials from primary industry are transformed into finished goods on a large scale. Such finished goods may be sold to other manufacturers for the production of other more complex products, or distributed via the tertiary industry to end users and consumers.

by 1862 Ada had a number of businesses which included: general stores, a flour mill, a saw mill, hotels, a blacksmith, a carriage maker, a boot and shoe store, two churches, a doctor, three Justices of the Peace, and an attorney. Later, a basket factory was built next to the flour and saw mills on the Thornapple River. [14]

Carriage Generally horse-drawn means of transport

A carriage is a wheeled vehicle for people, usually horse-drawn; litters (palanquins) and sedan chairs are excluded, since they are wheelless vehicles. The carriage is especially designed for private passenger use, though some are also used to transport goods. A public passenger vehicle would not usually be called a carriage – terms for such include stagecoach, charabanc and omnibus. It may be light, smart and fast or heavy, large and comfortable or luxurious. Carriages normally have suspension using leaf springs, elliptical springs or leather strapping. Working vehicles such as the (four-wheeled) wagon and (two-wheeled) cart share important parts of the history of the carriage, as does too the fast (two-wheeled) chariot.

The river was subject to periodic flooding. The 1904-1905 flood was "the worst flooding in Ada history." [15] A number of dams were constructed in the early 20th century for flood control and power generation.

In 1957, as part of a M-21 Grand River bridge replacement project, the mouth of the Thornapple and lower channel were relocated about 500 feet upstream on the Grand, and land that had been the site of Robinson's first home in Ada and trading post was inundated. [16]

Modern use

Today the Thornapple is not a navigable waterway, and there is no commercial water transport on it. The major use of the river is recreational. The Thornapple River sees significant use for rafting, kayaking, tubing, and canoeing on a small but significant portion of its 88-mile (142 km) extent. The Thornapple supports several canoe livery businesses. [17]

From the headwaters in Eaton County to Thornapple Lake, the river is creeklike, with narrow banks and tangled undergrowth restricting easy passage. The lower stretch of the river is a series of dam-created reservoirs that are heavily developed. However, from the lake to the first dam impoundment below Irving, is a 14-mile (23 km) stretch of river that is suitable for family outings and float trips.

The river is also very fishable. A large number of species inhabit the river, among them: sunfishes (largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, rock bass bluegill, crappie, pumpkinseed, and warmouth), bowfin, brown bullhead, minnows (common carp, chub, dace, and shiner), suckers (white sucker and redhorse), perches (yellow perch, walleye, darter), brook stickleback, northern pike, longnose gar, trout (brown trout, brook trout, and rainbow trout), and lampreys (American brook lamprey and chestnut lamprey). [18]

The river is claimed to be "nationally known as a fine smallmouth bass stream", and there are typically large numbers of small mouth bass in the free-flowing sections between Nashville and the junction with the Coldwater river. [9] Fishing access is good, as most of the free-flowing Thornapple can be waded or floated during normal summer flows, and many county road crossings afford good access.

In addition to the many fish species that live in the Thornapple, the river is also home to other wildlife including osprey, bald eagles, herons, and various species of ducks, some who winter in Michigan. [19] People use the recreational facilities on the river to observe these species for pleasure and knowledge seeking.

On the lower reaches of the river, especially in the several impoundments behind the dams, there is significant recreational watercraft usage, [20] both powered and sail, as well as personal water craft, although no provisions for specific clearances under bridges have been made, and the dams do not have locks, so portaging or trailered transport is required to move craft from one reach to another.


Land Cover

Totaling over 857 square miles and covering portions of Barry, Eaton, Ionia, and Kent Counties in Central Michigan, the Thornapple River Watershed has approximately 324 miles of streams and rivers that flow into the Lower Grand River Watershed.

The land within the watershed is: [21]


The Thornapple's tributaries are:Butternut Creek, Milbourn Allen and Crane Drain-Thornapple River, Thornapple Drain, Fish Creek-Little Thornapple River, Hayes Drain-Thornapple River, Darken and Boyer Drain-Thornapple River, Lacey Creek, Thompson Creek-Thornapple River, Shanty Creek, Quaker Brook, Scipio Creek-Thornapple River, Headwaters Mud Creek, Mud Creek, High Bank Creek, Cedar Creek, Thornapple Lake-Thornapple River, Jordan Lake-Little Thornapple River, Woodland Creek-Little Thornapple River, Messer Brook-Coldwater River, Duck Creek Creek, Pratt Lake Creek, Bear Creek, Coldwater River, Fall Creek, Butler Creek-Thornapple River, Glass Creek, Algonquin Lake-Thornapple River, Duncan Creek, Turner Creek-Thornapple River, and McCords Creek-Thornapple River.

Cities and incorporated villages

The Thornapple flows through:


Ada Covered Bridge, upstream view Ada Michigan Covered Bridge Upstream DSCN9703.JPG
Ada Covered Bridge, upstream view

The river is crossed by several rural county roads and railroads along its course. Several state trunkline highways do as well:

Also crossing the river is the Ada Covered Bridge, open to foot and bicycle transportation, in Ada.


The river has six major dams along its course. [22] They are, from headwaters to mouth:

LocationDescription/NotesCoordinatesMean Elevation
of Impoundment [23]
Nashville Closest to the headwaters. A very small elevation change dam that does not generate power, only serves to control flow. Some may consider it more of a weir, although it is signed as a dam. The dam was removed in September 2009 to improve fish habitat. [24] [25] 42°36′36″N85°06′01″W / 42.610085°N 85.100355°W / 42.610085; -85.100355 813 ft Nashville Dam Thornapple River DSCN0186.JPG
Irving Downstream from Thornapple Lake (natural lake). Actually 3 different dams, a power dam at the west end of a power canal, and two flow control (one obsolete and unused, the other more recent) dams to the east. This topographic map from USGS (via Microsoft Research Maps) should clarify. See also this image from TIGER data. Operated by Commonwealth Power Company. [26] 42°41′25″N85°25′11″W / 42.690322°N 85.419731°W / 42.690322; -85.419731 741 ft Irving Dam Thornapple River DSCN0179.JPG
Middleville Operated by Commonwealth Power Company. [26] and located in the village of Middleville. 42°42′40″N85°27′56″W / 42.71122°N 85.465624°W / 42.71122; -85.465624 724 ftsee CPC images
Labarge (Caledonia)Near 84th street crossing. Operated by Commonwealth Power. 42°48′39″N85°29′04″W / 42.81075°N 85.484394°W / 42.81075; -85.484394 692 ft Labarge Dam Thornapple River DSCN0142.JPG
Cascade Near the Grand Rapids airport. Generates 1.4 Mw of electric power. Owned by Cascade Township and operated under contract by STS Hydropower Ltd. [27] A picture is on Flickr. 42°54′30″N85°29′56″W / 42.908349°N 85.49891°W / 42.908349; -85.49891 665 ft Cascade Dam Thornapple River Dscn0116rot.jpg
Ada Just upstream from the Ada Covered Bridge, less than 1 mi from the mouth. Generates 1.6 Mw of electric power. Owned by the Thornapple Association and operated under contract by STS Hydropower Ltd, (DBA Ada Cogeneration Limited Partnership) [28] 42°57′02″N85°29′09″W / 42.950651°N 85.485885°W / 42.950651; -85.485885 632 ft Ada Michigan ThornappleRiver Dam DSCN9695.JPG

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  1. 1 2 Siegel 1993, p.21
  2. Elevation of the Grand on topographic map from USGS via Microsoft Research Maps
  3. Hydrological data from the NOAA Caledonia station indicates flows as low as .800k ft3/s and as high as 1.49k ft3/s
  5. U.S. Geological Survey. National Hydrography Dataset high-resolution flowline data. The National Map Archived 2012-04-05 at WebCite , accessed May 19, 2011
  6. Churches, Christopher E. and Wampler, Peter J., "Geomorphic History of the Grand River and Grand River Valley: Natural and Anthropomorphic Hydraulic Controls" (2013). Student Summer Scholars.Paper 105.
  7. from page Archived 2007-09-26 at the Wayback Machine at (accessed December 19, 2006), although several other sites have identical or similar texts
  8. map Archived 2007-03-11 at the Wayback Machine of the Coldwater watershed from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality site, accessed December 19th, 2006
  9. 1 2 from the Grand river page of the site, accessed December 20, 2006
  10. From the GVSU ISC site natural history Archived 2006-09-04 at the Wayback Machine page, accessed December 20, 2006
  11. From the GVSU ISC site presettlement vegetation Archived 2006-09-04 at the Wayback Machine page, accessed December 20, 2006
  12. A Snug Little Place Memories of Ada Michigan 1821 - 1930, Ada Historical Society/Jane Siegel, 1993, ("Siegel 1993") p.17
  13. Siegel 1993, p.22
  14. Ada Historical Society site Archived 2006-11-25 at the Wayback Machine
  15. Siegel 1993, p.57
  16. Siegel 1993, p.62
  17. A list of liveries serving the Thornapple can be found here: "Thornapple River page". Michigan Paddlesports Directory. Retrieved December 23, 2006.
  18. From the Thornapple River Watershed Group "Riverhouse" site, fish list page, referencing a report made by Commonwealth Power Company of species captured in tailrace nets at the LaBarge dam from July, 1993 through March 1994 in Caledonia. (not all species included, the original list has 48 entries)
  19. From the Thornapple River Watershed Group "Riverhouse" site, front page, accessed December 20, 2006
  20. The Thornapple Association site gives survey data on watercraft ownership here Archived 2007-09-28 at the Wayback Machine (watercraft section), showing many families on this reach have watercraft
  22. A number of images of some of the dams are available at the Thornapple River Watershed Group Riverhouse site, on this Archived 2006-03-16 at page, accessed December 23, 2006
  23. Taken from various USGS topographic maps on Microsoft Research Maps, zoomed in from this general area
  24. Victor Skinner (January 10, 2010). "Dams removed, fish get moving in Thornapple River and Rice Creek". The Grand Rapids Press. Retrieved March 30, 2010.
  25. "Secretary Salazar Announces $107,000 to Green Bay FWCO for Nashville and Maple Hill Dam Removals in Michigan" (Press release). U.S. Department of the Interior. May 26, 2009. Archived from the original on April 1, 2010. Retrieved March 30, 2010.
  26. 1 2 Company website
  27. "Cascade Dam Page"., Michigan section. Retrieved December 23, 2006.
  28. "Ada Dam Page"., Michigan section. Retrieved December 23, 2006.