The Story of Elk Rapids

Northern Michigan is full of towns and villages that have a rich history. This is the Story of Elk Rapids.

Dan LeBlond, president of The Elk Rapids Area Historical Society, says that long before Elk Rapids was officially a name on the map, it served as a special place for Native Americans. Dan explains "There was a large presence in the thousand of years before the first white man settled in the area, this was their (Native Americans) hunting grounds and fishing grounds area."

But in 1846, the land along the river that had been home for generations of Native Americans became home for Elk Rapids' founding father, Abram Wadsworth. Wadsworth was sent to resurvey the land for the government, but decided to claims some land parcels for himself after seeing what Antrim County had to offer. LeBlond says "by 1850 he built the first little sawmill on a little spit of land that's in the middle of the Elk River. Itâ??s near where today is the Island House Bridge. That's where the very first sawmill was. Today we have the river that has been dammed. Its been dammed for a while, but there was no dam back in Abram Wadsworth's day, so there was a rushing rapids and that was what they needed to turn the wheels of the grist mill and saw mills."

With mills, came opportunities for a village to grow. But it would need a name, and that's when a walk on the beach put Elk Rapids on the map. Dan says "Wadsworth happened to be walking along the beach, where the Elk River empties into East Grand Traverse Bay. Legend has it there was a pair of elk horns lying on the ground, so he picked it up and that is how the Elk River and Elk Lake and the town got its name. Elk Rapids."

By the early 1860's word of the timber that surrounded the river got out to the rest of the world. So in came two men, Henry Noble and Wirt Dexter. The pair got to work buying up land and cutting down trees. Dan says "I think Mr. Dexter and Mr. Noble were in the right place at the right time because almost all of the lumber out of Antrim County went to rebuild the homes and businesses lost in the 1871 Chicago fire."

A booming business in timber wasn't enough for the pair. Dan says "the Dexter and Noble people decided they wanted to expand their business and they founded the Elk Rapids Iron Company. It was a pig iron smelting company. The main ingredients were iron ore from Escanaba, lime, and we cut down the hardwood trees in Antrim County and made charcoal out of them for the number of charcoal kilns that were outside of the smelters. Pig iron would go to Chicago and supposedly Elk Rapids pig iron went as far away as England, that started in 1872. So you had more people working, the cement operation working, and someone figured out that they could take the exhaust fumes out of the charcoal kilns and make acetate and wood alcohol. A chemical plant next to the smelter was built."

With so many industries, Elk Rapids boomed. Dan says "At the peak around 1900 that year was when Elk Rapids population peaked at close to 3000 people, that was Elk Rapids hay day. It was a working mans town. It was a dirty town, with charcoal burning 24 a day, blast furnaces."

But like most of Northern Michigan, the timber ran out for Elk Rapids. It turned out to be the first punishing battle blow in what would turn into an economic war. Dan explains "after the 1920's you had the Great Depression in the early 1930s with the closing of all of those plants the population fell to about 600."

But with time, things turned around for Elk Rapids. The boarded up homes abandoned in the depression saw new a purpose when the interstates starting reaching into the northern woods. Tourists began to visit Elk Rapids, and some decided to lay down roots. Dan says "they bought their cabins on the lake, their cabins in the woods, and the population increased, tourism became a big thing."

Today, it still is. Tourists still arrive on the road, but more and more are discovering Elk Rapids via their boats. Dan says "Elk Rapids marina was built in the 1950's and itâ??s been expanded two times since then to the size it is today."

It was the water that first brought pioneers and dreamers here, that drove its first industries thanks to the rapids. A dam was built around 1925 which essentially removed the rapids. Still, every day 492 million gallons of water a day flow over it. Today, just as in the past, Elk Rapids is still making the most of its water. Dan says "if you love the water, this is the place to be, the water is Elk Rapids biggest asset."