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Big Rapids, Michigan is the county seat of Mecosta County and home to the main campus of Ferris State University.

Based on relics found nearby, speculation is that human beings first came to the region about 11,000 BC, but little is known about them. Historically, it was the Anishnabeg, the original people of the Three Fire Ojibway/Chippewa, Potawatomi, and Ottawa tribes who were there when French, British, and American fur traders came through the area between the mid-17th to mid-19th centuries. The Ottawa are known to have camped regularly near the big rapids on the Muskegon River to tap the maple trees in the spring.

European-American settlers first came to the area with the logging industry. With its headwaters at Houghton Lake, the Muskegon River could be used to transport logs downstream to the mills at Muskegon. The swift current near the current site of the city was known as the big rapids by early lumbermen, which would later form the basis for its name.

The first land entries in the area that was to become Big Rapids were made by Robert P. Mitchell and John Parish in 1853, although the first recorded settlers were Zera and George French, who came in 1855. During the first few years, the community and the surrounding township were known as Leonard, for Dr. F.B. Leonard, who owned much of the land, and that was the name assigned to its first post office on January 24, 1857, with Jess C. Shaw as its first postmaster. In February of 1859, Leonard was named the county seat.

Later that year, Dr. Leonard sold his property to George P. Warren and Chauncey P. Ives, who platted a village and recorded it as Big Rapids in November of 1859, and the post office took that name. The following year, Zera French platted and recorded adjacent land as Glen Elm but, within a month he renamed it French's Addition to Big Rapids. Neither of these communities was ever incorporated as a village, however. Government affairs were conducted by the township.

After the War Between the States, several German and Scandinavian immigrants came to Big Rapids to build log homes. In 1869, Big Rapids gained a station on the Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad. Soon, two other railroads began operations, largely serving the lumber industry. Each of the three railroads operating in Big Rapids built a roundhouse for their operations.

In April of 1869, Big Rapids was incorporated as a city, which included both the unincorporated village of Big Rapids and French's Addition. Big Rapids consisted of about a hundred acres of land south of what is now Maple Street, while the French's Addition plat included the North State Street area, while most of the city's current downtown area lies between the two former unincorporated villages.

A school was organized by Woodbridge Nathan Ferris in 1884. Beginning with a student enrollment of fifteen, the Ferris Institute enrolled two thousand students by 1906. Enrollment decreased considerably during World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II, but the institute survived. Even after its main buildings were destroyed by fire in 1950, the school rebuilt and is now known as Ferris State University, the largest employer in the city. Woodbridge Nathan Ferris became Governor of Michigan in 1912 and a U.S. Senator in 1922.

In the early 20th century, two power dams were built to provide electricity to the city, enabling Big Rapids to support a manufacturing industry. The dam inside the city limits was removed in 1966, but the Rogers Heights dam continues to produce power sold by the Consumers Power Company.

The city's first hospital was opened by the Sisters of Mercy in 1879, but it closed in 1919 after three major fires. Community Hospital was opened in 1927, operating as a municipal hospital until 1975 when it became Mecosta County General Hospital, the second-largest employer in the city.

Big Rapids has lost population each census year since 1980, when its peak population was 14,361.

The chief route through the city is BR-131, a business route for US-131, which passes just west of Big Rapids. Other routes include M-20 and several local roads. Reed City is 12.0 miles north, and White Cloud is 24.1 miles northeast, while the village of Hersey is 13.5 miles north, Morley is 15.5 miles south, and Mecosta is 17.7 miles southeast. The Manistee National Forest is just a few miles to the west.

The focus of this guide is on the City of Big Rapids, Michigan. Appropriate resources include websites representing the city government or any of its departments, programs, or facilities, as well as local businesses, industries, schools, places of worship, attractions, and events.


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