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Portage History

Like all small communities throughout Michigan the City of Portage possesses a distinctive, albeit often overlooked, history. From the Native Americans who used to reside near where the Kalamazoo Battle Creek International Airport now stands to the early settlers from New York and points east. From the Dutch that helped build Portage (and Kalamazoo County) into the celery capitol of the United States, to the citizens of today. All these groups have woven and continue to weave their unique ideas and customs into the very fabric of Portage history. The time-line below has been designed to give you a brief overview of the important, and not-so-important, dates that have made our city the interesting place it is today.

History of Portage, Michigan

1831, Spring

Thomas, Arad and Benjamin Cooley along with Caleb Sweetland, arrive from Genesee, New York and decide to settle near the present intersection of Milham Road and Oakland Drive. They name this area “Dry Prairie.” Thomas, Benjamin and Caleb all return to New York to settle their family’s affairs while Arad remains behind to register the land and begin building log cabins. In the summer the Howard family arrives and sets up house to the east on Milham Road. In the fall Thomas and Caleb return with their families.


Moses Austin arrives from New York and begins building his tavern (a painting is available for viewing in the Heritage Room) on the northern shore of a lake that he would soon name after himself. It would be within this tavern that Pavilion Township would receive its name.


The Kalamazoo-Three Rivers Plank Road Company is chartered. This company would build a plank (wooden) road that would eventually run from Three Rivers to Kalamazoo. The route would travel through School Craft to Oakland Drive. From Oakland it would continue to Shaver Road and then on to South Westnedge, right through the center of Portage. The road would eventually turn right onto Milham and then left onto Lover’s Lane continuing to Portage Street and finally ending in downtown Kalamazoo. A few years later the Kalamazoo-Grand Rapids Plank Road Company would construct a similar road from Kalamazoo all the way to Grand Rapids. These roads help to put Portage on the map.


The Portage Center Hotel burns to the ground. Located in the center of the community, this hotel was a significant meeting point for all Portage residents for over thirty years and was often host to various balls and dinners. It was also a make shift G.A.R. hall for the civil war veterans of Portage Township. Ironically, the first fire station would be constructed on the land in 1941.


Wolber’s Grocery Store opens on the southeast corner of South Westnedge and Centre Avenue. This business would be a shopping icon for local residents for over fifty years.


The first traffic lights are installed at the intersection of Milham Road and South Westnedge Avenue. When installed at this intersection, South Westnedge was only two lanes wide. Today, South Westnedge is seven lanes.


Upjohn Pharmaceuticals acquires 1500 acres on Portage Road and commences to build a new factory complex which would open in 1948. This complex would forever change the face of Portage and would eventually be the driving force for incorporation as a city.


Portage Township High School (later Portage Central High School) opens its doors. Prior to this, class was held in the Township Agricultural School (today’s Administration Building).

1963, December 31st (Midnight)

After much debate, anxiety and issues, Portage becomes a city.


Portage Northern High School opens giving the city a unique rivalry that continues today.

To read more about the City of Portage, four books are available at the Portage District Library:

  • The 1880 Kalamazoo County History
  • Where the Trails Crossed – A brief history, including photographs, of the homes and businesses that are located in the Portage Historic District Commission
  • This Place Called Portage – Produced by Larry and Priscilla Massie
  • Portage and It’s Past – Produced by Grace Potts

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