Every town wants to be known for something great. Traverse City has the cherry, Holland has the tulip and Detroit had Motown. When I tell someone I’m from Jackson I get one of three things: the prison, the ice cream Parlour (whose behemoth 21 scoop ‘Dare To Be Great’ challenge is legendary) or The Cascade Falls.
This beautiful 500 foot tall man-made waterfall is a much beloved attraction of Jackson. It is always surprising to me that, to some, it remains Michigan’s best-kept secret — most Michiganders are probably more familiar with a different musical fountain (the one in Grand Haven).
The Cascades was built by “Captain” William Sparks, a wealthy businessman, three-term Jackson mayor and captain of the Jackson Zouaves Drill Team. The Zouaves was famous for their intricate 300 steps-per-minute cadence, and they traveled the world to appear in places such as the Ed Sullivan Show and in the movie The Court Jester. While traveling through Europe with the Zouaves, Sparks stumbled upon a fountain in Barcelona called the Magic Fountain of Montjuïc, whose waters danced to light and music. Inspired to bring this to his hometown, Sparks came home with a vision to change Jackson’s reputation as a “Prison Town” that even today we find hard to shake. Known for paying great wages to his employees, Sparks hired only Jackson workers for the project with a preference for men with families. The Cascades was unveiled on his birthday, May 9, 1932, and drew a crowd of 25,000.
Today, the visitor log includes entries from all 50 states and from 33 countries. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, nightly light shows dazzle visitors from around the world. Kids revel in climbing the 126 steps to the top to get sprayed by one of the six fountains. The whole family can enjoy live music nights, including the three holiday fireworks shows, Wednesday Family Fun Nights and Saturday Free Concerts in the Park at the Rotary Band Shell. The Cascades has also been the backdrop to countless engagements and weddings over the years.
Keeping a decades-old monument like The Cascades timeless is no easy task. Restorations are an ongoing process, though perhaps never have they been of the magnitude of the ongoing and planned projects. In the 1970s, a 150-foot wall was built to keep out vandals, but this blocked the view of the beautiful falls from the street. In December 2014 work began to tear down the wall and replace it with a decorative fence as Phase One of a six-phase, multi-million dollar restoration project. Phase Two is set to begin next year to repair the “heart” of the falls, including the electrical and mechanical systems, some of which are original to 1932. Subsequent phases include:
- Phase Three: renovation of the outside, including the 126 steps to the top of the structure and the concrete fencing around the stairway
- Phase Four: maintenance work on the falls’ fountains
- Phase Five: maintenance work on the falls’ plaza
- Phase Six: building a new visitors’ center
If you have never seen The Cascades, or if it has been years since your last visit, this is the perfect time to add it to your summer to-do list. If you are well acquainted with the falls, but you know those who are unaware, share the secret with a friend. If you feel as passionately as I do about the beauty and importance of The Cascades to Jackson and to Michigan, consider donating to the campaign: Visit Jackson Community Foundation, click on donate now and choose “The Cascades Non Endowed Special Project Fund.”
Here are some of the ways you can enjoy The Cascades this summer:
- Holiday Fireworks
- Summer Celebration (Fourth of July) Friday, July 3, 2015
- End of Summer (Labor Day) Saturday, August 29, 2015
- Live Music at 7 pm
- Fireworks at Dusk
- Family Fun Nights
- Every Wednesday starting July 8
- Live Music at 7:30 pm
- Costumed characters
- Free Bandshell Concerts
- Every Saturday in the Summer
- Live Music at 7 pm