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Second Friday of the month (third Friday in five-week months) at 6:45 am, 8:45 am and 5:44 pm. Why's That? explores the things in Southwest Michigan – people, places, names – that spark your curiosity. We want to know what makes you wonder when you're out and about.

Why's That: Is “Kalamazoo Valley” a real valley?

view from a hill of a neighborhood of houses, bare trees with snow, and tall buildings in the background
Jessi Phillips
The view from Western Michigan University's East Campus overlooks Kalamazoo's Vine neighborhood and beyond it, the downtown.

For resident Mariah Bryant, Kalamazoo’s topography doesn’t evoke one.

If you live in Kalamazoo, you’ve likely heard the phrase “Kalamazoo Valley.” As in, Kalamazoo Valley Community College or Kalamazoo Valley Blues Association.

But "Why's That?" question asker Mariah Bryant finds the name perplexing.

“To me, [a valley] comes to mind when you associate it with mountains,” she said. “A place between two elevated peaks of some kind.”

So, is “Kalamazoo Valley” a real place?

Rivers of ice

To unlock the mystery of the Kalamazoo Valley, we need to travel back in time to the last Ice Age. It took place from about 115,000 to 11,000 years ago, when several large glaciers were parked over what is now the state of Michigan.

Western Michigan University geology professor Robb Gillespie said we can see the impact of these glaciers on the topography of Southwest Michigan.

“There are two glacier ice lobes that kind of intersect right at this area, which makes it a fairly complex glacial area actually,” said Gillespie.

These lobes were like rivers of moving ice, and they were thick, as thick as a mile. As they moved, they carried sediment, forming ridges, carving out lakes, and creating valleys, including in Kalamazoo.

In other words, yes, there really is a Kalamazoo...Valley.

“But not necessarily, I guess, in the classic sense of a stream valley,” said geologist Andrew Kozlowski of the New York State Geological Survey. “It's got something very unique, in my opinion, about it."

"A catastrophic release"

Kozlowski pursued his master’s degree at WMU in the 90s, doing fieldwork near Battle Creek.

“As I was driving on 1-94, dodging traffic, I noticed that there was sort of this large channel or valley, to the north of 94,” he said. “And it got me curious thinking about, well, how did this feature form on the landscape.”

Kozlowski said he decided to pursue a PhD so he could study the Kalamazoo Valley. According to Kozlowski, there was most likely a lake underneath one of the glaciers across the state in the Saginaw area. The water traveled south to Albion and became concentrated into a single stream of water, like a giant garden hose. It was enough water to cut a channel that’s 150 feet deep and a mile and a half wide in some places.

“Most people can't even really fathom how much water that is. It's just an insane amount of water,” he said. “And that erosive power cut through all of these previous glacial deposits, sand and gravel that were deposited, and cut this new channel on the landscape.”

I asked him how many years this process took.

"Maybe weeks," he clarified.

"It's catastrophic. It's a catastrophic release," he added.

From Albion to Plainwell

Kozlowski believes this flood created Kalamazoo’s unique trench-like valley — which actually starts about 50 miles east in Albion, cuts through Kalamazoo and then heads north to Plainwell. He says the Kalamazoo River probably meandered around the valley before establishing its current path about 5,000 years ago.

Gillespie said the valley is one example that shows there’s a lot more topography in the area that people may think.

“I think we're all so used to thinking of the Midwest as just this big flat cornfield. And it really isn't,” he said. “It's really got a lot of relief to it.”

"Would you say that other places in the Midwest have similarly sneaky topography?" Mariah asked.

"Sneaky, that's a good way of putting it," Gillespie said. "Yeah, you know, any place you've got some major rivers, you're going to have this kind of situation."