The history of South Bend is an exciting story of explorers who mapped out the region, settlers who carved a town from the wilderness, industrialists who built successful companies, and the families who have lived, worked and played to make the area a vital place.
Each generation has used its energy and expertise to make improvements and create growth in South Bend. And through the years, the heart of the city has always been its people.
Early Exploration of the St. Joseph River
In 1673, Father Marquette, thought to be the first European to discover the St. Joseph River, reached the waterway approximately two miles from South Bend. The mouth of the St. Joseph River was discovered in 1679 by French explorer Robert LaSalle.
Early European Settler
In 1820, Pierre Navarre was the first European to settle permanently in the area. He married a Potawatomi woman, and when the Potawatomi tribe, including his wife, was forced to an area west of the Mississippi River, Pierre went with them. He eventually returned to South Bend. As an agent of the American Fur Company, Alexis Coquillard came to the area in 1824. In 1829, Colonel Lathrop Taylor was appointed as the area’s first Postmaster.
The first industry in South Bend was developed in the in the late 1830s. By the mid-1840s, more and more industries were developing along the St. Joseph River, especially along the two races (man-made canals) on either side of the waterway. The east race was bounded by the St. Joseph River, Niles Avenue, Madison Street, and Corby Street. The west race ran next to what is now Century Center. By the late 1800s, Studebaker, Oliver Chilled Plow Works, Singer Sewing Machine Company, Bendix and South Bend Lathe were just some of the companies that were making South Bend world-famous.
The first electricity-producing plant in South Bend was linked to the east and west races. A steam-powered generator was used on the east race to produce vast quantities of power that lit and heated most of South Bend. In 1903, the west race was purchased by the Oliver Chilled Plow Company, which constructed a power plant on the waterway (a part of which can still be seen in the river today). It supplied electricity for light, heat, and power to the Oliver Opera House, Oliver Hotel, South Bend factories, and other Oliver buildings.
The John Stryker was the first locomotive to reach South Bend, roaring into town on October 4, 1851, to a crowd of cheering citizens. In 1882, the first electric street car in America was put into service on Michigan Street in South Bend.
In 1847, a telegraph line first connected South Bend to the rest of the world. In 1899 the first private line telephone (party lines already existed) was installed from the South Bend Tribune to the Oliver Chilled Plow Works.
Most early residents of South Bend received drinking water from wells or the St. Joseph River. In 1871, a plan was developed by the Holly Water Works Company to provide South Bend with water that could be piped directly into homes. A standpipe (constructed where the parking lot of Century Center is now located) provided water pressure.