History of the Cascades

Updated: 06 June 2008

William Sparks, builder of the Cascades, was a well known Jackson industrialist and philanthropist. He was co-founder of the Sparks-Withington Company which manufactured products such as radiator fans, horns, and radios. The firm is know the Sparton Corporation which makes electronic products.

Sparks and his wife Matilda formed the William and Matilda Sparks Foundation in 1929 to develop a 450 acre park and recreation area for the community. It was eventually turned over to the city of Jackson and in 1944 to the County of Jackson.

Known today as the Sparks Foundation County Park, it includes the park plus the English tudor style Cascades Clubhouse, an 18 hole championship golf course and, of course, the Cascades park grounds.

The gift of Sparks Park and the illuminated Cascades to the Jackson County supervisors was made in the fall of 1944 by Harry G. & Clifford M. Sparks, who originally visioned, constructed and developed the Cascades and the surrounding park grounds.

In the beginning, Captain William Sparks formed the William & Matilda Sparks Foundation. The purpose of the Foundation was to develop a large tract of farm land into a beauty and recreation spot and meditation center to be ultimately given to the public and controlled by a public agency. In developing the land, Captain Sparks always had in mind a wish to have something just a little different and a little special, so that the people of Jackson would be prooud of the development, and on the other hand, he wished to create an attraction to tourists so that they would always remember Jackson and the Cascades. With these ideas in mind, and the fact that the park land contained a hill some seventy-five feet high. Captain Sparks decided to create an artificial waterfall or Cascades that could be brilliantly and artistically illuminated at night. There had been no such development or construction in this country, so he had his engineers set up working models of his idea.

The development of Sparks Park, which included the construction of the Cascades championship 18 hole golf course, the Cascades Clubhouse and the building of the Cascades, covered a period of three years.

The illuminated Cascades were put in operation for the first time the night of May 9th, 1932. During that year, and each following year from Memorial Day until Labor Day, the Cascades have operated nightly excepting during the war years from 1942 to 1946.

The Cascades as completed are 60 feet in width, 500 feet in length and are 64 feet in height with 16 falls, 11 of which are illuminated. The structure is built of reinforced concrete and contains 1,100 cubic yards of concrete exclusive of the walls, balustrades and steps. There are three main pools 30 x 90 feet in size, and each pool contains a large fountain on each side. Each pair of fountains is connected together by underground tunnels.

Visitors will have the pleasure of "seeing" music at the Cascades Waterfalls this summer--and the view will be dazzling.

A new computer system integrates light and sound so that a kaleidoscope of changing colored lights--illuminating 16 falls and six fountains-- will respond to the beat of live and recorded music.

The color is actually created by the sound.

That's something that couldn't be done with the old electro-mechanical system at the Falls. In the computerized control room, which is open for public viewing, the panel controlling the lights is connected to an all-new audio system.

In one part of the new system, sound pitch and loudness are converted to numbers in an industrial computer called a programmable controller. The computer then converts those numbers to color, hue and brightness in the lights.

While violins in a song might produce a deep blue and a tuba, deep red in the Falls, a trombone might produce a deep green color. Then the system can be adjusted so the same song and instruments will produce new colors and new patterns.

With the new system, the light response can be changed and rearranged to the tune of two million different combinations of lights. Those lights can be changed as fast as one-tenth of a second.

In addition, the new system can present the Cascades as it was first presented on May 9, 1932. So, the new system has the best of the past and offers new and exciting state-of-the-art capabilities. The new systems are the result of three years of planning, fundraising and volunteer work!

(Copy from "Welcome to Cascades 85" brochure)

The Jackson Citizen Patriot had a "Cascades Anniversary Issue: Reflecting on the Falls, 75 Years". 27 May 2007.

75 Years of the Cascades Timeline:

Circa 1929-- William Sparks is believed to have visited Barcelona, Spain, and seen an elaborate man-made waterfall.

Sept. 1929-- Sparks and his wife, Matilda, form a foundation with plans to spend more than $3 million to build a public space on 465 acres of farmland. Construction to begin immediately.

June 1931-- Sparks announces plans to spend about $1 million more to build a lighted waterfall with a 200 feet tall tower on top.

Oct. 1931-- Construction begins on the Cascades. Except for below zero days, workers pour concrete all winter. Plans for the tower are dropped.

May 1932-- The Cascades are displayed publicly for the first time. More than 25,000 people watch.

May 1939-- Thousands, including Michigan Gov. Luren Dickinson, attend a rededication ceremony at the Cascades. Festivities are broadcast nationwide by the CBS radio network.

Dec. 1941-- Japan bombs Pearl Harbor and the US enters WW2. The Cascades closes during the war years.

May 1943-- William Sparks dies.

July 1943-- The Citizen Patriot compares the Cascades to Greek ruins after vandals destroy concrete railings.

Oct. 1944-- The Sparks Foundation gives the Cascades to Jackson County government.

May 1947-- Vandalism and mechanical problems are repaired as the Cascades reopens.

Feb. 1952-- A township supervisor is met with general disapproval by suggesting an admission fee to the Cascades.

May 1969-- A "Save the Cascades" fund is started by citizens to pay for renovations. Within a year, $103,000 is collected.

June 1970-- Free admission ends when Jackson County establishes a 50-cent admission fee to the refurbished Cascades. Renovations include a controversial chain-link fence.

Spring 1972-- Construction of a grandstand and wall begins in the second stage of "Save the Cascades" work. The wall is dubbed "Fort McManus" after the parks director David R. McManus.

Dec. 1979 -- Plans are announced for a museum.

Jan. 1981-- A "Rebirth Project" is launched to replace mechanical parts, lighting and sound systems.

April 1991-- Crumbling concrete at the Cascades is repaired for $210,000.

April 1993-- A new water circulation system is installed to replace the traditional method of pumping water from lagoons.

Nov. 1998-- The Cascades join the computer age as computerized controls are installed.

Oct. 2006-- Master plan for upgrades at Sparks Foundation County Park includes $13.7 million for falls and amphitheater renovations.