History of Ludington

As is the case throughout North America, the very earliest inhabitants of what is now Ludington were the Native Americans. The Ottawa tribe settled near Pere Marquette Lake, which was named after Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit missionary who passed away on the shoreline in 1675 on his way to St. Ignace. Burr Caswell and his family arrived in 1847, the first permanent white settlers. It was a harsh wilderness of densely populated forests with no incoming roads.

James Ludington
It was evident by all the pines that this area would make its mark from lumber. Over the years, numerous mills popped up along Pere Marquette Lake, but because the channel was so shallow, there was no way to get the lumber out to cities like Chicago and Milwaukee. James Ludington entered the picture around 1854. He was a businessman in Milwaukee who took possession of property in Ludington that someone had defaulted on. He went into business with Charles Mears, another powerful man that had visions for the city. Ludington had Mears run his sawmill, in exchange for developing the channel...making it wider and deeper. Unfortunately for Mears, once his two-year contract was up, Ludington once again took control of the mill and had a newly improved channel in which to move his lumber. Mears was out of the picture, but was successful in his own right with many other mills in Pentwater and the Village of Lincoln. The state park in Pentwater was later named for him.

In 1873, the city of Ludington was chartered, due in part to James Ludington and the money that he put into the cause. Another major player in Ludington's development was Eber Ward. The Ludington Lumber Company donated property to Ward's idea of getting a railroad into town. Ward himself secured some of this property and built two mills. He was also a proponent of developing a permanent link across Lake Michigan from Ludington to Wisconsin. He died before seeing his dream come to fruition, but in the years to come, Ludington's harbor would become home to the largest carferry fleet in the country.

In addition to James Ludington, the other influential figure in Ludington's history was Justus Stearns. The name may sound familiar, as both Stearns Motor Inn and Stearns Park and both names for him. Former companies that also bore his name were The Stearns Lighting & Power Company and the J.S. Stearns Salt and Lumber Company. He ran the Epworth Hotel for ten years and was known as a caring and involved employer. In the early 1900s, the need for a hospital in Ludington prompted Justus Stearns to open his own home for use as a hospital. In 1907, the Paulina Stearns hospital opened, named for his wife. Justus Stearns continued to support the hospital in the years to come, often stopping in and paying bills himself.


Throughout history, 13 carferries have called Ludington home...including 9 Pere Marquette vessels, City of Saginaw, City of Flint, City of Midland, S.S. Spartan and the only one still in existence...the S.S. Badger. It all began in the late 1800s...first as a way to ship cargo across Lake Michigan, and later in the 1920s when railroads used the carferries extensively during the war. Ludington's carferry history almost came to an end in 1991, but was saved by local native Charles Conrad, who crossed the lake numerous times as a youth and loved the carferries. Conrad purchased the three remaining ships...the City of Midland, S.S. Spartan and S.S. Badger and resurrected cross-lake service between Ludington and Manitowoc. The City of Midland took its last voyage in 1988 and was converted to a barge. The S.S. Spartan is docked in Ludington and is used for parts for its sister ship the S.S Badger, which is owned by Lake Michigan Carferry and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Click here for more information on carferry history.

Historic White Pine Village

Relive history at the Historic White Pine Village in Ludington. This living-history village from the late 19th and early 20th century inspires children and adults with its 30 historic exhibits that literally take you back in time. Walk through the home of Burr Caswell, who offered his dwelling to serve as the original 1849 Mason County Courthouse, now on the State Register of Historic Places. Discover original structures including White Pine Chapel, Pere Marquette Town Hall and Hamlin Lake Cabin. Explore the Artisan Center featuring arts and crafts from the turn of the century like weaving looms, quilting, tatting, crochet, and knitted examples on display. Peek into Cole’s General Store, the original log cabin home of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Clay Cole, and the Jorissen Barn, with displays of agricultural artifacts on several levels inside, and farm machinery from past eras of local farming history outside the barn.

Be sure to visit Mason County Sports Hall of Fame located at Historic White Pine Village to see Mason County’s sports heroes honored for their enduring legacy. This newly expanded venue emphasizes the importance of sports and how sports prepares participants to be successful in life “Beyond the game!”

Port of Ludington Maritime Museum

The Port of Ludington Maritime Museum, perfectly located within Ludington’s former U.S. Coast Guard Station, is celebrating its fourth anniversary in 2021. The Museum was developed to showcase the maritime history of the greater Ludington area and the industries that were created by this significant port along Lake Michigan. It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Museum brings maritime history to life with digital storytelling, authentic images, artifacts, and exciting exhibits that inspire a deeper appreciation for Michigan’s maritime history. The three-story building overlooks Lake Michigan’s shoreline, Ludington’s North Pier Light, and the docking site of the historic Ludington carferry, the S.S. Badger.

This season, Port of Ludington Maritime Museum launched an exciting new exhibit called the Armistice Day Storm of 1940. This exhibit depicts the fateful events leading up to and throughout the extraordinary storm which took place on Lake Michigan.

More History in the Ludington Area...

For more activities & attractions, check out these additional links for Things to Do in West Michigan:

West Michigan Map
Ludington Activities & Things to Do -- Play on a beautiful beach, take a tour at Historic White Pine Village, or explore the barn quilt trail, murals or sculptures in the county--Ludington offers many fun things to do for the entire family!
Have Fun in Manistee, Michigan -- Explore Manistee's historic downtown district and riverwalk, hike the Manistee National Forest, canoe on the Manistee River, and more.
Hamlin Lake -- Just 4 miles north of Ludington, Hamlin Lake is a great destination for boating, fishing and climbing dunes! The Hamlin Lake shoreline is also part of the Ludington State Park.
Silver Lake Sand Dunes -- Visiting the Silver Lake Sand Dunes makes for a terrific vacation because you can take your off-road vehicle for a spin on the scenic sand dunes overlooking Lake Michigan and Silver Lake.
Things to Do in Pentwater, Michigan -- Nothing is quite like the quaint, artsy, harbortown village of Pentwater. Don't miss the popular Charles Mears State Park beach on Pentwater's Lake Michigan shoreline.
Lots of Activities in Scottville, Michigan -- Explore the Riverside Park along the National Scenic Pere Marquette River.
Canoeing or Fishing on the Pere Marquette River -- Many boat liveries offer canoe rentals.
Also, check out West Michigan Guides and our locally produced WestMichigan.MichBiz.com directory for our largest lists of Things to Do in West Michigan.
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Last Updated: 07-01-2021 12:58 PM ID: 1505