Mason County Michigan Beginnings
The Native Americans who lived on the shores of what would become known to us as the Pere Marquette Lake were the first mariners. They were the first to travel along the Michigan lakeshore and also to cross the narrow and shallow harbor entrance that existed at the base of the hill coming down from the bluffs to the narrow strip of land eventually known as the Buttersville Peninsula.
Not a pe ka gon as this area was called translates as "River with heads on sticks."This was the name given to the area by the Ottawa Indians after a fierce battle between the Ottawa and Mascouten in the 17th century in which several thousand were killed. The victors then went about the task of severing the heads of the defeated Mascouten and placed them on sticks along the river and lake as a warning to all who might come afterwards.
The next event of any historical nature involves Father Marquette. He was a Jesuit Missionary who travelled also by canoe through out the Great Lakes to bring Christianity to the new world. On his way back to St Ignace he became ill and passed away on the shores of the lake that would eventually bear his name.
Early Trappers and Shingle makers made their way into the area by the lake route as early as 1835 with William Quevillion leading the way. They arrived in small schooners and travelled by canoe. Burr Caswell was the first permanent settler of European Descent to arrive in 1847 with his family aboard the Schooner Eagle.
The arrival of Burr Caswell and his family in 1847 marked the beginning of the settlement of the area and of our recorded maritime history. When Burr Caswell arrived the area was a virtual wilderness, giant pines crowded the shores of the lake, wolves wee common and travel was hard. There were no roads to bring travelers to the new settlement that would begin to develop in the midst of the wilderness.
The only sure way to travel was by boat, whether it was by schooner or canoe. The alternative was to travel Indian paths and deer runs, or along the beach where each river and creek had to be crossed in some fashion.In describing what met the family on their arrival we quote from the 1882 edition of the History of Manistee Mason and Oceana Counties "Nothing could be wilder and more uncivilized then the surroundings of the first family of white settlers.
Their home was in the midst of dense wilderness, their neighbors a tribe of Ottawa Indians. There were two or three white men at work up the river [making shingles] but there were no white settlers nearer then Manistee. The Indians introduced Mr. Caswell to the mysteries of their religious rites."
Sand Sawdust and Sawlogs by Frances Caswell Hanna relates the story of their arrival here in 1847. "On a balmy day in the late summer of 1847, The Eagle, a sailing schooner northbound from Chicago, with a family of six aboard, stood off the entrance to Pere Marquette Lake.
Unable to sail through the shallow channel, the captain sent the family ashore in the yawl. Their oxen, cows, and pigs were forced overboard, and after circling the schooner once or twice, swam ashore.
A year's provisions for the family were brought to land in row boats. Such was the dramatic arrival of the Burr Caswell family, first permanent white settlers in the region about Pere Marquette Lake. Burr was forty years old, his wife, Hannah Green, a year or two younger. Of their four children, Mary was fifteen, George thirteen, Helen ten, and Edgar seven."
The history of the carferries in Ludington begins much earlier then the completion of the first steel hulled carferry in 1897. Much work by many hands had to be accomplished in the early years of settlement in order to make that event possible. The tiny village that began to form up around the saw-mills and crude buildings became known as the Village of Pere Marquette.
The railroad even which had begun to extend from Flint Michigan towards the east coast of the state was incorporated as the Flint & Pere Marquette. It was the railroad which terminated in Ludington that chartered the first break bulk ship to move goods for the railroad and solidified the need for an ever expanding fleet of boats, eventually creating the largest fleet of carferries in the world.
Quoting from the pages of "Lumber Lath and Shingles" as written by Luman Goodenough. "Lumber was the reason for the existence of the town. The mills scattered along the banks of the little lake were the means. A lake area two miles in length by half or three quarters of a mile in width afforded ample shore space for all the timber industries the adjacent forests could support or the river float in logs and bolts. " The development of the Maritime Industry in Ludington was directly related to the need to move goods to market and to move settlers and lumberjacks in search of work to remote areas that could only be easily accessible by water.
This is how the original trade and shipping routes wee established and the continued need for bigger and better ships to carry both freight and passengers year around across the lake.
Trappers arrived as early as 1835, shingle makers by the 1840's and the first permanent settler in 1847. Change was happening but by today's standards it was coming slowly to the region. Traveling overland was difficult as roads were non existent in Northern Michigan at the time.
The most efficient form of travel was by boat and as lumbermen began to come into the area the need was great to find a way to quickly move timber, supplies and people. Large tracts of pinelands were being bought by men who had the vision to see the need and the future market for the seemingly unlimited pine forests. There were millions to be made for those willing to take the gamble and lives to be forged for immigrants willing to work long hours in the Pinery.
Schooners and lumber hookers provided most of the transportation needs in those early years up to about 1865. Population growth was slow and although it seemed that the lumbering concerns were moving a mountain of pine they had in reality barely scratched the surface. Even by 1873 Mammoth White Pines crowded the shores of Pere Marquette Lake.
A man by the name of Ford purchased the land surrounding Pere Marquette Lake to establish a sawmill and had taken out a note with James Ludington a Milwaukee businessman to fund the construction and early operation of this enterprise. Around the same time another player by the name of Eber Ward entered the game as he purchased large tracts of pines in the Mason County area. Ward was Detroit's first millionaire and had been investing in lumber and mining through out the Midwest.
Ludington and Ward were Captains of Industry, both were forces to be reckoned with and they were joined by yet another man who was a giant of the times, Charles Mears. Mears had already managed to secure the removal of the County Seat from its former location on the peninsula to the Village of Lincoln which he controlled.
The next event of any consequence was the default of Ford in his note with James Ludington who foreclosed and took possession of the properties owned by Ford. Much of the land that Ludington came to own in 1859 encompassed most of what would become known as the City of Ludington.
IN 1859 there was a mill, some shanties and lumber shacks, a sawdust road and very little else. Even the harbor entrance was too shallow and this made it difficult to get the products to market. The little lumbering community that had started to build up around the lake must have intrigued James Ludington, he wanted to build not just a business but a community. In 1859 the little village held the name Pere Marquette after the fallen Jesuit Missionary who had died there centuries before and Ludington had his plans.
There were powerful men with powerful designs on the development of the area, a collision of giants was coming to the wilderness. Once James Ludington took possession of the sawmill at Pere Marquette he needed someone to manage it. He made an offer of a two year lease to Charles Mears to operate the mill in exchange for development of the channel.