History: Hamlin, the town built and destroyed by a dam.

June 14, 2019

Second Hamlin dam, 1910.

History: Hamlin, the town built and destroyed by a dam.

MC History Spotlight is a weekly history column brought to you by Ludington Woods Living and Memory Care. Each week this column features a story from our county’s past.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.


Charles Mears, 1856

Very little remains of the town of Hamlin, which was built on the banks of the Big Sable River in the modern Ludington State Park. Concrete ruins and a cemetery are the only signs that there was once a settlement in that area. The original dam was built in 1856 and was located south of the present day dam. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has developed a walking history lesson along the bicycle path that runs along the Big Sable River. Placards tell the history of this once thriving town and much of this article is based on that information.

Hamlin’s origins began with lumberman Charles Mears (1814-1895). Mears was born on March 16 in North Billerica, Mass., the son of Nathan and Lucy Mears. Mears’ grandfather was a minuteman during the American Revolutionary War. At the age of 22, he and his brothers moved to Paw Paw, Mich. and started a general merchandise business called E & C Mears & Co.

Mears and his two brothers set off on an expedition up the Lake Michigan shoreline on Michigan’s west shore in 1837 up to Manistee. The purpose of the exhibition was to scout for lumber mill sites, settling in what is now Whitehall. In the next 25 years, Mears purchased 40,000 acres of land in Michigan and constructed and operated 15 mills. He also built five harbors along the western Michigan shore for the transport of lumber.

Two of those harbors were in Mason County. In 1847, Mears built a mill at Black Creek, calling the settlement Little Sable (near modern day Lincoln Hills Golf Club on Lincoln Lake in Hamlin Township).

Building the third dam in 1913

In 1852, Mears purchased the land that would become the settlement of Hamlin. The narrow mouth of what was called Big Sable Lake was ideal for a mill with its short, narrow stream to Lake Michigan. About 1856 Mears built a wooden dam and established a sawmill a few hundred feet downstream from the site of the modern dam. He called the settlement Big Sable. The dam raised the lake 12 to 15 feet. Mears relocated the original river mouth which was located north of what is now the Pines Campground. At the mouth, he built shipping docks. The modern Big Sable River was a fast moving stream that meandered through wooded dune to Lake Michigan. The fast current and narrow channel were ideal for the mill and dam site. Dam breaks in 1888 and 1912 changed the river drastically, causing the banks to be blown out and widened. Much of the restoration of the river banks took place by the Civilian Conservation Corp. during the Great Depression in the 1930s. 

Following the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln as 16th President of the United States, Mears renamed Little Sable to Lincoln and renamed Big Sable to Hamlin, after Hannibal Hamlin, who served as Lincoln’s vice president during his first term from March 4, 1861 to March 4, 1865.

Hamlin Township

A side note: Hamlin (1809-1891) was born on Aug. 27 in Paris, Maine (when he was born, the town was part of Massachusetts, until 1820). His career started by managing his father’s farm and then he became a newspaper editor. Hamlin studied law and was admitted to the state bar in 1833, beginning a practice in Hampden, Maine. He began his political career as a Democrat and was elected to the Main House of Representatives in 1835. He later became a Republican. His career also included serving in the U.S. House of Representatives (1843-1847), U.S. Senate (1848-1857, 1857-1861, 1869-1881), Governor of Maine, Jan. 8, 1857 to Feb. 25, 1857), Vice President (1861-1865), Minister to Spain (1881-1882).

The settlement of Hamlin was a growing town between the 1850s and into the 1880s. It included a school house and numerous homes. Near the dam was a water-powered shingle mill that cut about 15 million shingles a year and employed 60 men. Mules pulled carts, loaded with shingles, along a narrow-gauge railway from the shingle mill, along the river, to the docks. Other logs were passed down the dam’s log shoot to float downriver. A smaller wooden dam in the lower Sable River held back water to create a large holding pond for logs used at the river mouth mills. The logs were cut at the steam-powered mill near the Lake Michigan docks.

Vice President Hamlin

The fate of the village changed in 1888 when the wooden dam collapsed, causing a wall of water to wash away acres of river bank and all the structures along it. Fortunately, no lives were lost, however most of the residents lost their possessions. The dam was rebuilt and lasted until the next collapse in 1912. However, the houses were never rebuilt and the village of Hamlin eventually faded away.

Ludington Woods Assisted Living and Memory Care, 502 N. Sherman St., Ludington, MI 49431; 231-845-6100; www.ludingtonwoods.com.

This story is copyrighted © 2019, all rights reserved by Media Group 31, LLC, PO Box 21, Scottville, MI 49454. No portion of this story or images may be reproduced in any way, including print or broadcast, without expressed written consent.

Area Churches