Nagle to release book on Great Lakes millionaire Eber Ward

October 12, 2022

Nagle to release book on Great Lakes millionaire Eber Ward

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By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief

VICTORY TOWNSHIP — West Shore Community College history professor Michael Nagle has recently completed his second biography on historical figures who impacted the Great Lakes. “The Forgotten Iron King of the Great Lakes: Eber Brock Ward, (1811-1875) will be released on Nov. 17 with a reception at the Mason County Historical Society’s Research Center, 130 E. Ludington Ave. in Ludington. 

Nagle’s first book, “Justus S. Stearns: Michigan Pine King and Kentucky Coal Baron, (1845-1933)” was released in 2015. Shortly after its release Nagle decided to begin researching Ward. 

“It’s all Rick Plummer’s fault,” Nagle said with a laugh, referring to Dr. Rick Plummer, WSCC professor emeritus, former director of performing arts and former executive director of Mason County Historical Society. 

Nagle said he and Plummer were attending the 2015 Michigan History Conference, sponsored by the Historical Society of Michigan, when Nagle received a fall 2013 edition of Michigan Historical Review which featured an article by Justin Wargo about the controversy concerning Eber Ward’s will and subsequent trial. 

“I was familiar with the article and encouraged Rick to read it,” Nagle said. “I mentioned that I had thought about researching Ward for my next project, but was leaning toward another subject. After reading the article, Rick became fascinated with Ward’s life and family. We spent much of that weekend talking about Ward’s personality, accomplishments, and short- comings. He argued that I should pursue Eber Ward and tell the complete story of his life. Luckily, I followed his sage advice.”

Eber Ward was born in 1811, the son of a lighthouse keeper. At a young age, he began working as a cabin boy on sailing vessels owned by his uncle Samuel Ward. Eventually he became business partner with his uncle. The two developed a large, possibly the largest, fleet of passenger steamers on the Great Lakes. 

Nagle said by 1856, “Captain Eber” was labeled the “acknowledged master of the Lakes” by the Daily Cleveland Herald. Ward eventually founded iron and steel operations in Wyandotte, just outside of Detroit, as well as in Chicago and Milwaukee. Ward focused on diversification and took over the Flint & Pere Marquette Railway in 1960 and served as its president until his death in 1875, shortly after the railway made its way to Ludington, setting the stage for carferry service across Lake Michigan. 

Eber Ward and James Ludington, namesake of the City of Ludington, were staunch business rivals. In 1868, Ward began negotiating with Ludington for a terminal site in the town of Ludington with frontage on Pere Marquette Lake. The F&PM had been considering a cross-lake route to Manitowoc, Wisc. since 1859 because the trip around Lake Michigan was costly. At the time, the railroad had also considered placing the west terminus of the railroad in Pentwater.

Ludington was the owner of the only lumber mill in the town he named after himself. He favored the completion of the railroad but he played hard ball in negotiating the terms, knowing that Ward intended to build mills to tap the lumber along the Pere Marquette River. Ludington feared the move would make Ward too big so he refused to sell a terminal site or mill sites at any price, hoping to convince Ward into selling some of his 70,000 acres of timber along the Pere Marquette River. Ward would not budge.

In 1869, Ward had learned that Ludington’s logging crews had cut pine from his land, an act that may have been unintentional. He kept quiet until Ludington went to Detroit on business and then had him arrested and lodged in the Wayne County Jail on charges of trespassing and timber theft. He secured a judgement of $65,000 against Ludington, who was financially ruined. Ludington suffered a stroke and was forced to quit business.

Ludington’s associates then formed the Pere Marquette Lumber Company and reached an amicable agreement with Ward in August 1869 for both the railway terminal and the mill sites.

Ward’s mills and land were eventually purchased by his brother-in-law Justus Stearns. 

The 339 page book is part of the Great Lakes Books series by Wayne State University Press. It will be available for purchase locally at the Mason County Historical Society’s Research Center and Emporium, Historic White Pine Village, Port of Ludington Maritime Museum and the Book Mark, 201 S. Rath Ave.

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