The origins of Ludington carferries nearly killed the town’s namesake.

March 12, 2023

Pere Marquette No. 17

The origins of Ludington carferries nearly killed the town’s namesake.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief

This year marks the City of Ludington’s 150th anniversary, known as a sesquicentennial. Lots of celebrations are being planned. Throughout the year, MCP, in partnership with the Mason County Historical Society, will be featuring stories about Ludington’s past.

The City of Ludington and the cross-lake carferries go hand in hand. But, the irony of the town’s iconic symbols is that their origins nearly killed the town’s namesake, James Ludington.

Eber Ward

In 1857, the Flint and Pere Marquette Railway received a land grant from the United States government to build a railroad from Flint to Pere Marquette (later known as Ludington). Construction began in East Saginaw in 1859 and reached Ludington in 1874.

In 1868, F&PM President Eber B. Ward began negotiating with James Ludington for a terminal site in the town of Ludington (which became a chartered city in 1873) with frontage on Pere Marquette Lake. The F&PM had been considering a cross-lake route to Manitowoc, Wis. 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.

James 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. 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.

Flint & PM Railroad Engine No. 11.

The railroad was completed on Dec. 1, 1874, giving the F&PM 253 miles of main line. By 1877 the company had received 511,520.2 acres of federal land grants, of which over half – 275,741.69 acres – had been sold, contributing $2,369,729.21 to the railroad’s revenues. The railroad created or flourished towns that still exist along a route from Saginaw to Ludington, including Mason County towns or place names Branch, Walhalla, Custer, Scottville, and Ludington. Some that no longer exist including Jordan (near present day location of Great Lakes Energy west of Scottville) and Amber (near present Amber Township hall on Amber Road).

Ward died suddenly on Jan. 2, 1875, just one month after the railroad was completed. Ludington died on April 1, 1891 at the age of 63 in his residence at Plankinton House Hotel in Milwaukee. Ludington had never married.

Ward was succeeded by Jesse Hoyt of New York who had extensive lumber and salt interest in East Saginaw. Eventually, Ward’s brother-in-law, Justus Stearns, purchased the Ludington lumbering interests. 

On Dec. 5, 1881, the F&PM completed a 26.53 mile subsidiary route from Walhalla north to Manistee. The villages of Bachelor, Fountain and Free Soil quickly sprang up on this line. Upon its opening the branch gave the F&PM access to Manistee lumbering and salt manufacturing resources.

As early as 1886 the Chicago and West Michigan Railway shared common directors with the Detroit, Lansing and Northern Railroad, which was reorganized a decade later, in 1896, as the Detroit, Grand Rapids and Western Railroad.

By Jan. 1, 1899, the F&PM had sold 468,690 acres of the 513,000 acres granted the company by the federal government. Sales amounted to $4,847,007 – an average of $10.34 an acres.

An agreement was reached in 1899 for the consolidation of the F&PM with the Chicago and West Michigan and the Detroit, Grand Rapids and Western with securities of the newly organized exchanged for those of the constituent companies. The F&PM declared a special 2% dividend out of assets as part of the consolidation plan. The Pere Marquette Railroad was incorporated Nov. 1, 1899, and took over on Jan. 1, 1900.

Charles M. Heald of the C&WM and DGR&W was president of the Pere Marquette with William W. Crapo of the F&PM as chairman of the board of directors. On February 1, 1900, the new company acquired the Saginaw, Tuscola and Huron Railroad, which had been built in 1881-86 by investors associated with the F&PM.

The company was reincorporated in 1917 as the Pere Marquette Railway. In the 1920s the Pere Marquette Railway came under the control of Cleveland financiers Oris and Mantis Van Sweringen. The brothers also controlled the New York, Chicago & St. Louis Raidroad, the Erie Railroad and the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway.  They planned to merge the four companies but the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) did not approve the merger and the Van Sweringens eventually sold their interest in the Pere Marquette to the C&O in 1929. The company continued to operate separately as the Pere Marquette Railway until being fully merged into the C&O on June 6, 1947. The trains and ferries operated under the name Chessie System from 1973 to 1987. Chessie was a holding company that owned C&O, Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Western Maryland Railway, and B&O Chicago Terminus Railroad. 

The name Chessie System had been a popular nickname for the C&O since the 1930s. 

In 1980, Chessie System merged with Seaboard Coast Line Industries to form CSX Corporation. 

On July 1, 1983, the Chessie System ended its carferry service when it sold the last remaining Ludington carferries to Ludington-based Michigan-Wisconsin Transportation Company. Those three vessels included the S.S. City of Midland 41, the S.S. Badger, and the S.S. Spartan. The company was owned by Glen Bowden, who also owned the Stearns Hotel. MWT’s service began with operation of the City of Midland from Ludington to Kewaunee, Wis. Eventually, the Midland was replaced by the Badger. On Nov. 16, 1990, cross-lake rail service ended after 93 years of carferry service from Ludington and 98 years of carferry service on Lake Michigan. 

In 1991, Ludington native Charles Conrad, an entrepreneur from Holland, purchased the three ferries out of bankruptcy and formed Lake Michigan Caferry Service. In 1993, the S.S. Badger returned to service, transporting passengers and vehicles (not rail) to Manitowoc, Wis. 

In 2020, LMC was sold to Interlake Steamship Company of Middleburg, Ohio. 

At one point, the railroad and its carferries were one of the biggest employers in Mason County. 

Editor’s Note: To learn more about E.B. Ward, purchase the book “The Forgotten Iron King of the Great Lakes: Eber Brock Ward, (1811-1875)”, written by West Shore Community College history professor Mike Nagle. Read more Here

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