Located in a former Coast Guard Station overlooking the vast and breathtaking Lake Michigan, Port of Ludington Maritime Museum stands as a gateway to the past and a place to dive into Great Lakes history. Throughout three floors, the state-of-the-art museum takes patrons on a maritime journey, exploring topics like the Coast Guard, lighthouses, shipwrecks and Ludington’s storied railroad carferries.
“Ludington has a very special and unique connection to Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes,” explained Eric Harmsen, site manager at Port of Ludington Maritime Museum. “That connection is not only a significant part of its history but also its heritage.
“Like many West Michigan cities, Ludington started as a lumbering town, where its harbor was used to transport lumber from area forests to its destination, most of it going to Chicago. After the lumber industry declined, Ludington’s role as a major harbor on the lake is one of the things that kept it alive. With the beginning of the carferry industry in the late 1800s, Ludington developed into a major commercial harbor. At one time it had the largest carferry fleet in the world. This connection to the lake and maritime industries throughout its history is why Ludington’s maritime history is such an important story to preserve and present at the museum.”
Brimming with exhibits
The museum building, a decommissioned Coast Guard station built in 1934, opened to the public in 2017. The historic structure, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, houses 17 exhibits. The Port of Ludington Museum is part of the Mason County Historical Society and draws upon the society’s extensive collection of images and artifacts.
“Our newest exhibit is on the infamous Armistice Day Storm of 1940, a historic winter storm that struck the Great Lakes and the Midwest with little warning,” Harmsen said. “Three ships sank on Lake Michigan during the storm, all of them just south of Ludington, and another ran aground right on the Ludington beach.”
A Lake Michigan shipwreck exhibit, on loan from the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven, showcases the mystery and danger of the lake and includes many recovered artifacts. More than 1,000 ships have sunk in Lake Michigan, but only about a quarter of them have been found!
Other museum highlights include detailed ship and lighthouse models, paintings from Ludington artist David Sulewski, and a giant, hand-painted panoramic landscape of Ludington created by storyteller Jacob Lunde.
“We hope that all visitors, both locals and people visiting the area, can come to the museum and learn about Ludington’s rich and unique maritime history and heritage, as well as the history and importance of the Great Lakes,” Harmsen said. “With quality exhibits and several interactive and hands-on experiences we also hope that visitors of all ages can have a genuinely fun and memorable experience.”
S.S. Badger, past and present
A Ludington icon, the S.S. Badger carferry is the last coal-fired passenger steamship in operation in the U.S. A National Historic Landmark, the Badger travels across Lake Michigan between Ludington and Manitowoc, Wisconsin, during the spring, summer and fall, treating passengers to a four-hour cruise on the historic vessel with modern amenities. Its docks are located just minutes from the maritime museum, where Badger history is on full display.
“The S.S. Badger is actually the last in a long line of carferries that sailed out of Ludington,” Harmsen said. “All of those, including the Badger, were built as railroad carferries to carry train cars across the lake for the railroad. The carferry industry is a major part of Ludington’s maritime history, so a lot of the museum is dedicated to telling that story.”
Much of the museum’s first-floor exhibits share the history of the Ludington carferries, from their beginnings in the late 1800s through the Badger. The first all-steel carferry, the Pere Marquette 15, set the standard for Great Lakes carferry design and was the first of the Pere Marquette/C&O Fleet that would eventually include 12 more carferries, the last being the S.S. Badger.
A fan favorite museum experience is the fully interactive pilot house simulator where visitors can take the wheel and simulate steering the carferry Pere Marquette 22 into Ludington harbor as it would have looked in the late 1920s.
“Visitors of all ages enjoy this hands-on exhibit that allows you to experience and interact with the history you are learning,” Harmsen said.
Or there’s the “Pere Marquette 22: The Ghost of Captain Van Dyke” exhibit, where guests are greeted by a hologram of Capt. Wallace Van Dyke’s “ghost.” Van Dyke recounts the story of his life and career, as he shares his amazing collection of maritime memorabilia.
The museum’s third floor houses an exhibit specifically about the Badger itself, called “Steaming into the Future,” which explores its nearly 70-year history.
When to visit
This year, the Port of Ludington Museum will be open Tuesdays through Saturdays (closed on Sundays and Mondays) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the last admission at 4:30 p.m. On average most visitors take about an hour and a half to see the museum, but many people take longer.
The museum is following all current capacity restrictions and precautions set by the state. Masks are required when visiting, and signs are in place to encourage social distancing. Surfaces are cleaned and disinfected regularly. “Anyone who has any specific questions about COVID precautions is welcome to contact us before their visit,” Harmsen said.