In the mid-1600s, the French missionary Jacques Marquette paddled his canoe along the Lake Michigan shore near modern-day Ludington, exploring the Great Lakes for God and country. In the 1840s, Burr Caswell from Illinois settled there to farm, hunt, and fish.
But as the city of Ludington celebrates its 150th birthday in 2023, residents can thank a 19th-century lumber baron for officially organizing the city that bears his name — a city in which the lumberman never lived.
“James Ludington was key to the success of this city,” says Rebecca Berringer, executive director of the Mason County Historical Society, “but he managed his Michigan operation from his home in Wisconsin.”
Ludington and his team of managers bought up dense pine forests and built an efficient network on the Pere Marquette and Au Sable rivers to float the lumber to the new settlement’s harbor for transport on the Great Lakes. When Eber Brock Ward brought the Flint & Pere Marquette Railroad to town, Ludington relied on it to broaden his operations.
At its peak, the city of Ludington produced 162 million board feet and 52 million wooden shingles. The city’s harbor grew so robust that it became the home port for 34 rail and passenger car ferries, which moved lumber and other goods from nine ferry docks. By the 1950s, the city of Ludington ranked as the world’s largest car ferry port.
“James Ludington put all the pieces in place to create a successful town,” says Berringer, who points out that included mapping out the city’s streets, and naming them after family and colleagues such as Frederick Dowland, the general manager of the Pere Marquette Lumber Co., and Luther Foster, the superintendent of that firm. Their names still grace the streets of town today. “But lumber was key. Had it not been for the lumber industry, Ludington wouldn’t look like it does today.”
It was the combination of two natural resources — a forested landscape and a Lake Michigan harbor — that fostered Ludington’s settlement 150 years ago, and it’s those same resources that are responsible for the city’s tourism business, which has become the primary economic driver in Ludington today.
The Ludington area is home to two lighthouses and five beach parks, including the 5,300-acre Ludington State Park.
Stearns Park offers a beach, playground, picnic facilities, and a walkable pier in the heart of downtown. Waterfront Park occupies 5 acres on the city’s historic harbor, and has playground equipment, an amphitheater for summer concerts, and nine bronze sculptures that trace the city’s history.
Several inland lakes and rivers popular with hikers, anglers, paddlers, and cyclists lie within the greater Ludington area, and the S.S. Badger, which celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2023, still transports cargo, passengers, and vehicles to Wisconsin from its home port in Ludington.
“We in Ludington are fortunate to have a community that was founded as an industrial town but had a successful conversion into one of the lakeshore’s more livable communities,” says City Manager Mitch Foster. “The balance between commercial and leisure activities has been here in Ludington for a long time.”
The city has found a balance between appreciating modern perks and remembering its past. The Mason County Historical Society, whose mission is to keep Ludington’s history visible, dates from 1937, when Ludington was only 64 years old.
Ludington celebrates its sesquicentennial year with a summer’s worth of activities. The Love Ludington Weekend in June is expected to be an early highlight, with a street party, a half-marathon, historic home and B&B tours, and ice cream from a local favorite, the House of Flavors.
Free outdoor concerts in Waterfront Park featuring the Scottville Clown Band and other performers will take place in June, July, and August. The Mason County Historical Society’s Sesquicentennial Ball at the century-old Stearns Hotel is set for October.
While Foster is as enthusiastic as anyone about the lineup of 150th anniversary activities, he thinks 2023 also marks a serious opportunity to consider Ludington’s future.
“We want to continue to find a balance between being a city that’s attractive to retirees and to young people,” Foster says. “We want to ensure that we have clean water and that we have clean energy, since our lakeshore is so important to who we are. We want to make Ludington affordable and attractive for years to come.”
Ready to travel? Make plans for these special 150th anniversary events.
Love Ludington Weekend
A downtown street party, the Lakestride Half-Marathon, historic home tours, and the S.S. Badger’s 70th Anniversary Birthday Bash.
Ludington Sesquicentennial Concert with the Scottville Clown Band
Waterfront Park Pavilion.
Freedom Festival Parade and Fireworks
The city’s Independence Day party, shown in the photo above, goes big for its 150th.
July 29 and Aug. 5
West Shore Bank Rhythm & Dunes Concerts
Concerts at the Waterfront Park Pavilion featuring ’90s rock in July and boy bands in August.
Mason County Historical Society Sesquicentennial Ball
A plated meal, music, and dancing at the 1903 Stearns Hotel.
Ludington Area Convention and Visitors Bureau
Ludington’s 150th Celebration