Port Crescent – A Ghost Town in the Thumb

Port Cresent State Park Beach South

Port Crescent State Park is one of the largest state parks in southern Michigan.  Located at the tip of Michigan’s “thumb” along three miles of sandy shoreline of Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay, the park offers excellent fishing, canoeing, hiking, cross-country skiing, birding, and hunting opportunities.  However, a little-known aspect of this park is that it sits on the location of a ghost town. 

What’s In a Name – Pinnebog Confusion

Walter Hume established a trading post and hotel near the mouth of the Pinnebog River in 1844. From these humble beginnings, the area took the name of Pinnebog, taking its name from the river of which it was located. However, a post office established some five miles upstream also took its name from the river. To avoid confusion the town changed its name to Port Crescent for the crescent-shaped harbor along which it was built. 


Port Crescent – Industrial Powerhouse

Port Crescent had two steam-powered sawmills, two salt plants, a cooperage which manufactured barrels for shipping fish and salt, a gristmill, a wagon factory, a boot and shoe factory, a pump factory,  two breweries, several stores, two hotels, two blacksmith shops, a post office, a depot and telegraph office, and a roller rink. Pinnebog employed hundreds of area residents.

By 1870 a 1,300 foot well struck brine.  This started a salt blockhouse operation where they extracted brine by evaporating the water to produce 65,000 barrels of salt annually. Port Crescent used the “slash” or leftover limbs, bark, and sawdust for fuel to boil the salt water. At one time this 17 block village boasted of a population of more than 500

Port Crescent prospered as a lumber town from about 1864 to 1881. One sawmill became so busy salvaging thousands of trees felled in one of the infamous fires experienced by the Midwest in 1871 that it added a 120-foot brick chimney to help power the plant. In 1881, another fire swept through the Thumb region, destroying the area’s timber resources.

Port Crescent Grist Mill
Port Crescent Grist Mill

The Town of Port Crescent Declines

When the timber in the Pinnebog River basin was gone, the town began to decline.  The lumber mills closed, as did the firewood-fueled salt plants. Workers dismantled some of the buildings and an 800-foot dock, moving them north to Oscoda, Michigan. Some Port Crescent residents moved their houses to nearby towns. By 1894, all of the buildings in Port Crescent were gone, leaving few traces of the town behind. Nathaniel Bennett Haskell, who owned the sawmill and salt plant on the west side of the river, began to export white sand which was used in the manufacture of glass. This continued until 1936.

Port Crescent State Park

Port Cresent State Park River Bank

After  World War II, the demand for public use areas along shoreline property stimulated interest for an additional state park in the Thumb. Twenty years later, the Michigan Department of Conservation acquired possession of 124 acres of fine woodland at this place for a new state park. Port Crescent State Park was officially established on September 6, 1959.

Today little remains of the former town. Foundations can be seen, in the Organization Area, where a structure stood. The lower 10 feet the old sawmill chimney is a prominent part of the park entrance.

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13 thoughts on “Port Crescent – A Ghost Town in the Thumb”

    1. My home area. Bad Axe for 53 years, but had cottage just down the beach a bit from the park towards Port Austin. knew ever branch of every tree. long before they made it a park. knew ever curve in the river long before they had any canoe rental place. knew all the trails to drive back in on…. and the old chimney was so cool to go inside of. Caught lots of turtles in river, fished the whole thing from my small boat as would come from cottage, go up the river to the highway (25) and back, spend a ton of time on the beaches as it was so remote and beautiful. Had some good high school parties back there too. lol. but we did not damage it…. not like the city gangs did when they came up. My Grampa , passed in 1912, and great Grampa and Great Great Grampa are buried in the Port Crescent cemetary. I remember the days when there was o maintance for many years of it, lke a forgotten place. Ken Peterson, 2016startingover@gmail.com

      1. Wow. Thank you for sharing. Places change so fast now days. Clean open space is getting so hard to find. Even my little town has grown to the point that I don’t even know the faces anymore. Very strange feeling indeed.

      2. Yes it is. Imagine in the early 1900’s with automobiles. Now you could travel in a day what took weeks in areas the railroad didn’t serve. Thanks for stopping by.

  1. I was from Bad Axe, 53 years, but also claimed Port Austin my summer home, I grew up knowing a lot about Port crescent as having a cottage not far down the shore from the mouth of river,,,,,,,,,,,, you failed to point out there is the old mouth and the new mouth as we call it, . the old chimney was so neat, use to walk inside of it, So much wildlife to see, walk across the dunes to the lake, and i think all teenagers got stuck in the sand at least once or twice, got to know how to drive all the way to the mouth . Also took my boat up and down the river from the lake under the bridge on 25. watched beaver and birds and other wildlife. fished the river a lot.
    Also there is a cemetary there, just abut a quarter mile down the port Crescent road. My grandfather is there, buried in 1912… other relations are there too. had some group like the hells angels come in with pickups and destroyed the cemetary breaking the old headstones . what a sad day to see that. so nobody really knows where the graves are. i do know where my grandparents are and my great grandparents and i believe my great great grandparents are all buried there, correct me if i am wrong now but i think it was made a national cemetary or historical one.
    Ken Peterson.

    1. Awesome post. Thanks for filling in details that no one else seems to know. Your one of the few who can tell what it was like first hand.

  2. I’ve long been a big Thumb fan. Check out my book, “Lost Towns of Eastern Michigan” which includes Ora Labora, Grindstone City, Port Crescent, Tyre, Lum, Forestville, and more.

  3. Thanks! Also wanted to mention that the bridge of Port Crescent is still there and worth checking out. Also, the Port Crescent Cemetery.

    1. many years ago as a kid use to fish just a few feet from the bridge, Wish I knew when the new mouth as we old timers called it along wiht our fathers, washed out thru the dunes and the old mouth became very dead. the old river ran next to the chimney which is now just a memorial type structure, The old chimney was so neat to go inside of it and see the intials of lovers and dates of years back. yup, 53 years of living and loving it there, Kenneth Arthur Peterson (my grandfather Arthur and great Grandfather Chris Peterson buried in cemetary there. )

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