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 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.
Port Crescent – Once a Buzzing Lumber 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. At the time, the thumb was an “impenetrable wilderness” of thickets and tall forests.
The growth of the lumbering town began with the construction of a sawmill in 1851 by Woods and Company. The economy of the town was initially based on the Production of finished lumber. Lumberjacks cut and moved the trees in the winter and moved them downriver in the spring to the Company mill. By March ships would arrive at the dock and the finished umber would be shipped to towns all along the lower Great Lakes.
Christian Schlegelmilch ushered in the start of the agricultural aspect of Port Crescent with the first steam-powered gristmill in Huron County in 1868. The flour was known for its excellent quality
Around the same time, the town was assigned a post office. The postmaster named it Port Crescent, noting the shape of the large crescent-shaped beach. Some of the residents objected, preferring to name the town Pinnebog, the name of the river. However, the village of Pinnebog to the south was already established and the name of Port Crescent stuck. In 1871 telegraph service was established, putting the town in touch with the world.
Stagecoach service was available on a weekly basis. The two-day journey ran between Port Austin and Bay City with stops in Sebewaing and Port Crescent. The service included the delivery of mail and newspapers.
Port Crescent – Industrial Powerhouse now a Ghost Town
The booming lumber town 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 salt 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 saltwater.
A notable fishing industry also was started, partially herring and whitefish. At one time this 17 block village boasted of a population of more than 500.
In 1871 the town built its first schoolhouse. It was a two-story building and noted as one of the largest schools in Huron County. The school could hold as many as 100 students.
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 and Thumb area in 1871 that it added a 120-foot brick chimney to help power the plant. The remains of the chimney are still visible near the State Park entrance. In 1881, another fire swept through the Thumb region, destroying the area’s timber resources.
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.
Many of the sturdy buildings were literally taken off their pilings and hauled away to nearby Port Austin, Kinde Bad Axe and other towns.
In 1886 a fire started at the Company mill. Lumber stored on-site ignited and the flames spread. The fire burned down the “Big House”, the finest home in the city that was built in 1872 and used by the mill owners and managers. The fire and loss of the Big House hastened the end of Port Crescent toward its status as a ghost town.
One of the newer buildings was the All Saints Church built-in 1884. By 1907 it too was moved to Kinde by the Lutherans. By 1890 the Huron Grindstone Company had purchased the mill, salt block, and dock of the former Woods and Company. The buildings were dismantled and moved to Grindstone City.
Sand Operations for Glass Manufacturing
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 passed away.
Haskell’s daughter Elizabeth began to realize the value of the local sand quality for copper-smelting and glassmaking. The Haskell docks became a sand mining and hauling operation.
Elizabeth sold her holdings in 1918. By the 1920s the business became part of Sand Products Corporation. The lumber town of Port Crescent was all but gone. It was now truly a ghost town. Sand Products built a huge dock and rail line that enabled 500-foot freighters to dock and load right up at the beach.
The unique sand along the beach was exhausted in the 1930s and the operations were abandoned.
Port Crescent State Park on top of a Ghost Town
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 ghost town. In the organization’s area, just east of the campground entrance, a bit of foundation remains where a structure stood. The lower 10 feet the old sawmill chimney is a prominent part of the park entrance. Hikers exploring the west side of the park in the trail system can still find evidence of the former lumber town, especially in the spring before the forest floor greens up.
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