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Ghost Town in the Thumb – Port Crescent

Port Crescent – Once a Buzzing Lumber Town

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 Overlay
Port Crescent Overlay on the Park Today

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.


Lumber Mill Operations
Lumber Mill Operations

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


Port Crescent Grist Mill
Port Crescent Grist Mill

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.


Port Crescent Sawmill Operations
Port Crescent Sawmill Operations

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

Port-Crescent-Village-Plat-Map-1870s
Port Crescent Village Plat Map

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.


Port Crescent School House
Port Crescent School House

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

Port Crescent Town Map
1800’s Map of Port Crescent

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.

Sawmill Chimney Port Crescent
Sawmill Chimney Port Crescent 1930s

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.

N.B. Haskell Home
N.B. Haskell Home

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.

Sand Operations at Port Crescent
Sand Operations at Port Crescent

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.

Steamers Loading Sand at the docks
Steamers Loading Sand at the Docks

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

Ghost Town
Port Crescent 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.

Chimney and Hopper
Chimney and Hopper

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.


Related Stories About Port Crescent


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Mike Hardy

Mike Hardy is a Marketing Information Technology Manager and author of a fun-loving blog covering topics of the Upper Thumb of Michigan. Starting in 2009, he authored a vast range of content and established a loyal base of 15,000 visitors per month. Mike welcomes your feedback, which can be found on Thumbwinds, "About" page.

18 Responses

  1. Its really great to read about these old places. We must never forget as we charge ahead. Dan

    • 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

      • 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.

      • ThumbWind says:

        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.

      • Hey yes. I must say I always seem to lament the times when things were just not that easy. We are very spoilt in some ways today.

      • David Rosbury says:

        In the last paragraph you included the line, “In the Organizations Area, a bit of foundation remains where a structure stood.”

        1) Where is the “Organizations Area”?

        While hiking west of the “old mouth”, not in the day use area, I came across what appears to be a length of sidewalk approximately 60 feet long with a flag pole made of galvanized pipe at the downstream end of it. The location is a little upstream from the remaining truss bridge. It is very close to the river on what is, for the area, a relatively large flat area. Also, on the way down to the river from the hiking trail in that location, there is a small structure built into the hillside. It appears to be built of cement block with a flat top and an opening on the downhill side facing the river. It is about the size of a large dog house.

        2) Perhaps you or Mr. Ken Peterson are familiar with these structures. If so, what were they, when were they in use, and by whom?

      • Mike Hardy says:

        Hard to say. I suspect it was part of the sawmill that sat on the west side of the river. On the map it’s pretty close to the river.

      • David Rosbury says:

        Ken, do you know anything about the following:

        While hiking west of the “old mouth”, not in the day use area, I came across what appears to be a length of sidewalk approximately 60 feet long with a flag pole made of galvanized pipe at the downstream end of it. The location is a little upstream from the remaining truss bridge. It is very close to the river on what is, for the area, a relatively large flat area. Also, on the way down to the river from the hiking trail in that location, there is a small structure built into the hillside. It appears to be built of cement block with a flat top and an opening on the downhill side facing the river. It is about the size of a large dog house.

        Apparently there was a building at that location, but what and when?

  2. 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.

    • ThumbWind says:

      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.

  3. N. Graham says:

    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.

  4. N. Graham says:

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

    • Ken Peterson says:

      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. )

  5. Ken Peterson says:

    People use to fish off that bridge, long before it got blocked off, we locals would or could drive before that back to the new mouth if you knew where you were going you did not get stuck in the sand. So many city people would try it and get buried (worse then getting buried in snow) right to the right of the bridge when you crossed it was an old road that turned and came back down right along the river bank, people would catch all kinds of fish there, i beleive to the left of the bridge the old road there was a home , my parents knew who’s it was, on the river. We use to walk from our cottage down between Jenks park and the old cartwheel INN (changed ot FIRESIDE ) many years later. down the beach to the river mouth. remember finding a rattle snake there , WEll my dad did, i did know know what kind of snake cause i was only about three lol. but dad always told the story to me about me running out of the snake grass with my pants down tripping . lol . Been gone now for twenty years , but even long before that once it became a park it was a bad thing for history , but good to save the wild surroundings, Some of the most beautiufl beaches in the state. one of my favorite fishing spots was on what i called the east side of the river, where the new mouth and the old river broke thru. was a great hole or very deep spot. it was all so peaceful and quiet untill the park opened up. the old chimney had some of my relations names carved in it, then later after it became a park they knocked down the chimney (from the old saw mill i think) and made a memorial chimney out of the saved bricks. Loved that area..

    • Mike Hardy says:

      Thank you for the great story. We walk back from time to time and enjoy the great view on the bluff. Sometimes geese congregate on the sandbar at the mouth of the river.

  1. June 22, 2016

    […] of the blogs I enjoy reading is ThumbWind, a blog about (you guessed it) Michigan’s Thumb. In A Ghost Town in the Thumb they tell the story of the town of Port Crescent that was within what is now Port Crescent State […]

  2. April 17, 2017

    […] Huron County is at the the tip of Michigan’s “Thumb”. With over 90 miles of shoreline the Upper Thumb has some of the best sugar sand beaches in the state. From Port Austin west to Caseville families can find numerous parks, waterfront summer rentals and campgrounds. You can even camp right on the beach waterfront at Port Crescent State Park the historical location of a long lost lumbering town.  […]

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