Ghost Town Under Port Crescent State Park

Michigan Ghost Town in the Thumb – Port Crescent State Park

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. It’s a popular tourist destination, and with its designation as a Dark Sky preserve, it gets stargazers every clear summer evening. However, a little-known aspect of this park is that it sits on the location of a Michigan ghost town.

Port Crescent – Once a Buzzing Lumber Town

Port Crescent Overlay
Port Crescent Overlay on the Park Today

What’s In a Name – Pinnebog Confusion In michigan’s history

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 pine and hardwood forests.

The growth of the lumbering town began with the construction of a sawmill at the lumber camp in 1851 by Woods and Company. The economy of the town was initially based on the Production of finished lumber. Loggers 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 now a Ghost Town

Port Crescent Plat Map
Port Crescent Village Plat Map

The booming lumber town had two steam-powered sawmills, two salt plants, a cooperage that manufactured barrels for shipping fish and salt, a gristmill, a wagon factory, a boot and shoe factory, a pump factory,  two breweries, several general stores, two hotels, two blacksmith shops, a post office, a depot and telegraph office, and a roller rink. Pinnebog employed hundreds of area residents. Despite it not being a typical company town, it thrived and quickly grew.

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 salt water.

A notable fishing industry also was started, partially herring and whitefish. At one time this 17 block village boasted a population of more than 500.

Port Crescent School House - Now the site of a Ghost Town
Port Crescent School House

In 1871 the town built its first schoolhouse. It was a two-story building and was 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 the camping area.

In 1881, another fire swept through the Thumb region, destroying the area’s timber resources. This was the proverbial last nail in the coffin. Port Crescent never became an industrial town like Caseville after lumbering petered out. It was on its way to becoming one of many Michigan ghosts town’s of the lumbering era

The Town of Port Crescent Declines

Port Crescent Town Map of the Ghost Town
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 of the little village 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.

Five Interesting Facts About Port Crescent State Park

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 - At the Ghost Town of Port Crescent
N.B. Haskell Home

Haskell’s daughter Elizabeth began to realize the value of the perfect location and excellent local sand quality for copper-smelting and glassmaking. Her family’s home was the last old building from the whole town of Port Crescent. The Haskell docks became a sand one of the many sand mining companies and hauling and shipping operations.

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 - Ghost Town
Chimney and Hopper of the old town.

Port Crescent Is a Local Legend

Today little remains of the former Michigan ghost town. Some say the concrete foundations of the original buildings are still under the forest floor. However, after tromping around much of the surrounding area, I can say nothing is visible. In the organization’s area, just east of the campground entrance,  a bit of foundation remains where a structure stood. A historical marker and a kiosk are outlining the tale of Port Crescent.

Port Crescent Sawmill Chimney Remains
Remains of the Port Crescent Sawmill Chimney

The lower 10 feet of the old foundations of the 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 old logging town, especially in the spring before the forest floor greens up.

The like dozens of towns in Michigan, the old cemetery for Port Crescent is located a quarter-mile south of the Dark Sky Tavern. It’s well kept and an ongoing genealogical resource for those looking for family members of the little town.

Known Residents and Businesses of Port Crescent

Allen John First Settler of Huron Country
Allison Robert Carriage and Wagon Factory
Armstrong James Purchased the Company Mill after the beginning of the Civil War
Ayres Millers from Port Austin. Purchased the Company Mill from Armstrong
Buttars Owned Company Mill Built the Company Mill
Cantelon Samuel
Cantelon Mr. Hume Sister
Carrington Mark Wrote an Almanac called the Mark Carrington’s Almanac
Church M. E.
Clark E. P. Rev
Cofield Jake
Cook O. S. Bookkeeper
Davis W. A. Manager of the Salt Block
Davis Sophia Wife of William Davis
DesJardins Samuel Architect
DesJardins Paul Minister
DesJardins Harriet Teacher
Eakins James Dr
Farman Fred
Frazer Will
Hackney Thos
Haskell Bennett
Hay Jennie Teacher
Hazen George F.
Holmes E. F
Hume Walter Original Founder Founded the settlement in 1844.
Hume Walter Jr.
James S. M. Professor
Janks Owned Company Mill Built the Company Mill
Johnson Hattie Teacher
Johnson J. B. Real Estate
Kennedy H. C. Owned the Traveller’s Home
Kimball Chas Lighthouse keeper
Kinde John
Laidlaw James Early Resident
Learned Jonas B Manager Learned Ayres Millers from Port Austin. Purchased the Company Mill from Armstrong
Learned Chas
Leiby John
Loosemore Hugh Hermit Lived at Loosemore’s Point found frozen to death in his “Castle”
McCoy William
McHale Mary
McKenzie Mary Teacher
Moon Professor
Mssrs Owned Company Mill Built the Company Mill
Nelson Vetla
Pack George
Pack Greene
Peebles E. D. School Superintendent
Penoyar V. V.
Provost John Hunter
Quinn Frances Student
Richards Doctor
Schilling Mary Wife of Walter Hume
Schlegelmilch Christian Frederick Owned Schlegelmilch Griss Mill Built the GrissMill
Schlegelmilch Frederic Teacher
Schlegelmilch Mary Student
Schlegelmilch Julius
Sellars F. W. Doctor
Shine John Attorney
Shine Eliza Teacher
Sinclair Thos
Smith Dan Logger
Soule Chas
Soule Irene
Spaulding Owned the Spaulding Mill
Tallinger Chas
Templeton John G. Rev
Thompson Owned Company Mill Built the Company Mill
Varty James Poet
Varty Willaim Worked for Woods Co
Wheaton Rev.
Williamson WM. C.
Williamson WM. C.
Wiswall Miller Millers from Port Austin

Information provided by the genealogy site

Port Crescent Pinnebog RIver 1931
Port Crescent Pinnebog River 1931

Huron County Michigan is an ideal spot to find your favorite family getaway. With the ability to enjoy a sunrise or sunset on over 90 miles of Lake Huron shoreline. With two large state parks, Sleeper and Port Crescent and over ten public county beaches, three are plenty of places to play and picnic. Play on the Shore of a Great Beach

Michigan’s Port Crescent State Park is one of the wildest and largest parks on Saginaw Bay. From its beaches, you don’t see a single cottage or sign of civilization. These shots were taken in the late Fall of 2003. Late Fall at Michigan’s Port Crescent State Park

Most states in our country have small towns tucked away from the hustle and bustle of state capitals and big cities. In Michigan’s greater Detroit area, Port Austin fits the bill. This harbor town is two hours away from Detroit in a straight drive up M-53 to the tip of the Thumb of Michigan. Fun in Port Austin – Tip of the Thumb

Michigan’s Upper Thumb is full of colorful history—from the boomtowns of the 1800s lumber era to the resorts and vacation homes of today. The area has long been acknowledged as an active paranormal region and has been the subject of books, film, and television. Haunted Sites to Visit in Michigan’s Thumb

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Michael Hardy

Mike Hardy is the owner of Thumbwind Publications LLC. It started in 2009 as a fun-loving site covering Michigan's Upper Thumb. Since then, he has authored a vast range of content and established a loyal base of 60,000 visitors per month.

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23 thoughts on “Michigan Ghost Town in the Thumb – Port Crescent State Park

    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,

      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.

      3. 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?

      4. 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.

      5. 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?

  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. )

  4. 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..

    1. 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.

  5. Thanks for mentioning the Cartwheel Inn. I was trying to remember the old name. My cousins and I also played at Port Crescent in the early 50s before it was a state park because we had a cottage just a few door east of the park. Those were the days when out parents would pack us a few sandwiches and send us down the beach for the day–I was about 9-10 years old. Do you remember the old spring near the chimney? It was lined with old boards at ground level and full of moss, but clean, cold water used to flow from it, and we kids used to drink it. I also remember taking a rowboat from the shore up the old river. And I remember once meeting a very old man who showed me the huge tree he had a swing on as a boy. Tree is no longer there, however. Never will forgive the state contractors for knocking down the historical chimney and dynamiting the salt well between the two rivers!! The fresh water spring near the chimney was covered up and is not there anymore either.

    1. Thanks for your insight on the Port Crescent State Park, before it was a park. A small display of the remains of the chimney remains at the entrance to the campground.

  6. So many memories,,,,,, less then three months ago i turned 75 already in only what seems a few years.. One of the OLD MEN that i learned a lot from was John Kinde. He had built a cottage himself and one for each of his two daughters. The one I knew well was Ann (Kinde) Hollister , husband was Lee. , had daughter and son, Annalee in my sisters class and they were best of friends and still are . the brother was a year younger then I, John Hollister, my best friend in grade school and Jr. High. the three homes (cottages) built out of stones collected by Mr, Kinde was used for each of the homes. Between my parents cottage and the Holisters, we spent most of summer days along the river and shores of Saginaw Bay from Oak Beach to Grindstone. but mostly Port Crescent. the cottages were across US 25 right to south of the highway bridge of the Pinnibog river. Not sure what generation but think Mr Kinde was so old he must have been all of 60 years and he’d take us fishing from the cottage out into the Bay. WE both had small boats with small gas motors and could go up and down the river to the cottage where the canoe delivery is today. (if it is still there) Mr, Kinde’s father or grandfather i believe was the founder of Kinde or named after them. “NOTE, in two different pictures the river mouths one had high bank and other was by the chimney. Not sure now what year but when the sand company mined the sand one high water season the sand caved in and the river gushed out and made the new mouth,,,,(as the end of rivers by lakes are called. the old mouth became a dead river so I am assuming it was in the late 40’s as i had fished both,,,, the old steel bridge that is by the Port Crescent road corner (blocked off now when state took over) was fun to fish off of. and the river was deep back then before it dried up into almost a stream. the new mouth was so wide. and the sand bars so beautiful, and so many fish in there,,,,,, and very few city folk knew about this natural beauty. we’d take the boat down oaring or quiet motor and see all the beavers . We’d stop at the old general store in Pinnebog , and Mr. Kinde would buy some lunch meat, they’d cut it with a saw. didnt have pre packed in those days, and we’d take a break from fishing and swimming to each Mr, Kinde would tell stories of his trips to Alaska etc. and he was one heck of a super man of loving nature,,,,,, so perhaps the eldery man you talked about was him. Knew ever inch of the river (like Davey Crockett knew every tree) we’d pick the wild blue berries and eat them like candy and saved enough for our moms to make pies… or another berry was what we called Thimble Berries which is a wild blackberry, (now they have tame ones) lol. IN the old cemetary the Nelsons and the Leidy’s were all related as well as the Petersons. Small community everyone was related and perhaps many married cousins or second etc.
    Mr. KInde and his wife owned the Kinde children store that had the fancy yellow brick front that he also had built himself.
    Well, another book , sorry , as my fingers don’t type like they use too, but my mind is still pretty fair, Mr Kinde and family have passed, Ann & Lee Holistr are gone whom were our parents age, and now many of our family are gone and friends too…….. Could not have ever wanted more in life then to be raised up in Huron County.

    1. Hi Ken, Great story that describes “the way it was” back in the day. BTW the rising lake levels resulting in a reopening of the old river outlet down from the steel bridge last year. I have no been back to see if it is still flowing.

  7. Wonder if that old man was John Kinde who knew ever tree along the river , and every bend. where eveyr sunken log was and could do any bird call you wanted him too.

  8. Oh how I would love to see the old stagnet river mouth flowing for a while. Barely remember the old mouth being active…. Awesome shoreline all along the lakefront .

What do you think?