Washed Away

Mason County was another Michigan county that I had had some trouble finding unique and interesting things to explore and write about. I mean, there were the usual one-room schoolhouses, and there are always barns and things like that, but you can find those anywhere in America, and I try to find stuff more specific than that for the purposes of this website.

So when I found out that there were still ruins left to be found at the site of the old lost village of Hamlin within Ludington State Park, I decided to just camp right there in the park. As it turns out I got most of the information I needed to compose this post from the informational signs found within the park. All I can say is: "Support your state parks!"

I arrived just in time to catch the midsummer sun dipping below the clouds and into the placid waters of Lake Michigan, so I decided to go for a brief frolic amongst the dunes, since no one else was around.

According to the Michigan County Atlas by David M. Brown, Mason County's government was organized in 1855, and it was first settled in 1847 by the Caswell family, who sailed a schooner to the mouth of the Pere Marquette River and built a driftwood cabin near a village of the Ottawa tribe. The pine logging began soon afterward, with sawmills springing up everywhere, reaching a peak in 1891.

When the pine was exhausted and the mills began closing, salt deposits were discovered in commercial quantities, so salt mining began. In 1897 the great Pere Marquette Railroad inaugurated its "Railroad of the Lakes" ferry system, which consisted of car ferries that moved across Lake Michigan from Ludington and Muskegon to points in Wisconsin. This continues today but with automobiles. Agriculture began as well, and Mason County still remains a big apple and cherry-growing area.

Mason County was originally set off as Notipekago County in 1840 (meaning "river with heads of sticks"), but in 1843 the state legislature must've decided that was not nearly colonial-sounding enough, so they renamed it after Michigan's first governor, Stevens T. Mason. Michigan actually renamed all 18 of its Indian-named counties all at once that year, which makes me wonder if it was spurred by some significant political development in 1843, or if it was just for ease of pronunciation by white people. 

One might also note that a mere six months prior, the Treaty of LaPointe marked the final major land cession in Michigan by the native tribes to the U.S. The treaty was officially declared in March of 1843—the same month that the state-wide renaming occurred. One might also note that during this same time Michigan was the recipient of a flood of Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine, and that five of the Michigan counties renamed in 1843 were subsequently given Irish names (purportedly to lure the potential Irish settlers into undesirable lands that the state wanted developed for farming). Today around 30 of Michigan's 83 counties still have Indian-related names, although nearly all of them were established after 1843, or have names based on pseudo-Indian words invented by H.R. Schoolcraft. Mackinac, Osceola, and Otsego Counties are the notable exceptions in that their Indian names were replaced in 1843 with another Indian name. 

A humid day ends in a rosy sunset. Can you see the fishing boat?

Next morning I woke up early to begin my search of the park for any ruins or remnants.

Hamlin Lake was formed by damming, to float logs to the mill when the lumber era was beginning. It was named after Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, who served under Abraham Lincoln. Cut lumber was then hauled by tram and mule to the mouth of the Big Sable River to be shipped on Lake Michigan, where the village of Hamlin was situated.

The father of Hamlin was Charles Mears, who you may recognize as the namesake of the town of Mears, located elsewhere in the county. He was a logging baron, who owned and built several other sawmill villages in the region, including one nearby named Lincoln (which explains why this one was named after the vice president). Mears built the first Hamlin dam in 1856.

Hamlin was bustling in the 1870s, a company town just outside the county seat of Ludington. Early diaries recorded that the village once contained 40 buildings, 25 of which were houses (some of which were even painted, and indicator of prosperity), and a covered bridge. Both a lighthouse and a Coast Guard lifesaving station stood sentinel at the lakeshore.

The map posted on one of the signs showed that there was a railroad track along the river for hauling cut lumber from the shingle mill to the docks, at the mouth of the river. There was also a lath mill, a boarding house, a steam-driven mill, and a company store down by the docks. Another boarding house was right next to the shingle mill, its location still marked by the old lilac bushes that used to sit next to it.

Dwarf Lake Iris again...? Apparently it was the peak of iris season, because I was finding these things everywhere on this particular trip, including in Gladwin County and Cheboygan County.

The shingle mill was built near the dam, and had a capacity to cut 15 million shingles per year, employing 60 men. Once upon a time, roofing shingles used to be cut from slices of wood, usually cedar. They lasted a lot longer than you modern folk would expect. In fact, cedar's natural rot resistance made such a roof last longer than the typical asphalt shingles we use now. It also looked a lot cooler.

Workers in these sorts of company towns like Hamlin were paid once per year, in the autumn. Living in a company town meant that you lived on credit based on your employment with the company for your room and board expenses. By only paying cash once per year, the company ensured that there was a reduced chance of workers disappearing at the end of each week to go get drunk and possibly fail to return (or to go look for a better job, for that matter).

Getting lost on my search for the old Hamlin Cemetery, I decided to go for a walk in the dunes again.

In 1872, Mr. Mears sold his interest in the operations here to Pardee, Cook, & Co. of Chicago. The dam burst in 1888 sweeping everything plus over a million board-feet of lumber out into Lake Michigan. The dam and the town were rebuilt and life continued, but its economy never quite got back to the level it was at before the deluge.

The second dam also failed in 1912, and it dealt the village of Hamlin its final death blow. A few dwellings remained until the 1930s, but they were removed by the CCC for the construction of the new state park. A third, new dam was built in 1914, but not for logging purposes. Today Hamlin Lake is the largest manmade lake in Michigan.

The maple trees here had been subject to extensive wind erosion, resulting in their roots becoming exposed from the sand. It made them look like the Ents from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

From this promontory, the expanse of Lake Michigan could be seen filling up the horizon.

Deciding I had better head back toward the dam area, I returned via a path that led down into a secluded vale between the forested dunes.

I knew I was way off course, but I couldn't help meandering for a while through this enchanting woodland. The silence in these deep dells was complete.

A long look uphill shows just how deep the valley was between these dunes:

Eventually this little ruined remnant of a cobblestone retaining wall signaled that I was approaching the cemetery:

It sits on something of a minor ridge-line, and has received a picket-fence upgrade in recent years:

The burials in this cemetery began in 1852 and ceased in 1912. The cemetery served as the resting place of not only Hamlin residents, but "unfortunate sailors and unknown victims of shipwrecks." A total of 50 graves were made here. Only two small headstones remain in this narrow burial ground, at opposite ends of the fence:


The grave of "Little Mary":

James Pendigrast...

Died September 21, 1879. Birth date is not listed, but you can probably bet he was alive to see the days before Michigan was even a state. He saw the primordial virgin forest that covered Michigan before we chopped it all down. He saw schooners on Lake Michigan, and often traveled by horse. He may have even seen British troops at some point.

After some more wandering I came across some actual ruins I did not expect to find:

These are the ruins of the shingle mill, the c.1889 dam, raceways, and control gates. With the dam breaking suddenly in 1912 large amounts of sediment were deposited here, and the river cut a new course for itself elsewhere, leaving the ruins of the former dam high and dry. Well, not totally dry by any stretch, since I was slogging through mush the whole time, and hopping over large pools.

This sloped metal object was the safety cover for a flywheel on an engine of some sort:

The two concrete pillars in the background were actually the sides of a control gate, I believe.

I began wandering out over a wider area to extend my search for other debris.

The remnants of a small concrete trench became visible as well, suggesting this was once a spillway.

The age of the concrete definitely looked old enough to be from 1889.

More wreckage in the swamp:

This turbine (see below) powered the shingle mill using water current from the dam. As the sign explained, this style of turbine was known colloquially as a "green mountain" propeller, but it was actually an old French design called an "Austin-Truax four-blade" that was believed to be superior to using large waterwheels. The turbine powered two saws: a pitman arm saw, and a shingle saw.

The rest of the wreckage of the shingle mill was either washed away or salvaged after the 1912 dam failure. In fact the equipment in this mill had probably been used elsewhere in North America before it was purchased and installed here at Hamlin. It was standard practice to sell and reuse a sawmill somewhere else after an area had been logged out, which is why finding the ruins of a complete sawmill anywhere is a challenge. Most of the ones that once milled in Michigan's woods probably ended their lives somewhere out West.

Knocking the mud off my boots I decided I had seen all of Hamlin that could be seen, and made my way toward the Big Sable Point Lighthouse.

Due to the fact that I was out of water and the drinking fountain in the park shelter by the beach was spitting out some cloudy swill, I opted to skip out on the 3-mile round trip hike through deep sand that would be involved to get there on this already hot morning. I had other destinations on my docket for the day, so I made the tough call and got back on the road with only this far-off telephoto shot to prove I had been at Big Sable Point:

It shore is purdy, though.

On my way back to Ludington I spied another ruin of some sort, although I think this is slightly more modern, and unrelated to Hamlin:

There looked to be the base of a silo nearby, making me think that perhaps there was a farm here at one time.

Then again, it's some pretty heavy machinery that would've needed to be bolted down to these big footings. A reader informs me that it used to be associated with the Ludington & Northern Railroad.

Ludington State Park signage
Michigan Ghost Towns II, by Roy L. Dodge, p. 45-53
Michigan County Atlas, 2nd Ed., by David M. Brown, p. 114-115


  1. Nailhed, Excellent article! You will find much more information about Mason County, the Ludington and Northern Railroad (whose ruins you saw by the road), The Dummy Train (whose old roadbed runs near our house, and much more by contacting the Mason County Historical Society.

  2. Thanks for this great blog. I grew up in Ludington and have never seen these ruins of Hamlin. I don't think my dad who is from Ludington also knew about them either. He used to take us to the state park all the time and never said anything about them.


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