Ludington Harbor is the seat of Mason County in western Michigan. Located at the mouth of the Pere Marquette River on Lake Michigan, Ludington Harbor is about 51 nautical miles (81 kilometers or 50 miles by air) north of Muskegon and about 86 nautical miles (156 kilometers or 97 miles by air) northeast of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The 2010 US Census reported a population of just over eight thousand people in Ludington Harbor.
A Great Lakes port, Ludington Harbor has a ferry service for passengers and vehicles from May through October that travels to and from Manitowoc, Wisconsin. With several inland lakes in addition to Lake Michigan, Ludington Harbor is a popular vacation destination throughout the year. Ludington Harbor's economy also depends on manufacturing of chemical and wood products, machinery, and rail and highway equipment.
The Potawatomi Nation lived in the area that would become Ludington Harbor before Europeans arrived. They called themselves the Bodewadmi, meaning "keepers of the fire." The Potawatomi were part of the Council of Three Fires, an alliance between the Ottawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi Nations.
Potawatomi warriors participated in Tecumseh's War, the War of 1812, and the Peoria War; however, they fought with the British and the Americans depending on the political atmosphere at the time. When the United States was establishing reservations for the indigenous people of the continent in the late 1820s, removal of the Potawatomi began, mixed race Potawatomi Billy Caldwell (also known as Sauganash), a fur trader, and Alexander Robinson (also known as Chief Che-Che-Pinqua) negotiated a treaty with the US that gave most of the Potawatomi lands to the States of Michigan and Wisconsin.
In the following years, reservation lands shrank as more and more Europeans entered the area. In 1833, Caldwell and Robinson negotiated the Treaty of Chicago that began the forced removal of the Potawatomi beyond the Mississippi River. Some of the people stayed in Michigan, and others hid with their Ottawa neighbors or fled to Canada.
Today there are several bands of Potawatomi that are active in the US and Canada. The Nottawaseppi Huron Band is about 126 kilometers (78 miles) southeast of Ludington Harbor. The Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band (also known as the Gun Lake Tribe) is located about 150 kilometers (91 miles) south-southeast of Ludington Harbor. The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi are based about 213 kilometers (132 miles) south of Ludington Harbor.
Europeans arrived in Pottawatomi lands when French missionary and explorer Jacques Marquette passed away and was buried in the future Ludington Harbor in 1675. It was 1845 by the time Burr Caswell settled at Ludington Harbor as a base for fishing and trapping. However, he did not become a permanent resident until he brought his family to Ludington Harbor in 1847. The early Ludington Harbor settlement took Marquette's name.
Mason County was created in 1855, and the first floor of Caswell's farmhouse in Ludington Harbor was used as the first courthouse in the county. In 1976, the Mason County Historical Society restored the structure as part of a museum in Ludington Harbor made up of several historic county buildings, White Pine Village.
Incorporated as a city in 1873, the former Marquette took the name of James Ludington, an industrialist whose logging company was the center of the earlier village. In that year, Ludington Harbor was made the County seat.
In 1875, cross-lake shipping began when the Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad used the side-wheel steamer John Sherman. When the Sherman proved inadequate for the freight volume, the railroad hired the Goodrich Line of Steamers to move breakbulk cargoes out of Ludington Harbor.
Sawmills and salt deposits brought rapid growth to Ludington Harbor in the late 19th Century. By the end of the Century, the booming lumber business had made Ludington Harbor an important shipping port for the Great Lakes.
In 1987, the railroad built the first steel car ferry, the Pere Marquette, signaling the birth of a fleet of ferries out of Ludington Harbor that carried rail cargo across Lake Michigan. Soon, the fleet was transporting passengers and cars to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, from Ludington Harbor.
By the middle 20th Century, Ludington Harbor was the world's biggest car ferry port; but declining industry and decreasing cargoes led to the decline of the ferry fleet. Today, only one ferry, the SS Badger, travels across the lake from Ludington Harbor on a regular basis and is one of the last two car ferries that cross Lake Michigan.