A Brief History
The Port of Muskegon’s ties to shipping goes far back into time, beginning with native traders of the Ottawa tribe. French fur traders began settling during the mid-1600’s and 1700’s. The village of Muskegon was incorporated in 1837, and several small villages along the lakeshore of Muskegon Lake would later merge into the city of Muskegon. The lumber industry began to take off at this point as businessmen came in to profit off of the vast pine forests of Michigan’s west coast. Many lumber mills were constructed along the shores of Muskegon Lake, and schooners would call from across the Great Lakes to load up with cargoes varying from lumber to pianos to furniture.
Numerous package freight companies began calling on Muskegon beginning in the late 1850’s, such as the famed Goodrich and Crosby lines. These companies would serve ports on Lake Michigan until 1925 when Crosby reorganized as Wisconsin and Michigan Transportation, eventually buying the old Goodrich fleet in the early 1930’s. Wisconsin and Michigan was purchased by Sand Products Corporation of Detroit in 1934, who continued package freight service.
Rail car ferry service was first initiated by the Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Western Railway in December of 1897 with the Shenango No. 2 arriving in port for the first time. She was soon renamed Muskegon, and would continue in this service until 1901, when she was sold to the Pere Marquette Railway and renamed Pere Marquette 16, sailing out of Ludington, Michigan. In 1933, rail ferry service returned when the Grand Trunk Railroad moved their ferry dock facilities from Grand Haven. The Grand Trunk fleet, composed of the ships Grand Rapids, Madison, and City of Milwaukee, would serve Muskegon until the City of Milwaukee made her final trip in 1978.
In 1927, Sand Products Corporation, a rising company in the Muskegon shipping industry, purchased the Pigeon Hill dune property from Nugent Sand, and set up mining operations complete with a loading dock for freighters. The first ship to load at the dock, the W. E. Fitzgerald, sailed out of Muskegon in 1936 with the first cargo of sand. Pigeon Hill was mined until 1967 when supply ran out. Sand Products Corporation played several roles in the development of modern shipping in Muskegon, constructing the Mart Dock near downtown Muskegon in 1933. They would also purchase the Wisconsin and Michigan Steamship fleet in 1934, and later refurbish the Milwaukee Clipper and Highway 16 for cross-lake service as well as the Aquarama for service on Lake Erie. The Clipper ran from Muskegon to Milwaukee from 1941-1970, and the Aquarama was laid up at the Mart Dock from 1962-1989. Today, Sand Products operates a fleet of self-unloading cement barges through their subsidiary Port City Marine Services, as well as a small excursion ship in Muskegon, the Aquastar.
The channel entrance to Muskegon was improved with the addition of a large breakwall from both the north and south sides of the entrance, with construction beginning in 1927. Work was completed by the end of 1931.
In 1947, the B. C. Cobb electric plant was constructed on the east end of Muskegon Lake for Consumers Energy. The plant would receive shipments of eastern and western coal for over 65 years when the plant was shut down in early 2016. The plant was demolished over the next few years, concluding in early 2020. The site is now in use as an aggregate storage dock. The S. D. Warren Paper Company also received shipments of coal for their paper production facilities on the south side of Muskegon Lake throughout the 20th century.
As shipping industry markets have changed over time, Muskegon sees far less vessel traffic than it did in days past, but still receives loads of aggregate, cement, and salt to the Mart Dock, Verplank Dock Company, and Lafarge facilities around Muskegon Lake. Muskegon is also home to four museum ships, the USS Silversides, USS McLane, USS LST-393 [formerly Highway 16], and the Milwaukee Clipper.
Sherman, Elizabeth B. Beyond the Windswept Dunes: The Story of Maritime Muskegon. Wayne State University Press, 2003.