Lost History VI: Ferry Family Contributions


by Ron Robotham


The article below continues the story of the Ferry family and their role in founding Grand Haven. It is part of the Examiner’s Lost History series, which tells lesser-known facts about the settling of our piece of the earth.

One can never seem to underestimate the far-reaching affect the Ferry family had on our West Michigan area. Although Grand Haven rightfully claims the patriarch, William Montague Ferry Sr., so do the communities of Ferrysburg, Muskegon (especially Mona Lake), Whitehall, and Montague. Also, established later, was Ottawa County’s Ferry Township, with the village of Ferry at its center, who claim their own connection.

All of these connections are not without some ‘Lost History’ of their own.  For example, how can Rev. Ferry be called the founder of Grand Haven when his friend from Mackinaw Island, Rix Robinson, was already on site when the Ferry family arrived?  We shared last week that, upon arrival, the Ferry family stayed with Robinson at his trading post until their own housing could be secured.  Rev. Ferry also spoke his first sermon at a worship service held at Mr. Robinson’s trading post on Nov. 2, 1834, only days after their arrival.

Even further, another related story tells about the naming of the town.  Rev. Ferry had been sent to the area by a partner, one Robert Stuart, whom he knew at Mackinaw. Ferry was to establish a lumber trade in the lush local forests.  He had taken a long exploration of several areas of Michigan before he settled at the mouth of the Grand River. It is worthy to note the settlement was on the south side of the river because the United States had no ownership of the north side of the river until a later treaty with the Native Americans. Rev. Ferry proposed to the authorities to name the settlement Stuart, after his friend.  However, Robinson had already applied to have the name established as Grand Haven.  Robinson’s application won the race, so to speak, and the name became Grand Haven.

Robinson was the owner of about fifteen other trading posts and had always felt his post at the confluence of the Thornapple and Grand Rivers was his home.  Therefore, he is claimed by the village of Ada as their founder, with appropriate monuments establishing their claim.

I would certainly recommend a further study of Rix Robinson for he is a fascinating pioneer from our frontier times.

Secondly, the most obvious Ferry connection is to the village of Ferrysburg. Before my own study, I assumed Rev. Ferry had settled Ferrysburg.  That was corrected as I learned about what I wrote above. The Ferrys did certainly lay out and establish the village of Ferrysburg, but not until 1857. Not only was it later; it was also not by the elder Rev. Ferry but by William Ferry, Jr., and his brother, Thomas White Ferry. The two brothers ran most of the businesses that became Ferry and Sons.  As a small aside, they also established a bank in the 1850’s that became the National Bank of Grand Haven in 1871, (coincidentally aligned with the “Hackley Gold Controversy”).

The third connection leads us north to the area known as Lake Harbor and the channel connecting the lake to Lake Michigan.  There are two connectors here and we’ll start with the saw-mill.  Remember, Rev. Ferry came to this area to establish the lumber industry. Yes, he was certainly a pastor and a missionary to the area, and also an abolitionist whose work is obvious, but the Ferry businesses were varied and many.  Around 1861 the Ferry Brothers built a mill on the south side of the Lake Harbor channel. Also, the Ferrys operated a fleet of schooners that helped all the mill owners transport their lumber to Chicago and Milwaukee. They  are credited with dredging the channel to allow more traffic, if the boat’s draft was shallow enough.  One of the Ferry schooners had a shallow draft of about five feet and could enter the channel.  It is reported to have traveled around Lake Harbor and Black Lake (later combined and named Mona Lake) to pick up fruit and transport to markets in Chicago. One source stated that the schooner would only load about two-thirds of a load, traverse on out to the big lake, and load the remainder off the docks there.  There is a picture of their mill in the book Lake Harbor: the Beginning of Norton Shores.

The fourth connector takes us north to White Lake where the Ferrys established a saw-mill in 1854.  Rev. Ferry’s third son, Noah, with his youngest brother, Edward Payson (only seventeen years of age at the time), ran the mill. Noah was loved by his fellow workers.  He never married and lived with his men, and they highly respected him. As the Civil War loomed, he and 102 of his men organized a militia unit named the ‘White River Tigers” with Noah as their Captain.  They enlisted in the war effort and became Company F of the Michigan Fifth Infantry. The sad story is that Noah, Major Noah Ferry of the Michigan Fifth, was killed on July 3, 1863, in the terrible Battle of Gettysburg.

In his memory, Ferry Memorial (originally a Presbyterian Church) was established. Noah and his family were well loved in the area. Consequently, they adopted the family name of Montague for their town.  Noah’s brother donated the property and built the church in 1874 to honor his brother.

One last brief story opens the door for another entire study by bringing up the name of another great West Michigan lumber pioneer. That man was Charles Mears.  We won’t take time for a long history. Albeit, I recommend him for your next readings.

Mears also had a mill on White Lake but on the opposite side from Ferry. Mears’s mill was on the south side, and in 1859 he named the village, Mears.  But, he was overruled by other local men, and in 1867 it was renamed Whitehall, because of its proximity to White Lake. (The Mears name lives on in the Oceana County town that features Silver Lake Sand Dunes, and in the significant Whitehall Street, Mears Avenue.)

Thank you for joining me to share some pieces of “Lost History.”  There are many stories and lots of history, so I would hope you keep studying and learning about our wonderful area.

“To be continued”