Dec. 4 2015 12:15 PM

Book explores Michigan’s shadow and ghost towns

LANSING — Some are ghosts. Others are shadows. And a bunch have disappeared without a trace.

They’re once-vibrant communities that are vibrant no longer — if they survive at all as more than scattered cellar holes and crumbling walls.

“Michigan has many more ghost towns and villages that have vanished than most other states,” Alan Naldrett of Chesterfield Township writes in his new book, “Lost Towns of Eastern Michigan” (History Press, $21.99).

“There were hundreds, although many were just train whistle stops or four corner burgs with a post office.”

Naldrett, a retired librarian, said the book grew out of a long-time interest in history, including small towns and ghost towns.

Shadow villages still hold onto a bit of life. Ghost towns have “virtually no human activity.” As for those with nary a trace left of the settlements, they’re, well, erased. Most are absent from the official Department of Transportation (MDOT) map.

Reasons for their disappearance vary, including the decline of local lumbering and mining operations, a bypass by the railroad, disease, fire, dissolution of religious colonies or the closing of the local post office.

For example, among the casualties of two massive fires in the Thumb in 1871 and 1881 were hundreds of people who died, thousands who lost their homes and towns that went extinct such as Berryville in Otsego County and McKinley — originally called Potts until it was renamed for assassinated President William McKinley — in Oscoda County.

A series of calamities hit the doomed 19th-century religious colony of Ora Labora — from the Latin for pray and work — in Huron County. Many men left to fight in the Civil War. Mosquito-borne malaria struck. There was a “constant state of inebriation” because colonists preferred beer to water, Naldrett said. The post office closed. The remaining citizens divided the colony’s assets and gradually left.

Others towns found themselves absorbed as larger communities expanded, including Bay City, Detroit and parts of Macomb County.

Sometimes politics played a major role in a community’s demise.

For instance, when the Crawford County seat moved to Grayling, the original county seat of Pere Cheney faded and eventually died from a combination of declining timber, poor soil for farming and diphtheria, as Naldrett tells the story.

Some towns were, in Naldrett’s view, “destined to fail.” Among them was the lumber village of Podunk in Gladwin County, where “the last bit of life died when the school closed in 1955.”

And others, such as the one-time fishing and lumbering town of Alcona in Alcona County, “don’t die, they just fade away,” he wrote. “Around 1880, the lumber died and the town began a slow decline. The post office closed in 1903 and by 1933, the population was down to one.”

A similar fate befell Mikado in Alcona County, a former village that became unincorporated, although– unlike Alcona — it still rates a dot on the MDOT map.

Some ghost towns are tied to notoriety.

Among them is Rattle Run in St. Clair County, infamous for the 1909 murder in a Methodist church of a carpenter by a minister who cut his own throat after confessing. Another is Decker in Sanilac County, where domestic terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols stayed in the run-up to their plotting of the bombing the federal office building in Oklahoma City.

And Ogemaw County’s Lupton was near a hideout for Detroit’s Prohibition-era Purple Gang of hijackers and bootleggers.

Ironically, the lost town of Selkirk, just a bit south of Lupton, was built on the site of a lost Native American village that may have dated back to 1300.

“Native American villages had the distinction of being Michigan’s first lot villages,” Naldrett wrote.

He said his next book, scheduled for publication in January, is about “lost” auto plants in Detroit.

— ERIC FREEDMAN



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