For some in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a ghost town is home
By JOHN CARLISLE
Feb. 25, 2018
ELM RIVER TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) — The view from Tom Chobanian's house is a thick wall of trees. It wasn't always, though.
"There used to be nothing but whorehouses here," said the wiry 29-year-old, pointing into the woods, recounting family memories. "This used to have 600 people. They had their bars right here, and, right here, there used to be nothing but wood stacked up. Lumber."
Chobanian lives in Donken, an Upper Peninsula town that isn't really a town anymore. More than a century ago, the Case Lumber Mill stood here and a whole town was built around it, named by the mill owner for his sons — Donald and Kenneth. It had a schoolhouse, a post office, a company store, a main street and, according to local lore, a few places where lumberjacks could unwind and get wild.
But decades after the mill closed, Donken slowly vanished. Now it's just a brief interruption in a corridor of trees along a narrow highway. There are a few crumbling buildings left surrounded by wildflowers on the main road, and there's a winding dirt road where only a few houses still stand, not far from the hollowed-out remains of the town's old lumber mill. Chobanian's mom lives in one of the houses; his brother lives next door in another. Farther down their road, there's a Vietnam vet with two guard dogs and a deep mistrust of strangers. Don't go down there, Chobanian warned.
Without a town around him, there's no work and not much to do all day.
"I cut wood, fish," he said. "I have a nice motorcycle. I go out and ride. I cut grass. Basically, if you don't keep busy around here you'll die quick, just sitting around. Boredom."
The Detroit Free Press reports that Donken is just one of hundreds of ghost towns in Michigan, localities that died when the jobs dried up after the trees were all cut down or the copper was all mined and everyone moved away. Many are located in the Upper Peninsula, where fortunes were often tied to boom-or-bust mining. But the densest concentration of them is in the Keweenaw Peninsula, the site of a sudden copper rush and an equally spectacular collapse when the industry died.
Many of these towns don't exist in their own right anymore; they're classified as unincorporated communities that lie within a larger municipality's boundaries, phantoms of once-living places. Donken, for example, exists in name only as part of Elm River Township.
There isn't much left to most of them, apart from a few stone foundations where buildings once stood. Others are little more than notations in obscure history books, or a historical marker along the highway. But not all ghost towns are completely deserted. A few, like Donken, linger on the edge of death, and only a handful of residents keep them from official extinction.
There's even one town at the north end of the Keweenaw Peninsula that one man has entirely to himself.
Life might seem bleak in a ghost town. For some people though, it's ideal.
"I love it. Oh, I love it. You don't even know," he said. "I love just the peace and quiet, just the wind blowing. You can't open up your door in a big city and piss out your back door. But here, you can."
The Keweenaw Peninsula is the upper peninsula of the Upper Peninsula. It's the state's northernmost region, a landscape of small mountains, dense woods, wild berries, winding trails, icy beaches and hundreds of inches of snowfall each winter spawned by Lake Superior.
The Keweenaw was a remote backwoods populated by Chippewa Indians until Michigan's first state geologist published a report in 1841 describing the massive copper deposits beneath the ground there. That spawned a land rush by speculators, investors and entrepreneurs who established dozens of mining companies in the region, followed by tens of thousands of immigrants from Finland, Cornwall and other parts of Europe who flooded the region to work in the mines. In response, the mining companies built and operated dozens of towns to accommodate them while they dug millions of dollars from the ground.
The region is known to this day as Copper Country because it was home to America's first mining boom, which, in its heyday, supplied nearly all the nation's copper and created 10 times more wealth than the California Gold Rush. The era of copper mining still defines the peninsula, from the ruins of shafts and mills dotting the landscape, to the trackless railroad grades now used as snowmobile trails, to the thousands of miles of tunnels carved out beneath the peninsula.
But rising production costs, a failed strike by miners in 1913 that required the Michigan National Guard to restore order and the collapse of copper prices during the Great Depression effectively brought an end to mining in the region. A brief spike in demand during World War II revived a few mining companies, but after the war, the jobs again vanished, this time for good. So did the residents, who left ghost towns in their wake as they moved elsewhere, leaving the buildings to be slowly consumed by the elements.
Today, the Keweenaw Peninsula economy relies mostly on tourists who come for hiking, fishing, skiing or snowmobiling, plus some small-scale logging operations. But that's a fraction of the economic activity of the glory days.
"This is also a very familiar story to so many American places, especially industrial places where you have a lot of people come and work in one particular industry," said Sarah Fayen Scarlett, a 41-year-old assistant professor of history at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, which was founded in 1885 as the Michigan Mining School specifically to train new mining engineers. "It's a one-industry town mostly, and then when something goes wrong with the industry it really, really affects the people who live there. And that's something that's happened over and over again in so many American towns."
She was standing in Lake Linden, near the ruins of a stamp mill for the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company, for years the leading copper producer in the world. An iPad in her hands featured an app that she helped create called the Keweenaw Time Traveler, which allows users to summon historical maps of any place they're standing in the Keweenaw Peninsula, ghost town or otherwise, to evoke from the past the names of the buildings and streets that in many cases are now gone, and to give life to the ruins left behind. It showed a long row of buildings at the spot where she stood, where now there's just a grassy park.
"I think there's a lot of human story in ghost towns, even though there aren't people there anymore," Scarlett said. "They're so evocative of what might have been there."
"I think it boils down to curiosity about how they came to be," said Dan Trepal, a senior research associate with the Time Traveler project. "And also just their picturesque appearance. It's a visually arresting spectacle to see these things here."
The Keweenaw is home to dozens of ghost towns, and they've become a popular attraction for tourists. Scarlett said she understands the enduring fascination with them — that whole generations could create something seemingly enduring, only to have it erased from the map and largely forgotten when circumstances change.
"You know, we have just the remnants of maybe a part of a church or a foundation, you can imagine someone's life happening there, and then having the physical remains of that wiped away can feel really sad," Scarlett said. "And it's probably something everyone's a little concerned about — what's going to happen to us when we're gone? Is anyone going to remember? Or am I just going to be this concrete slab left over from where I lived?"
You can survive in a ghost town by searching for buried scraps of metal, Chobanian said. You can get killed that way, too.
After the lumber mill in Donken closed decades ago, most local job options vanished. Chobanian grinds out a living by doing seasonal work like minnow trapping or selling deer bait for a few bucks here and there, but also through his own form of mining — exploring ghost towns of the region with a metal detector, hoping to find something of value left behind by those who fled years ago.
"I've nailed big chunks of copper," he said. "We've found silver, gold. You can still find it. And there's old wagon wheels wrapped around trees. As a kid I remember seeing them."
The key is to look for apple trees, Chobanian said. That's how you can tell where people once lived, because they're one of the few fruits that grow this far north, and people routinely planted them in their backyards.
He has also found old army guns and cavalry swords from a military supply road that ran through here from Wisconsin to Copper Harbor during the Civil War, as well as a stash of antique shotguns dumped after a locally notorious train robbery a century ago.
It's a dangerous way to make money, though, because there are old mineshafts and wells hidden by overgrowth all over the landscape. One blind step and you're done.
"With the grass grown over, they're wide open, and next thing you know you're 25 feet down in this hole. Back here about 300 yards there's a well that just drops right into the ground. You can hear the water. From Lake Superior, there's an underground river; if you look at a plat map you can see it. And it's pretty deep."
If you look at an old plat map, you also see a very different place than Donken is now. Old photos show a thriving town where now there are only trees. Those photos and maps can be seen in an old building not far from here, Chobanian said.
"There's an old bar, but they have pictures of the town, what Donken used to look like," he explained. "The guy will show you, if he's there."
A few miles down the highway, across from a defunct gas station, Mike Mallow stood inside his Art Deco masterpiece of a bar, which sits unmarked and unused.
"When I bought it, it was 14 degrees below, and I'm standing in my parka," said the 69-year-old, who purchased the century-old bar 15 years ago. "The windows, there was no glass on them or anything. And there was a big post in the middle of the room; they felt if they put it there it would protect the bar from all the heavy snow loads collapsing the roof."
The bar is located just outside Toivola, a former Finnish farming and logging town, another unincorporated community that sits within the borders of three different townships. It was a century-old bar called Fanny's Tavern, and it had been vacant for three decades when he found it.
Inside, an ancient cash register rests atop a massive polished wood bar, flanked by red, yellow and green glowing fixtures. Framed historical photos of vanished local towns decorate the walls and the shelves, including pictures of the old lumber mill in Donken, showing the widespread stacks of logs that Chobanian spoke of. And there's a secret basement tunnel to a neighboring house that functioned as a speakeasy during Prohibition.
Mallow thought a restored, historic bar would be a draw for the tourists who come here for the nearby lakefront resort and the lodge down the road that caters to snowmobilers. But few visitors leave those places to go exploring the area, which doesn't have enough full-time residents to support a local bar. "My first year, it was kind of like, 'Hello? I'm here.' Nobody came."
He tried switching to selling coffee for a time, but that too had limited success. So he closed the business a few years ago, and it's now for sale. It could've worked if circumstances were different, he thinks.
"The area has to have an attraction," he said. If only there were more offerings concentrated in the area so tourists have a reason to visit, some sort of marketable theme to this beautiful but unpopulated part of the state.
He stood by the long, wood bar, rifling through a box of old documents and photos, the unofficial historian of a world that no longer really exists.
"There's a little chain of lakes here, there's a state park right down there. You have to have the community kind of making an identity for themselves," he said. "To me, there's a tremendous opportunity here, and they missed it."
As always, Arbutus Peterson was sitting next to the big front window of her store, looking outside at what's left of the town of Phoenix, 40 miles north of Toivola. As always, there wasn't much out there to see.
A bird flew by. Then nothing. Minutes later, a car drove past. "All kinds of crazy drivers out there," the 84-year-old noted. More nothing followed. More silence. She stared past stickers of butterflies and bumblebees she put on the window so she'd at least have something lively in her view.
Peterson owns Phoenix Store, an old-fashioned general store built in 1873. It's one of the few signs of life for miles along this northern stretch of US-41 in the Keweenaw Peninsula. And for 11 hours a day, every single day, she's in that easy chair by the window, not even leaving to take a break for lunch. "I eat my lunch right in this chair, mister," she snapped. Ornery is her default demeanor.
"She's well known for her attitude," laughed Troy Westcott, 54, a regular customer who owns a restaurant in nearby Lac La Belle, another former mining town that relies on tourism. "She's been sitting here since '73, for 365 days a year. So locals, when you go by you wave at the window because she recognizes all of our cars, and she'll usually — if you're not going too fast — she can catch you and she'll wave back."
Peterson was born and raised in Phoenix, and, apart from a short stint in Illinois many years ago as a newlywed, she has spent her whole life in a ghost town. She and her late husband, Lyle, bought this store more than four decades ago, long after the town's abandonment, and moved into the upstairs apartment because they wanted to return to the slow pace of the Keweenaw Peninsula.
She has kept working well past retirement age because this store is her sole means of interacting with people in a town with few opportunities to socialize. As one of the rare stops along this highway, she's at least guaranteed some human interaction now and then. "I guess I wouldn't want to be just stuck in a house somewhere where I didn't see people all day long," she said.
Phoenix was the site of the Phoenix Mine, founded in 1845, one of the earliest copper mines in the region. At its peak, the town had a school, churches, hotels, a wagon maker, grocery stores and saloons. "They say there was 800-something people in this town," Peterson said. "Can you imagine that?"
But by 1893 a collapse in copper prices dropped the population to 100, and despite a spike now and then after that, it never again climbed much above that number. By 1910, the town was down to a hotel and a saloon, and it's only gotten worse since. Peterson's store is now the only functioning business in Phoenix. A few old houses still stand on a nearby hillside, most of them unoccupied.
"I like it all right," she said of life here. "I wouldn't mind if I had one or two other neighbors or something, but otherwise I like it the way it is. It's peaceful."
Her customers are snowmobilers in the winter, tourists in the summer. The store sells the basics — coffee, cans of soup, jars of pickles, bags of chips, toilet paper and paper towels. Inside the front glass counter, jagged chunks of local copper are for sale for a few dollars each, a token reminder of what was behind both the rise and fall of this town.
The store's fixtures haven't changed much since it opened a century and a half ago. Beer and pop are kept in antique, walk-in coolers made of thick wood and mirrored glass. A near-mint, century-old brass cash register sits atop equally old wood cabinets. "This is pretty iconic, and a lot of the locals stop here," Westcott said of the store. "It's kind of like stepping back into yesteryear."
Across the highway from the store are some historic buildings — a weathered log cabin, a preserved blacksmith's shop, an abandoned post office — all of them long empty. Just down the road there's an unused church built in 1858 to serve the Catholics working in Cliff Mine, the region's first successful mine, which opened in 1845 in Clifton, 2 miles south of Phoenix. The church was dismantled once the mine closed in 1870 and relocated to then-thriving Phoenix in 1899. But Phoenix soon became abandoned too, and now this twice-unlucky church sits in the second ghost town of its lifetime. Apart from special occasions, it's now a museum filled with strange, life-size mannequins that portray what life was once like here.
A tourist saw the quaint church and came into Phoenix store to make an inquiry. Maybe his daughter could have her wedding there, he wondered. After briefly snapping at him, as is her way, Peterson gave the man a church caretaker's phone number to call, and he left. Then she returned to her post at the window, waiting for something to see outside, musing about the future of her hometown, which for her was never much of a town to begin with.
"I don't know," she said, looking past the stickers of the butterflies and bees. "Hopefully, it won't die completely."
Beyond that window were the relics of the copper boom that remain all over the Keweenaw.
There's the Cliff Catholic Cemetery, founded in 1858 in Clifton, where the lettering on the weather-worn tombstones is in German, and the graves that haven't been swallowed by the forest floor are smothered by low-growing myrtle and shaded by knee-high thimbleberry plants with ripe berries hanging off the stems.
There's the town of Mandan, whose mine closed in 1909, where several intact, vacant, 19th-Century homes stand on a grid of empty streets. The houses survived this long only because they were for many years the summer homes of snowbirds who maintained them.
There's Delaware, just a dozen miles south of Copper Harbor at the tip of the peninsula. The old town's known as the "Snow Capital of the Midwest" for getting 390 inches of snow during the winter of 1978-79. A defunct underground mine offers public tours, and above ground there's still part of a powder house, a building of rough-hewn stone where miners stored explosives and where one wall was intentionally made weaker than the others so when the thing invariably blew up at some point, the explosion would be directed in a predetermined direction.
And there's one incredible ghost town just up the road from the Phoenix Store, a place that one man has all to himself.
Central is the most substantial ghost town in the Keweenaw. There are nearly two dozen houses still standing along a network of dirt roads, most of them intact and preserved. Some are even fully furnished, with beds and dressers in the bedrooms, iron stoves in the kitchens and antique cabinet radios in the living rooms, as if the residents just wandered off one day and left everything behind.
And in their midst is one home that's different from the rest — a small cabin of brown wood and white chinking, surrounded by a manicured lawn. It's the home of the lone resident of Central.
"It's very pleasant, it's peaceful and you know, it's Centrally located," joked Jim Vivian, the cabin owner. The 74-year-old retiree and county commissioner is a preservationist with an interest in history and an appreciation of the unique solitude in a Keweenaw ghost town. And he's also a member of the Keweenaw County Historical Society, which looks after this ghost town, which so enamored him that he chose to live here.
The town Central was created for the workers of the Central Mine, which operated from 1856 to 1898 and during that time mined 52 million pounds of copper. At its peak 1,200 people lived here. The last full-time resident moved away in 1952, though many of the houses were kept over the years as summer homes by former residents, which extended the lives of the homes.
In 1996, the historical society acquired 32 acres of the town and restored a number of the houses, created hiking trails, opened a visitor's center, designated the area as the Central Mine Historic District and began offering tours. For more than a century, descendants of the miners have gathered for a summer reunion at the Central Mine Episcopal Church, which was built in 1869 and has stood virtually unchanged since.
Central is similar to the Hanka Homestead down in Askel, about 50 miles south, where eight abandoned buildings of a Finnish farming homestead are preserved as a walk-through, visit-ready ghost town by a volunteer association.
Vivian is fifth-generation Keweenaw. "My family's been here since the 1850s, so it's kind of in my blood," he said. "All those miners kind of drifted south when all these mines petered out. Mine ended up in Houghton." He moved to Central 20 years ago.
Despite its rustic appearance, the interior of Vivian's home is like a genteel cottage. Heat came from a wood pellet stove. A bookshelf held several volumes of Michigan history. A whiskey decanter sat on top. A Tiffany lamp hung over the dining room table. Wood rocking chairs flanked an end table with thick books on it. And a turkey had been roasting all day in the oven for a dinner that a few of his five children would soon be driving in for, and it made the cabin smell like Thanksgiving.
"It was a run-down home, and we just started from the foundation and worked our way up," Vivian said. "You know, a therapy project so to speak."
Many of the other houses in town have been carefully refurbished by the Keweenaw County Historical Society, and feature period decor harking back to the mining days, including lace tablecloths on the antique wood dining room tables, china cabinets stocked with cups and dishes, old sheet music propped on pianos, and a 175-year-old marriage certificate so artistic it was framed and hung on a wall in one house. The displays are as good as anything in a major historical museum, yet they sit virtually unknown in an isolated ghost town, preserved by their remoteness, unseen except by a few.
Vivian hopes that will gradually change. To him, this particular ghost town won't be another fading relic of the past, but rather a part of the peninsula's future, eventually maybe even the kind of themed destination that the owner of the empty vintage bar in another ghost town miles away dreamed about, where people can come to see what life used to be like. Making that happen is one reason Vivian moved here.
"I don't think of it as a ghost town," Vivian said. "I think of it as a little village that we're trying to reconstruct and chase the ghosts away."
But the other reason to move here, of course was the incomparable serenity of living in a town all his own.
As he stood outside, a flock of wild turkeys shuffled right past him into the underbrush. His dog ran merrily through the wildflowers. And for that moment, the breeze rustling the trees was the only sound in Central, population 1.
"It's just, to me, a good way to spend the rest of my life."
Information from: Detroit Free Press, http://www.freep.com