A temporal reality: The fate and fortunes of Sleeping Bear’s ghost towns | Northern Living
TRAVERSE CITY – A drive through the five ghost towns of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on the mainland reveals cautionary stories relevant to the present day.
The rise and fall of the parishes of Leelanau and Benzie Counties in the 19th century resurrected the fateful stories of once prosperous parishes.
“What we think is permanent is temporary,” said Kerry Kelly, board member of Friends of Sleeping Bear. “I think the people who populated these villages thought they would live on forever.”
Kelly documented reports of the missing villages for the Ghost Towns National Park brochure. He recorded their fate and fortune, which he sees today across a driveway.
History shows that it was a promising start for newcomers to the area. The demand for Michigan’s hardwoods and pine trees attracted settlers and business people to the area. Between 1849 and 1900, the state’s “green gold” generated more than $ 1 billion more than the California gold rush, according to the Center for Michigan History Studies.
Cities – now lost to history – built houses, schools, churches and shops and then disappeared when the forests were cut down.
The Sleeping Bear Tour begins with the village of Edgewater. Travel to Platte River Campground, then hike the old train platforms to Lake Michigan. Docks are the last remnants of this village, which once housed ships loaded with logs to Chicago or Milwaukee. When the Edgewater sawmill burned for the second time, there wasn’t enough wood left to rebuild. Loggers withdrew and the village buildings were dismantled.
Edgewater turned into a ghost town in 1903 when the last soul left.
“When a city’s livelihood depends on extracting things from nature, you are doomed if you don’t diversify,” said Jerry Heiman, director of the Benzie Area Historical Society.
The green rush in northern Michigan fed the growing nation’s hunger for wood. Exploitation of the forests began along the east coast and crept west as the forests were cut down. Heiman said the industry had moved from Michigan to Wisconsin, Minnesota and on to the Rockies.
Aral is the next tour stop. Remains of the destroyed city lie along the M-22 on what is now popular Esch Beach at Sleeping Bear. Follow the gravel road to Otter Creek. Look for a cabin foundation and large abutment reminiscent of past steam engine activities.
The rivalry between Edgewater and Aral’s logging led to Aral’s notorious reputation as the site of the first murder in Benzie County.
After the Aral sawmill was closed, the community broke up. The last standing family left the village in 1922.
Continue on the M-22 to Port Oneida, where its collection of old farms is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While the farm community continues, time has wiped out the village of Port Oneida.
One of the makers of the time, Thomas Kelderhouse, produced a large part of the lost city’s timber industry. He owned almost half of the land of Sleeping Bear’s Pyramid Point. For 30 years his fortune grew with the community. But by 1890, the forests were gone and ships that relied on wood for fuel were turned into coal.
Jim Kelderhouse, the settler’s great-great-grandson, said his own character grew out of the Port Oneida culture.
“What they passed on to me was the simple life,” he said. “I love the sense of community that they conveyed.”
Kelly noticed that the former village grounds were being mowed, revealing depressions in the earth where buildings once stood.
“Of the 1.7 million (annual) park visitors, maybe only one was there,” he said.
Follow County Road 669 off the M-22 to Lake Michigan Drive. Turn left and travel about a mile to Shalda Creek.
“It’s one of the nicest parts of the park,” said Kelly.
Hike along the creek to Lake Michigan, where North Unity (Shalda Corners) developed.
“Shalda Corners has a really interesting backstory,” remarked Kelly. “It helps to understand the difficulties people wanted to risk coming to the New World.”
Little is left of the village’s footprint, but that of a small, restored log cabin at the corner of M-22 and CR 669. The “Shalda Hut”, built in the mid-1860s, is an example of the building techniques of the time.
Good Harbor marks the last tour location. From the M-22, turn left on 651 County Road. Go to the Lake Michigan parking lot. Depending on the water level, some pier piles may be visible. They mark the location of the commercial cornerstone of the bygone community.
The village’s sawmill, built in 1880, had a capacity of 30,000 feet in a 10 hour day. In 1905 a fire destroyed the mill and 1 million feet of wood. Good Harbor’s economy collapsed and the buildings were dismantled and sold for lumber.
“There’s nothing left of the village, but you will likely find some small pieces of broken glass or dishes,” said Kelly.
Kelly believes the history of these once resilient communities is a lesson for our time.
“We have to be aware of natural resources,” he said. “Or things that we believe will be here forever may no longer exist.”