Ghost Towns of the Upper Peninsula


Ghost town.

What image do those two words conjur?

Maybe a tumbleweed that blows across your path as you stand on a dirt road and watch that same wind flap the raggedy, squeaking shutters of derelict buildings? Perhaps a battered farm windmill churns ominously in the background.

You have arrived. It could be the old American west, a horror movie set up, ivy-covered stone buildings left on a hillside in Europe, or many other places. There are "ghost towns" all over the world.

So I figured I'd look into ones a little closer to home, and discovered the ghost towns of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the US.

The story isn't an unfamiliar one; many of these towns were built around a booming industry - mining, specifically for copper; lumber; intercontinental shipping on railroad grades that are now used as snowmobile trails.

Welcome to the Keweenaw Peninsula, Michigan's beautiful, rugged copper country

Episode: File 0072: Haunted People, Places and Things Pt. 2

Release Date: June 3 2022

Researched and presented by Halli

Keweenaw History

"Pronounced KEY-wah-nah, an Ojibway word that means "the crossing place" or "land crossing between two bodies of water." It refers to traversing Portage Lake to reach the Keweenaw Peninsula."

Keweena is the northernmost part of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, or UP. It projects onto Lake Superior and is home to roughly 43,000 people.

The climate, which sees brief springs, mild summers, colorful cool autumns, and winters that get anywhere from 180 to 250 inches of snow, makes the area's landscapes diverse. Gorgeous beaches are backed by some of the world's oldest known lava formations, and peaks reach as high as 900 feet. There are forests, mountains, lakes, waterfalls, and much more.

Copper used to be so easily accessible in the peninsula that the indigenous peoples living there could crack it right off the surface of the earth. They found large nuggets of copper and used them for tools and trading and even ornamental objects during the Middle to Late Archaic Stage (8000 to 3000 years ago).

"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."

During the middle of the nineteenth century was when settlers in the area grew the copper industry, employing thousands of people in the mines and nearby towns that sprung up in the wake of the copper boom. At the same time, there was a massive white pine logging boom.

Keweenaw Peninsula is also home to ghost towns like Fayette, Central, Pere Cheney, and Nonesuch. (Yes, that was its name.) A lot of these towns popped up as part of the copper and logging boom-and-bust era in the mid-to-late 1800s and early 1900s.

"The discovery of copper in 1840 by Michigan's first state geologist, Douglass Houghton, brought about America's first mineral rush which led to a rapid influx of immigrants to the area. Fortune-seekers from all around the world flocked to the Keweenaw.

To accommodate the needs of the copper miners, towns sprung up across the landscape, complete with hotels, saloons, churches, brothels, and general stores.

Quiet streets, dilapidated houses, and forgotten cemeteries offer a haunting glimpse of a by-gone era, one that produced 10x more wealth than the California Gold Rush."

Now, the area relies mostly on tourist dollars, from hikers, skiers, and the like, plus a few small-scale logging operations.

"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."

"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."

Cliff Cemetery
Cliff Cemetery

There's a lot of history in these ghost towns, even long after the residents have passed on. Scrappers and scavengers have found old guns, bits of copper, gold, and silver, relics, old wagon wheels "wrapped around trees" and much more. One resident living in this area said to "look for apple trees...[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."

You can find old graveyards, like Cliff Cemetery (image), reproduction general stores, visitor centers, and more. But this part of the UP isn't a bustling hotbed of things to do. It attracts mostly history buffs and outdoorsy types, and that's not exactly bringing in heavy tourism dollars. So even today, Keweenaw Peninsula stands largely untouched, and mostly abandoned.

Ghost Towns of Keweenaw

Fayette is a perfect example of many of the ghost towns in Keneewa. It's now home to a state park that contains the town's ruins, including the massive twin furnaces for smelting iron, a company store, a hotel, and a few private homes. At its height, from 1867 to 1891, roughly 500 people lived in Fayette. When the charcoal and iron smelting industries died down at the turn of the century, the town faded and eventually became what you see today.

Some towns, like Phoenix, have a few more residents. Even if some of them are mannequins.

Phoenix was the site of the Phoenix mine, founded in 1845, and it was one of the earliest copper mines on the peninsula. The town boomed - soon stores, a school, churches, hotels, and more popped up. There were over 800 people in the town at its height. But the 1893 collapse in copper prices dropped the population to around 100, and it never got far above that, even today. Arbutus Peterson runs the only store in Phoenix now, and she's a retired octegenarian who loves how peaceful everything in Phoenix is. But it's not without its humor.

Just down the road [from Peterson's store] 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."

Then there's Delaware, about 12 miles south of Copper Harbor at the tip of the peninsula. The ghost town is known as the "Snow Capital of the Midwest" for getting 390 inches of snow during the winter of 1978-9. (image) The defunct mine gives 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 then there's the town of Central.

"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."

Jim Vivian is a 70-something retiree and county commissioner, preservationist, and amateur historian. He loves the town of Central, and chose to live there because of his admiration for its history and beauty.

"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.

..."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."

And now, to wrap us up, a few ghost stories from in and around the peninsula.

Madame Modjeska and the Calumet Theater

Reports of the presence of Modjeska, a Polish actress, have floated around the peninsula since around 1958. She died in 1909, a few years after the Calumet Theater opened. Modjeska was a famous Shakespearean actress who performed at the Calumet three times before her death.

Executive Director of the theater Laura Miller said, "We developed our haunted reputation in 1958 when actress Addyse Lane lost a line talking about "Taming of the Shrew", and she saw the spirit of Madame Modjeska come to her from the first balcony and mouth the words to her. Since 1958, there have been several different people that have claimed to see the spirit of Madame Modjeska."

And from the theater's press release before a fundraising event in 2016:

In recent years, several professional paranormal teams have conducted investigations at the Theatre. Based on data acquired from their scientific equipment, paranormal activity has been confirmed.

The Calumet Theatre first gained its haunted reputation in 1958. On July 22, 1958, actress Addyse Lane was performing as Kate in Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. During her soliloquy in Act V, Scene 2, she lost a line. While ad-libbing, Lane saw a bright light from the balcony come toward her. Madame Modjeska's hand reached out to Lane's hand and the missing word was spoken to her. After the show, Ms. Lane swore that Madame Helena Modjeska appeared to her, helping her recover from the miscue of her speech. Since then strange and inexplicable occurrences have been reported at the Calumet Theatre."

The theater is truly beautiful and it's not hard to image the lingering ghost of a performer - perhaps the Madame herself - awaiting her cue from the wings.

The Lilac Room, Landmark Inn, Marquette

The Lilac Room
The Lilac Room

South of Keweena Bay and near the Ishpeming National Mine is the town of Marquette, Michigan. It's the largest city in the entire UP. It has half the population of Keweena Peninsula, for scale. The Landmark Inn is a historic building in downtown Marquette, and it seems like the entire town knows the story of the Lilac Room.

Opened in January 1930, the hotel quickly became the hot spot in Marquette. And celebrities like Duke Ellington, Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Stewart, and more stayed there. But no one is more famous than the Lilac Lady.

The tale that accompanies the room is that of a young woman whose lover was a sailor who set out on Lake Superior and was never seen again. Did he jilt her or did his ship go down? These questions about his disappearance plagued her to a point where she couldn't take the grief anymore. She was found in her room after hanging herself out of despair.

Evidently not accepting her lover's fate - or even her own - she remains in the room, as if waiting for her sailor to return. Guests who stay in that corner room have seen her ghost standing at the window, lying on the bed, standing at the foot of the bed, and gliding through the room. All witnesses report the same thing: they have all said this female spirit wears a floral gown - therefore, she has been named the "Lilac Lady".

These abandoned, or near-abandoned places hold fascination - a glimpse at history that can't be repeated in the same way.

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