Secrets of Northville's "Evil Woods"


April, 2004.

The best exploration is often that which comes unplanned-for. One Sunday, when Bill Ding and I were feeling particularly bored, we decided to search for the bomb shelter that allegedly existed in the forest between Hawthorn Center and Northville Regional Psychiatric Hospital (NRPH). We called it "the Evil Woods" in reference to the classic cult movie Evil Dead.


My associate Dr. Drunk had spent five years of his young life in the service of the state at the Hawthorn Center. He claimed to know the layout of that place like the back of his proverbial hand. And he had told me of the existence of a small concrete structure out in the woods there that appeared to be a bomb shelter. He had seen it several times when staff would take groups of patients on nature walks on the trails out there, and described it as consisting of a short cement staircase leading into the ground to a door. Inside it was a bare room with some shelves of Civil Defense rations and a pot-bellied stove.

He didn’t know much more about it than that, and only knew its approximate location, which he pointed out to me on aerial images. But nonetheless, it sounded too cool to pass up the opportunity to re-find it. We had spent about three hours in the woods, wandering where the old administrators’ houses once stood for NRPH, across from Schoolcraft College, but turned up nothing but odd scraps of debris. The nature trails that wormed around those woods were so confusing that it was almost impossible to know where we were going. It was mid-April, so the trees were not yet in full foliage—which worked in our favor, because in the summer the vegetation is so thick that your hand will disappear if you extend your arm out in front of you.


We had come to a halt and rested, about to give up, when Bill spied something several yards off in the mangy brown tangle of vines and punkwood. It appeared to be a cement platform, almost totally obscured by dead matted leaves and sticks. We amost ran toward it, excitement building.

I was let down momentarily to see that it was nothing more than a square, featureless platform…not an unusual thing to find in the woods of Wayne County, necessarily. But then I thought that I should at least scrape some of the leaves off of it, in case it was the entrance to the rumored tunnel connecting Hawthorn to NRPH.


I did so, and almost immediately my heart leapt again when I saw the handle to a steel hatch appear from under the compacted leaves. I hurriedly brushed it off, then stood up with pride and mounting anticipation as I looked over at my equally excited partner, all the while thinking to myself that this was nothing like what Dr. Drunk had described. Bill looked back at me with a nod, and I pried the handle from its encrusted recess.

Straining with all my might, I pulled on the heavy lid, and just when I thought it wasn't going to budge, it suddenly popped open with a start.


It was like the lid had been hermetically sealed by mud and other muck over time seeping into the gap around it. There was a sound and smell almost like opening a centuries-old tomb…indescribably stale air wafted out to finally mingle with the living world of sun and light.


We peered in.

We could see pipes and a couple valves, but this was not a tunnel, merely a square room about 8’x8’ with a mud-covered floor. Then we noticed something else—there was…stuff down there…!


Not satisfied with merely craning my neck to inspect this weird subterranean nook, my attention was now completely arrested so I volunteered to go in first, and Bill handed me his light. For several moments after climbing down in, I stood in complete confusion, trying unsuccessfully to conjugate what I was seeing into something I could explain logically.


All I could say for several seconds was “Dude…what the @#$%...” over and over again, as Bill repeatedly asked me what was down there. He stuck his head down into the hole after me to demand answers, but then ended up reciting the same mantra of “Dude…what the @#$%....

There was all kinds of…wacky pagan-looking clutter down here…. In one corner was a wooden table draped with a fringed leather skin, and on top of it was a copper chalice, filled with a dark liquid, possibly stagnant water…? The white fur is actually a rabbit pelt, to which some kind of polished white stone, resembling some sort of charm, had been affixed:


Inside the chalice were also the remains of a deceased mouse, though how exactly the mouse came to meet its end was not immediately evident. And no, I did not get a photo of the dead mouse...I didn't really feel like getting my face that close to infectious carrion.


Mounted on one of the steam valves was a dream-catcher or "sacred hoop" type thing, but the hoop, which was made of a bent stick held together by grass twine, held a piece of leather that had a colorful design painted onto it.

In another corner were the pipes, which entered the room only for a brief 90-degree bend—and were dead-cold. They had remnants of what looked like mildewy asbestos insulation still clinging to them, so they must have been steam pipes, but I knew that Hawthorn Center received its steam service via above-ground pipes from NRPH's powerplant, which ran along the service road, not via underground tunnels.


My first thought was that some weirdo was using the room as a makeshift sweat lodge, because I saw a copper dish with several smooth stones piled on it like a sauna, and because this room would have been extremely hot anyway when the steam pipes were active.

On the floor next to the table was a primitive hammer or scepter perhaps, fashioned of a forked stick and a rock, bound together with bark strips. You can also see that there is a metal brooch or something attached to the fringed leather table covering, which had four small turquoise stones adorning it:


So there seemed to be a quasi-Native American theme going on here, but it was offset by a lot of the other stuff in the room. On a wall hung a strange occult symbol of some sort, which looked vaguely Rosicrucian or something, containing a “Luciferian Eye,” a large candle sitting beneath it:


Everything was covered in a thick layer of scum, indicating that this stuff had been here a long time. Balanced on one of the pipes was what looked like a weird mini-altar, with two brass candle holders and a statuette of a sitting deer or fawn...below it a small tray of corroded jewelry, arranged as if it had been laid down as a prayer offering:


Next to the leather dream-catcher was a shard of some kind of ceramic or plaster sculpture, depicting what appeared to be some eldritch female deity perhaps:


I was utterly confused…who the hell did all this? In here were the hoofprints of almost every brand of wacko I could think of, a synthesis of eclectic pagan crap that suggested all at once Wiccans, hippies, lipstick-Satanists, Illuminati-conspiracist nutjobs, and neo-apocalyptic shamans. It was almost as if an art student and an anthropology major from Schoolcraft had gotten together over a bong and a healthy dose of half-baked material culture concepts, made all this stuff, then assembled it into this small room hidden underground in the woods across the street, to...role play? Meditate? To invoke ancient demons for the purpose of devouring the soul of a professor for giving them a B- on a term paper? Or was it all an elaborate gag or hoax?


When I attended Sc'raft in the late 1990s, I too ventured across the street between classes to explore the ruins of the “Haggerty House”:

Image
Courtesy of Northville Historical Society
In the process I ended up on the "Haggerty Trail," and accidentally stumbled onto the grounds of Northville Regional Psychiatric Hospital, which was still operational at the time. Little did I know, I would eventually be thoroughly exploring that place as well. But I never heard of anyone from the college going into the woods to do stuff like...this.

We couldn’t believe what we had found. This was as unexpected as anything imaginable…and as we climbed out we almost felt as if we had opened something that was not meant to be disturbed, that we had violated the sanctity of someone's secret lair, and they might be about to sneak up on us and bury a hand-made sacrificial dagger in our backs to keep their secrets safe.


Yet despite our shock and confusion at this disarmingly bizarre discovery, we now had another lead to follow—the pipes. They likely held the key as to the chamber's original purpose, as they obviously had to come from somewhere. There was a slight hump visible in the ground corresponding to where the pipes were buried. We closed the lid of the crazy-secret-cult-room and covered it back up thoroughly with brush to conceal it. As we did so, covered in the mouldering leaves we found a pair of ‘70s sunglasses and a vintage Boy Scouts of America flashlight that was equally as old.

This place had remained lost and forgotten for years; judging by the amount of soil on top of it, we were the first ones to stumble upon it and crack it open in perhaps decades. Though we closed the lid it did not seal completely, likely due to the sediment buildup around the hinges, so no matter how hard we pressed on it the lid would not close flush like it was before we disturbed it. The seal had been broken, and could not be re-sealed. Whatever genie we had released into the world was not about to be put back in its bottle; so we obscured it as best we could.

We took a bearing off the cement platform, and estimated the direction of travel that we would take while following the underground pipes. There were a few times when we lost sight of it, but picked up its trail again. I was without my compass and kicked myself for it. After about half an hour more of woods-trekking, we realized that what we had suspected was true…the pipes led to Hawthorn Center. But from where? NRPH?

At the edge of the forest we stood in the cover of greenery while we watched the goings-on at Hawthorn. It was currently rush hour, and there was a fair amount of activity going on…cars frequently entered and left the main parking lot on Haggerty Road. Bill Ding knew that the northernmost cottage of the facility (which turned out to be Cottage 1) was vacant. He and Chad had been here once before, and had popped a lid near the corner of that cottage looking for a tunnel entrance. There was only one steam tunnel for Hawthorn, with pipe trenches connecting it to the cottages.


We furtively slinked up to the back of Cottage 1, following a path that would keep us out of the line of sight of anyone out front. We could see inside the windows of the cottage, and it was apparent this building was being used as storage.


According to the 1998 book Northville Township…From the Beginning, A Jouney Recalled by Shari Peters, construction on Hawthorn Center began in early 1955, and it opened on July 1, 1956. It was the first public institution in Michigan for psychiatric care dedicated to juveniles, followed by six other such institutions, usually located next to a state hospital in the same way that Hawthorn was located next to NRPH, but by 1998 they had all been closed and Hawthorn was again the only such institution for juveniles in the state.


We found an entrance. Pathetically easy—the basement window could be removed from outside. Sliding in, we noticed that there was still power and heat on in the building, but no one had come in here in a loooong time.

The founding of Hawthorn was spearheaded by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the League of Women Voters in the early 1950s, led especially by a Mrs. Edward Latulip.  She and her group found that there were about 600 children under the age of 18 housed in Michigan's asylums, on adult wards with no programming or schooling oriented to youths. They contacted the Detroit News and Free Press to expose this issue.  Not surprisingly, once the issue was brought to public knowledge, there was broad support from voters and legislators to rectify the situation with appropriations for suitable institutions and programming.


Everything in the classroom areas was as it had been left in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s when it was mothballed. On a chalkboard, someone had scrawled Run DMC lyrics. Cobweb strings snapped across our faces as we walked through the main hallways; no one had disturbed this building in many years.


This institution derived its name from the fact that there were Michigan Hawthorn trees present on the property where it was built. Through the years, many important researchers were affiliated with Hawthorn Center, such as Dr. Fritz Redl, Dr. William Morse, Dr. Ralph Rabinovitch (and his wife, Dr. Sara Dubo), and Dr. Harold Wright.

Like the Wayne County Training School before it, the program of Hawthorn Center was an entirely new and untried concept at the time it was founded, and was eventually studied by experts from across America and the world.  It was small, with only 162 in-patient beds and 120 day care slots.


We were nervous as hell in here, so we were hasty in our documentation before escaping back to the cover and safe haven of the woods. Now we were interested in knowing where the other end of those pipes led. We tracked the hump in the ground all the way back to the creepy underground chamber, and took another bearing off of it, then hiked. This hump was a lot harder to follow, and we soon lost track of it, but kept hiking in the same general direction.


Around 1958, W.J. Maxey, director of the Michigan Department of Social Welfare (as it was called back then), was seeking to relocate the Lansing Boys' Vocational School, which was essentially a training school for delinquent male juveniles.  His prime choice was west of Northville at Whitmore Lake, but a site between Hawthorn Center and Northville State Hospital was also seriously considered...in other words, in the "Evil Woods."  Though residents of Whitmore Lake were opposed to their community being the site of a delinquent boys' facility, Maxey said “there are too many institutions in Northville already.”  It ended up in Whitmore Lake, and was later named the Maxey Training School.

After another 30 minutes, it soon became evident that the only logical place the pipes could run to is NRPH. We eventually found ourselves at the backside of the psych hospital’s E-Building, which was still open as always. We decided to try and check out D-Building, which none of us had been in before, so we went into E and looked around for awhile.



Since that day, I have tried at least twice to relocate the mysterious hidden underground chamber in the Evil Woods again, but I could not.

*   *   *

The NRPH property continued to be a millstone around the neck of both the developers and local government until around January of 2013, when I saw that the Evil Woods had suddenly been cut down, presumably in preparation for development.

Immediately I thought of the mysterious underground chamber that had eluded me since 2004, and knew that I must go out there to see what could be seen now that the forest was gone.  Perhaps I could also find the bomb shelter that Dr. Drunk had told me about in the beginning of all this. What I found was not what I was expecting.


The mysterious underground pagan chamber was nowhere to be seen.  But I did see a pair of concrete structures in the ground in approximately the location where I thought the alleged bomb shelter would have been.  I approached it quickly, full of anticipation despite the finger-stinging cold weather.


Here is a view looking down on it, with what appears to be a square hole precisely like the kooky pagan chamber would have had, and two other smaller square concrete structures downhill from it:


Odd...there was a doorway in the side of this thing:


I peeked in, my curiosity now crackling...


Odd, this wasn't how I remembered it at all.  There were no pipes or valves; instead there was what looked to be a boiler body, but it was actually recessed into the wall.  Very strange.  Nor were there the ladder rungs in the wall that I had climbed down nine years before:


I racked my brain trying to remember what the kooky pagan chamber had looked like, but I just couldn't place any of what I was seeing with what I remembered. It didn't look much like the bomb shelter that Dr. Drunk had described either.


Was it possible that this was yet another mystery chamber that had lain hidden out there in the Evil Woods all those years, completely unseen even by me?  Too bizarre. I began to get that nagging feeling that with the leveling of these trees, many secrets that had long sheltered within the protective eaves of this old wood were passing into the realm of the forgotten, never to be solved by anyone. That's the feeling that tortures any explorer's mind, keeping us up nights--staring out the window with thoughts haunted by the questions of what could have been, and what has been lost forever.

I looked inside the metal tank:


Nothing but an empty tank.

I decided to go look at the other two nearby foundations, I saw that one still traces of a cinder block structure that stood on top of it once:


The other seems to have been part of a sewer or drain?


I don't now what to make of these structures or the others that used to be here. Laid open, naked of its trees, it was impossible to recall any kind of familiar geographical context of the land as it had been before. Without pulling all kinds of old infrastructure documents and maps from county repositories, I can't tell you what exactly these structures would have been, other than they obviously had something to do with the utilities for NRPH and Hawthorn Center, and the staff houses that sat in the woods between.


References:
Northville Township…From the Beginning, A Jouney Recalled by Shari Peters

4 comments:

  1. I was a patient at Hawthorne Center and played in the woods. I heard about a bomb shelter in the woods. I was there from 1971-1974. I instinctively knew the place was evil. I thank God for your curiosity. The whole area is a sanctuary for demons.

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  2. I was a staff member at Hawthorn for almost 3 decades. The woods were not evil. However, they were a wild life preserve full of deer flies and mosquitoes and poison ivy, so few with good sense choose to venture far from the sun lit hospital grounds. The cottages housed the more trust worthy patients. Those doors were not locked. Cottage one was the auto shop, which was part of the school program. Staff could get their oil changed and brakes fixed, if they were willing to trust patients with their car. Knowing the demons lurking in the minds of our patients, I choose not to. Today, due to budget cuts and privatization, Hawthorn has abandoned the cottages, closed the older wing of living areas, and provides special ed only for in-patients. School systems from all over the metro area used to bus their problem children in for special ed classes, but that stopped under Gov. Engler. The whole complex was a sanctuary for children sickened by the demonic forces in our society (poverty, racism, violence, sexual assault, social disorganization, neglect, and tribalism). We did our best to exorcize the ill effects of society's demons in the lives of these children, but our sanctuary was just a hard fought temporary bubble of compassion that has been steadily shrinking in cynical despair for decades. Mental health workers, emergency managers and technocratic fixes can't heal an unjust society. They can only try to clean up the mess.

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    Replies
    1. Dr. Dale, the only reason I called the woods the "Evil Woods" was as a reference to the cult horror movie "Evil Dead." There was never anything evil about the property, that is just how my friends and i always referred to the woods.

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  3. I was a staff member at Hawthorn for almost three decades. I never heard the woods between us and the adult hospital referred as the evil woods, but between the deer flies, mosquitoes, poison ivy, and wandering mental patients, we tended to avoid it. I believe the children in the unlocked cottages were told the woods were evil so they would not wander and get lost.
    In a way, the whole area really was a santuary for those possessed by society's demons. We did our best to create a compassion bubble that emphasized our shared humanity as a balm for society's demonic forces of poverty, racism, violence, neglect, and tribalism. Hawthorn serves less than half the children it used to, and Northville State Hospital is closed. Our State's commitment to mental health has fallen victim to tax revolts and small government ideologies. Our efforts to address the demonic social forces that cause mental illness have devolved into technocratic emergency city managers and prisons filled with the mentally ill who are too dangerous to allow to aimlessly wander the streets. Until we grow into a just and sane society, we need sanctuaries like Hawthorn, but they can never be a substitute for a just and sane society.

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