Ros Comáin

Roscommon County, located in the north central part of Lower Michigan, was originally set off as Mikenauk (or Mikenuqk) County in 1840, named after an Ojibwa chief whose name meant "turtle." It was formed from land taken from Midland and Charlevoix Counties. Indians camped around Houghton Lake long before white settlers came in the 1830s, and the famous Saginaw Trail passed through the area, to touch the eastern shore of that lake, and the western shore of Higgins Lake before heading to Mackinac.

Roy L. Dodge writes in his book Michigan Ghost Towns of the Lower Peninsula that the county was surveyed back in 1838 by John Brink, whose records named what would later become Houghton Lake as "Red Lake," and Higgins Lake as "Forginson Lake," in an expression of Brink's "sympathy to the Irish cause." This refers of course to the crop and cattle failures, and disease that had begun to ravage Ireland in those times, presaging the Great Hunger, and the mass emigration to places like northern Michigan. Brink also supposedly named Lake St. Helen after Baron St. Helens, "a Britisher who was raised to the Irish peerage with that title." David M. Brown says in his Michigan County Atlas that Mikenauk County was renamed Roscommon in 1843, after the county of the same name in Ireland, perhaps because many Irish had recently arrived here.

Gene Scott, author of the book Michigan Shadow Towns, notes that demand for lumber spiked following the cataclysmic forest fires of 1871 in Michigan and elsewhere in the Great Lakes, which created interest in forests farther north, which in turn resulted in the settling of this area. Since the logging era ended, having the trio of Houghton Lake, Higgins Lake, and Lake St. Helen have made Roscommon County a popular vacation and recreation region of the state, but Brown as points out, the three lakes were more importantly the headwaters of three great rivers—the Muskegon River, AuSable River, and Tittabawassee River. These rivers all flowed out to sawmill port cities on the Great Lakes, which allowed timber cut here in this landlocked region to find its way to market, facilitating the prosperity of Roscommon County during the Michigan lumber boom.

The first thing I wanted to check out in Roscommon County was the old sawmill ghost town of Michelson, where I had spotted what looked like at least one ruined foundation from aerial imagery. North Michelson Road dead-ends in a cul-de-sac at the edge of a large pond:

Nels Michelson owned almost the entire township around here during the height of the lumber days, according to David M. Brown. His Michelson Lumber Co. started a shingle mill here in 1906 (author Walter Romig says 1904), and a sawmill in 1908, to cut pine and cedar from the nearby swamps. About 50 company homes were built in a straight line along both sides of the main street, all painted white. Company superintendent Alex E. Michelson became the first postmaster, in June of 1909.

At the end of the cul-de-sac I noticed there was a canoe launch and a tree with a bunch of bricks scattered beneath it, but it was hard to say whether they belonged to a ghost town from over 100 years ago:

In 1917 the town of Michelson included a general store, school, post office, and many other businesses; its population was once 500 people. It also had a station on the Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad, which backed into the town three times per week to be loaded with lumber. The mills had provided enough jobs to support 100 families for 20 years by the time the company shut the saws down and pulled up stakes in 1924. The timber supply had come to an end, and most of the buildings were disassembled and moved. Michelson's last resident left the town in 1936.

The area was bought by the State of Michigan in 1937 and was flooded by the DNR to make a wildlife sanctuary, hiding most of the former townsite under the waters of what is now the Reedsburg Dam Pond...

As of 1971 when Dodge was writing, former residents of Michelson still gathered every August for a reunion near their old submerged birthplace, and to reminisce on times gone by. One old-timer recalled that there were sections of the village that were named according to their function related to the mills; the area with the company houses near the shingle mill and tramway was called "Shingle Town," the cabins and shanties built where the logs were piled, peeled, and sorted was called "Post Town," and the area where the businesses and boardinghouses were built was what was called Michelson proper.

Another old-timer recalled that a Turkish man named "Happy George the Peddler" would visit Michelson every summer to sell his wares. He had a long handlebar mustache and a fancy uniform-type suit with brass buttons, and rode on a horse-drawn van that could be heard approaching from a mile down the road, due to the bell he had hung between the hame knobs of the harness. He sold cloth, needles, novelties, and tinware.

It didn't seem like I was about to find anything here worth noting, but then I suddenly tripped on this old piece of concrete hidden in the grass, with an old smooth-worn piece of iron sticking out of it:

I looked up a little and noticed another piece of concrete visible behind it...was this once part of a structure? It certainly looked like it could be old enough to date back to the 1900s when Michelson was started.

I tramped back through the overgrowth next to the pond a little bit, and came upon this mammoth willow tree:

This trunk was about eight feet in diameter. I asked it whether or not it had heard of any ghost towns around here, but I received no reply, hroom-haroom.

Not finding anything else, I decided to go back one more time and have a second look for that foundation outline that I had seen from the aerial imagery, back along the road I came in on. I stopped the truck and got out where I thought it should be, and sure enough, buried deep in the grass was a faint line of stone that demarcated the boundaries of what had once been a small building:

I stood on top of my truck to try and get a better view looking straight down at can see the corner at the bottom of the frame, and the faint line extending at a right angle from it to the upper left and right:

Upon closer examination, the foundation looked to be of some kind of white stone, as opposed to concrete:

It stood at the apparent corner of what had once been some kind of access road, but the DNR had gated it off from vehicle traffic. I decided to stroll briefly down the grass-covered road, but did not see anything else of immediate interest:

After departing Michelson I got on M-55 to take me to my next target, and I passed through the town of Houghton Lake.

Touristy Houghton Lake is hardly a ghost town, but I guess you could say that it isn't what it once was, either. In the 1960s heydays of "up-north" cottaging and vacationing, this was a bustling strip of entertainment and lodging, but many vacant properties can now be seen along the brim of Michigan's largest inland lake:

It's still a very popular vacation area though, and just as beautiful as it ever was:

This for instance looks to have been an inn or something at one time...

...but the sign is gone and the only bit that remains of the undoubtedly quaint structure is the chimney:

I got back on the road and traveled to the eastern side of the county.

I've actually spent a lot of time in Roscommon County over the years, as there was an old abandoned gravel quarry near St. Helen that my friends and I used to go to with our rifles for target practice many years ago. It was the only place within three hours of us where one could get a 300-yard shot and be able to camp for the whole weekend. One of my friends' grandfather also lived in St. Helen, and coincidentally enough it was also the hometown of famous actor and gun rights spokesman Charlton Heston.

As it turns out, the way we used to take to get to "The Pit," as we called it, was a winding old seasonal trail called Geels Road. Back in those days I had no idea that the name "Geels" came from the name of an old town that used to sit right here, whose foundations were still visible in the grass right next to where we made our turn from Old M-76 into the deepwoods.

This five-way intersection across from Old 76 and the train tracks was once the town center of Geels:

I couldn't remember exactly which road was the one that had the ruined foundation sitting next to it, nor which road was the one that led to "The Pit" for that matter since there were no signs posted, so I started wandering through the trees between each one.

I came across this cement post, branded with the characters "R/W," which I believe stands for "right of way." These were used to demarcate survey lines for new highways built in Michigan in the early 20th century. I also believe that the side with the "R/W" letters faces the side that is actually in the right of way being benchmarked.

Another, closer to the road, was blank:

An entry on says that "Little is known about this town," which could be said for many other faded towns of similar stature. What is known about Geels is that it was a flag stop on the Michigan Central Railroad between the towns of Roscommon and St. Helen, upon which traveled finished lumber from the sawmills of the north to the lake ports on Saginaw Bay. 

According to the book Michigan Place Names by Walter Romig, Geels was believed to have been named after a lumber man who used the Michigan Central siding there, so it would seem that Geels' raison d'etre was that it was a place where loggers had access to the railroad. Romig also said that Geels had a general store, a school, and a post office. Harry Traubenkraut was its first postmaster, in May of 1914.

The area where Geels was is now covered in standard CCC rows of red pine, probably planted in the late 1930s as part of the reforestation of Michigan:

Suddenly I popped out from the ranks of pine to see the corner of the foundation that I was after:

It was cement and rectangular, and situated maybe 15 feet from Geels Road.

The entry goes on to say that Geels was an active place during the first World War, but soon afterward it started to die, as the local timber dried up. When the U.S. Postal Service introduced "Rural Free Delivery," mail could be delivered right to every residence in the sparsely populated area, as opposed to rural town centers where residents would have to go into town to pick it up. There was no longer a need for a tiny post office at Geels, since mail for the area was delivered from Roscommon, and Geels soon ceased to be.

Geels had a "sister ghost town" named Moore, just on the other side of the railroad, which has managed to cling on to a few residents to this day.

As an interesting point of comparison, County Roscommon (Ros Comáin) in Ireland experienced the most severe depopulation following the Great Hunger of any Irish county—its population has dropped 80% since 1841 and continues to slide, according to, which describes the countryside as having a ghostly emptiness as a result. Today 55,000 live in County Roscommon, Ireland, and about 25,000 people live in Roscommon County, Michigan.

Another interesting feature of Roscommon's Irish counterpart is that it is also marked by an abundance of inland waters, especially turloughs, or underground lakes that rise above ground in spring and summer.

This was the only other foundation I could find in the area, a flat concrete slab that had been broken up into nine smaller squares, by weeds bursting through its seams:

I decided to call this adventure, and go eat dinner at the Peach Pit in St. Helen, before heading home. We used to go there all the time when we came up to go shooting at the quarry, and get the Big Harley breakfast.

Michigan Ghost Towns, Vol. II, by Roy L. Dodge, p. 167, 171, 173-174
Michigan County Atlas, 2nd Edition, by David M. Brown, p.150

1 comment:

  1. Ros Comáin: I have identification facts about things mentioned in this article. The sign with no name and chimney still standing I'd = Johnston Rustic Resort. I worked there 2 summers, 1950 , 1951. Have some pictures if interested.


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