Red Alert

Photos date from 2004 and 2019.

Oceana County was set off from part of Ottawa County in 1831, its government was organized in 1855. Author David M. Brown believes the name most likely comes from The Commonwealth of Oceana, a treatise published in 1656 by English political theorist James Harrington, rather than its picturesque location on the shore of Lake Michigan. Harrington's work was a "blueprint for a utopian republic," according to Brown. Natives from ceded tribal territory near Grand Rapids migrated to this area in 1857 and began a maple sugaring industry which lasted until the 1880s. Oceana has a current population around 26,000, it is a top producer of tart cherries, and is hailed as the "Asparagus Capitol of the World."

One prominent ruin in Oceana County was the Little Sable Point Lighthouse, in the dunes of Silver Lake State Park near the lake port city of Pentwater. I visited in 2004 (which explains why the photos are so low-resolution). Unfortunately even back in 2004 the tower entrance was chained up good, so I was not able to see inside:

Built in 1872, the light station was mostly demolished in the 1950s and sat unmanned since then. One year after my visit, the DNR handed its care over to the Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association, so it is no longer abandoned. In fact it is now open to the public every day in the summer, from 10:00am to 5:00pm...but I haven't had the chance to get back.

I have traveled through this county many times in my other travels, but this time I was going to try and seek out a handful of more obscure sites, so I skipped a return trip to Pentwater.

Among other ruins in Oceana County that I could have investigated were those of the Marshville Dam, and of the kilns of the Spring Lake Iron Co., in the town of New Era. I didn't make it to New Era, but I did find a nice quiet resting place at Marshville.

I didn't see anything suggesting that the town of Marshville still existed in this lush wooded area, but there is a nice roadside park right next to the ruins of the town's dam. Just when I needed to get out of the truck and stretch!

I'm not sure which came first, the village or the marsh, but Marshville started when Henry Marsh built a sawmill here on Stony Creek in 1862 (most likely including a dam), and followed it up with a gristmill a year later. 

This is the marsh that was created by the impoundment of the dam (I presume):

A view from behind:

Marshville's post office closed in 1901, signaling the town's decline like so many other rural Michigan hamlets that once dotted the countryside before automobiles and highways made them obsolete.

This whole area was so desolate that during the entire 20 minutes I sat here, not one single other car passed by on the road. It is very peaceful and very beautiful in Marshville.

I continued cruising the backroads of Oceana, flying over hills and through old cherry orchards. Next, I was looking for a certain obscure relic of the Cold War.

First a little background. Three major radar lines were set up under NORAD to defend North America against any approaching Soviet missile attacks across the North Pole. They were the DEW Line, the Mid-Canada Line, and the Pinetree Line...

Then there were a few "gap-filler" radar sites, like the one in the small town of Shelby, Michigan that sat below the Pinetree Line to fill in weaker areas of the net. The "gap-fillers" were unmanned radar stations, but there were Air Force technicians whose job it was to rove around the state checking on each one regularly, refueling their generators, or responding to equipment fault signals.

The former Shelby "gap-filler" radar was reduced to ruins, but it was still out there and I thought it might make an interesting find. I finally realized that it lay along an extremely inconspicuous unmarked path leading between two cherry orchards:

It really couldn't be more hidden in plain sight. As the trail ended a clearing opened up, with a pile of ruins in the middle, trees growing out of it:

According to, this rubble heap's full military identifier is "Empire AFS Radar Gap-Filler Site Z-34B." It was part of the Empire Air Force Station, not far from the Sleeping Bear Dunes. Empire AFS was responsible for the maintenance of three other remote unattended gap-filler radar sites at Petoskey, Alpena, and Saugatuck. This one at Shelby was built in 1958, and they were all equipped with short range search radars and coordinate data transmitters that sent digitized radar target data to a SAGE direction center and to the main radar site at Empire. Both the radar set and the data transmitters were dual channel to reduce downtime, and certain functions could be performed remotely such as channel changes, and operation of the diesel generators that powered the radar.

A recent article in Michigan History Magazine recounts a rather interesting day in the history of this particular radar station during the height of the Cold War. USAF radar tech Don Chaffin was assigned to monitor this one in Shelby, along with other stations. On Monday, October 22nd, 1962 he was on his way to Shelby to do his routine checks, and as usual when he arrived he got to a telephone and checked in with his superiors at Custer Air Force Base in Battle Creek.

Now, you may remember October 22nd, 1962 as the day the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded. But since Chaffin was driving long-distance in a remote area in the days before mobile communication, he had no idea about what was transpiring in the news until he made that phone call. Since he was on an unsecure line, his commanding officer could not tell him any details, so they simply informed the unwitting airman that the military had gone to DEFCON-3, and ordered him to "obtain weapons and guard the Shelby station until relieved." Naturally this was quite an unexpected shock, but he did as ordered and acquired a weapon with which to guard his radar post out in the cherry fields. I imagine this meant commandeering a local farmer's shotgun.

Chaffin stayed on guard as ordered, probably with all kinds of thoughts in his head about how the world might be about to end in nuclear holocaust, or how foreign saboteurs might be creeping through the orchards to ambush him and hijack his radar station in order to mask an approaching squadron of Russian bombers sent to annihilate Detroit. DEFCON-3 meant that the Air Force was ready to deploy in 15 minutes; this was the highest alert that the United States had ever been under. B-52 bombers at Michigan's three Air Force bases were fueled and armed, ready to fly over the North Pole to drop nukes on Russian targets.

They might have forgot about the poor guy for a bit, but at the end of two days of sitting in this radar station without hearing any news reports, Chaffin was again telephoned by his superiors and informed that the military had now moved up to DEFCON-2, which meant that we were only one step away from full-scale armageddon. Fortunately Chaffin was relieved of duty soon afterward by a detachment of other radar techs sent from Custer, and he finally learned what was going on in Cuba. Of course President Kennedy was able to defuse the situation, but the crisis was a striking illustration of what can happen when two paranoid nations with the power to destroy the planet get itchy trigger fingers.

Here are the concrete footings to the radar tower itself, which has been removed.

Also of related interest, during World War II there was a Nazi POW camp here in Shelby that housed Germans captured in Europe. I explored another such camp in Raco, in an older post.

Next, I went in search of the remnants of the first white settlement in Oceana County, known as "Clay Bank," or "Claybanks." Located where the Flower Creek (Whiskey Creek?) empties into Lake Michigan, 360-foot high clay-loam banks rear up near the lakeshore giving the hamlet its name when it was founded in 1849.

When I passed through the area however, all the areas along the shoreline in the vicinity of where Claybanks would have been were marked as private property, much to my agitation. Finally, I noticed an unmarked stub of W. Park Road that went past B-15 and apparently down toward the shore. I followed it between a couple houses, and was greeted by these signs, and a path to the lake:

The sign reads,
"Public Right of Way to Lake Michigan is Only 66 Feet Wide. Please Respect Private Property to the North and South of the Defined Area"
...and then went on to note that there was a township park nearby with a free public beach, but that was too far from the area I needed to be in, and it too had a sign saying it was for township residents only.

Claybanks had a population of 36 by the mid-1850s, and by 1870 it had had a bowl factory, sawmill, and a doctor. Like Marshville, the Claybanks post office closed in 1901. It was described as a ghost town in the 1980s by David M. Brown, but aerial images today seem to show that there are lakefront houses covering the site now.

I felt like defying the ridiculous signage and taking the opportunity to exercise the natural right of shoreline access, just to piss everyone off. By walking between the water’s edge and the “ordinary high water mark” of a navigable body of water, you can circumvent private property laws, and this has been upheld in Michigan by legal precedent.

However, being that lake levels were currently at or above high water mark, and that I was too low on time to attempt such a long walk in uncertain waters barefoot, I opted to pass up my first time using that legal loophole. Not to mention all indications from aerial imagery pointed to there being nothing left to see of the Claybanks Settlement.

As I was leaving, a couple other obvious malcontents showed up in a van covered in stickers, apparently also looking to annoy the neighbors by the mere fact that people knew there was "DL" public access here. I got the impression they were freshwater surf hippies, and chuckled at the thought of affluent locals having to look out their window and see some scruffy surfer bums messing up their precious lake view they paid so much for. Luckily for them there were no waves today, but that wouldn't stop anyone from enjoying the newly legalized recreational use of marijuana on the 66-foot wide beach.

Michigan Shadow Towns, by Gene Scott, p. 124
Michigan Ghost Towns II, by Roy L. Dodge, p. 117
Michigan County Atlas, 2nd Ed., by David M. Brown, p. 136-137
"Thirteen Days in Shelby, Michigan," by Brian Milliron, Michigan History Magazine, Sept./Oct. 2018, p. 46-49
Chronicle, Summer 2015, p. 18

Cellar Door

Photos from 2014 and later.

Otsego County located in the northern end of Michigan's Lower Peninsula was set off 1840, and organized 1875 according to author David M. Brown. Originally named Okkudo County (a Mohawk word which translates to "sickly"), it was later renamed after Otsego County in New York—which in turn took its name from another Mohawk word "Otesaga." According to Brown "Otesaga" loosely translates as "place of the rock," but a historical marker in front of the county courthouse however says that "Otsego" translates to "clear water."

Four of northern Michigan's major rivers find their sources within the county—the AuSable River, Black River, Pigeon River, and Manistee River—which undoubtedly contributed to its popularity for logging in the late 1800s. As the timber was cleared Otsego County became famous for potato growing, and later boasted one of the larger oil fields in the state.

Its economy is primarily recreation-driven today, its population is sparse, and Michigan's elk herd roams within its boundaries. The county seat is Gaylord, which sits at the highest elevation of any city in Michigan, at 1,348 feet above sea level. Gaylord also sits on the 45th Parallel, and a road sign along I-75 (above) informs dazed motorists that they are now halfway to the North Pole.

Among the things I had wished to see in Otsego County was the remnants of the old "Glass Bottle Fence" along Old 27 near the town of Waters, but sadly I was informed by a colleague that it was destroyed awhile ago during road construction. There were also the ghost towns of Johannesburg and Sparr, and somewhere I had heard there was an old ski resort that was abandoned, with chairlift and everything still there, but I never did find out where that was. That would have been a good one to get, since hilly Otsego County is a center of the skiing business in Michigan. 

I did happen to pass through Gaylord's outskirts one day on I-75 and in the distance I saw a large (modern) factory being torn down, so I made a mental note to check it out later. But on my return trip a few days later I was surprised to see that nothing was left except a blank foundation. Nonetheless I figured checking out the ruins might be worthwhile, so I walked up the train tracks onto the property. 

As it so happens, the 45th Parallel passes right through the middle of this plant. Extra geography nerd points for this one, obviously! But there was not a lot to see I'm afraid, and worse yet, the gate was tightly locked.

My colleague Navi informs me that this plant was built in 1965 by U.S. Plywood, as the largest particleboard factory east of the Mississippi. It was last operated by Georgia-Pacific in 2006. So when even the plywood factory closes, you know the economic recession is bad...since I mean, whose gonna make the plywood to board up all the vacant houses in Detroit-Flint-Saginaw? Am I right?

Anyway, some six miles from Gaylord lie the last remnants of the town of Hallock...

Hallock was founded in 1906 and named for Benjamin Hallock, a farmer whose land was crossed by the Boyne City, Gaylord & Alpena Railroad line passing through the town. At its peak, there were three stores, a church, a train depot, a school, and a Gleaner's Hall in town, which was used for recreation. The post office of the short-lived town closed in 1914, and it faded out of existence completely by the 1920s. 

Author Roy L. Dodge writes that Robert Moorehead taught school in Hallock and described it as a thriving community in 1914, but it faded quickly soon after that. Kenneth Shue of Harrison bought the whole town in 1928 for $10 (by then almost nothing was left), and he proceeded to let it go back to nature—and to the tax assessor for nonpayment. Today the vicinity is still populated by a couple occupied farms.

In its day lumbering and farming were the primary economic activities in Hallock, with the farmers finding work in the forests to supplement their farm's income during winter lulls. There was also a sawmill, a feed mill, and a potato warehouse in the vicinity of Hallock. 

The first thing I found in Hallock was this old ruined structure that sat in the midst of an old farm field, currently still partly shrouded in the purple mist of a summer morning.

It had a weird, well-weathered tin wall covering on the exterior that was stamped to make it look like a brick wall:

I got my pants soaked quickly from the morning dew, just by walking up to the fallen structure in the deep grass.

I'm not sure what it was, but most likely part of someone's old farm.

Here is a photo of Hallock c.1920, from Roy L. Dodge's book:

Nearby was a super-creepy old twisty road that wended its way in amongst a dense grove of tall hardwoods, curiously illuminated by the rising sun:

This wasn't really the way I was intending to go, but it was so enchanting that I had to follow it for a bit...

Is this the part where I enter the faerie realm? Or a Pure Michigan ad?

Soon, a sign informed me that I had reached the small Hallock Cemetery, of Elmira Township.

Through the morning glare I perceived the outline of an old farmhouse in the overgrown woods across the street...

Surely, this must have once been part of the town of Hallock, since it is definitely from that time period or older.

The village schoolteacher mentioned earlier, Mr. Moorehead, said that Hallock got its name because of the land donated by farmer Benjamin Hallock to build it. When Roy Dodge's book Michigan Ghost Towns of the Lower Peninsula was printed in 1971, he wrote that Benjamin Hallock's house was the only one left standing in the town that bore his name...I wonder if this is it, still here almost 50 years later?

Uh-oh, someone left a door know what that means.

But this was a true cellar, not a full basement, so there were no stairs leading up into the house. Sorry if you were getting excited. You know, according to linguists (most notably J.R.R. Tolkien), the words "cellar door" are together considered the most phonaesthetic phrase in the English language, in other words, the most beautiful-sounding to hear and to say. And now I bet you won't ever be able to look at a cellar entrance again without thinking about that useful little tidbit.

I went back out to finish my circle around the outside.

According to another book by Larry Wakefield, Hallock also had one of the only two gold mines ever registered in Michigan's Lower Peninsula. There were several reasonably successful ones in the Upper Peninsula (as I have written about before), but the two efforts in the Mitten were much less so. Besides Hallock, the other was in Alcona County (which I also wrote about before), and both were probably hoaxes.

Anyway, in 1911 farmer Charles Hatch found flakes of gold in some water running off of his field in Hallock, and had it assayed at $3.50 to the ton. Soon after he let out his little secret to the newspapers, it was learned that the Jackson, Lansing & Saginaw Railroad still owned the mineral rights to the land where the gold was found...

Soon two mine shafts were sunk, and heavily shored for the soft soil. Local Marvin Kelso says that they never got any deeper than 100 feet however because that's where the water table was, and the effort was abandoned as fruitless before any pumping equipment was installed on site.

It has been suggested that this mine was a hoax, perpetrated by the railroad to attract investment (or to inflate its value on paper in anticipation of a coming buyout) by producing the fraudulent gold flakes, perhaps with farmer Hatch as a willing accomplice. I'm sure that any geologist with knowledge of Lower Michigan would agree that there is no gold anywhere near here.

Back on the road.

Of all the traveling I've done, and of all the roads that have turned into unexpected dead-ends, or petered-out into nothingness, this is the first one I've ever followed that tried to dump me abruptly off a cliff...

LOL I thought this road was supposed to take me back to I-75, but here I am staring at it from about 20 feet above highway grade. By the looks of all those tire tracks, I'd say I'm not the only one who got duped...and I use paper maps.

I did plenty of driving around elsewhere in Otsego County—as I usually end up doing before I feel I've gotten enough material to write a post—and there were a couple other minor things I took pictures of, but this seems like a good place to leave off. Sometimes it takes a couple years worth of traveling through or across a certain county before I have accrued enough to write about, and Otsego was one of those instances. Long story short, I have done a LOT of wandering across this great state.

Michigan County Atlas, 2nd Ed., by David M. Brown, p. 144
Michigan Ghost Towns of the Lower Peninsula (II), Roy L. Dodge, p. 148 & 152
Ghost Towns of Michigan, Vol. 2, by Larry Wakefield, p. 27-31