By Orrin Grey
Tucked in the woods of Michigan, alongside an old railroad track, are the remnants of the once-bustling lumber town of Pere Cheney. Established in 1874, the town was home to 1,500 souls at its peak. By 1917, that population had shrunk to around 18 people. Today, nothing remains of Pere Cheney except a crumbling cemetery where more than 90 bodies are buried.
What happened all those years ago, to transform a thriving community into little more than a forsaken graveyard?
Officially, diphtheria is what happened. Two epidemics struck Pere Cheney. The first, in 1893, wiped out much of the town’s population, especially its children, who were particularly susceptible to the disease. In 1897, a second outbreak occurred. Those families who survived the first epidemic packed up what they could and fled to nearby towns.
By 1901, Pere Cheney’s population dwindled to around 25 people. In 1912, the local post office closed. Today, Pere Cheney is all but erased from the earth; depressions in the ground mark the spots where buildings once stood. Decades of neglect destroyed most of the headstones in Pere Cheney’s cemetery—though some intrepid visitors today still leave flowers at the few remaining markers.
While diphtheria may be what officially decimated the population of Pere Cheney, local legend tells a different tale. One version centers on the lumberjacks who founded the town near the sawmill of George M. Cheney. They allegedly did so on land that was stolen from a local Potawatomi tribe. The natives subsequently cursed the stolen grounds and all those who tried to live there.
A more popular explanation, however, contends that a witch placed the curse. In this version, a young woman accused of witchcraft was chased out of Pere Cheney and forced to live in the surrounding wilderness. The woman allegedly had a child out of wedlock, and the child became ill from exposure as a result of the banishment. When her child died, the woman placed a curse upon Pere Cheney, unleashing an epidemic that disproportionately killed the town’s children.
Some say the woman was eventually caught and hanged from a tree in the cemetery. Afterward, her body was either burned or buried somewhere below the tree. The claim gained enough traction that Pere Cheney took the #2 slot on a list of the “Top Ten Witch Graves in the Midwest,” in spite of there being no particular marker for the unnamed witch in Pere Cheney’s cemetery.
People who seek out the ghost town today report lights in the trees, shadowy figures, the phantom laughter of children, and more. People who drive up the rutted road to the cemetery have said that when they returned to their cars they found the vehicle covered in tiny handprints. Others even report seeing the ghost of the witch herself, haunting the cemetery where she was allegedly killed.
A witch’s curse or a deadly outbreak? Whatever the reason behind Pere Cheney’s demise, there’s no denying that this vanishing ghost town—now little more than a few broken headstones in the middle of the woods—is haunting enough on its own.
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