In 1874, George Cheney established a stop on the Michigan Central Railroad between Gaylord and Jackson. Originally just a layover between two stops, it soon boomed into something larger. By 1877, the town boasted two sawmills, a hotel, a doctor, and finally a post office to make it official. The town expanded as the population quickly boomed to 1,500 citizens. Then in 1893, a diphtheria outbreak sent the town on a downward spiral that would leave it with a population of a mere 18 people by 1917. What caused such a prosperous town to go from a burgeoning metropolis to a ghost town so quickly? Some swear it was a witch!
Diphtheria is a bacterial infection identified by a thick membrane covering the back of the throat. In severe cases, it causes difficulty breathing, heart failure, paralysis, and in extremely severe cases, death. Although preventable through vaccination now, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was quite deadly as well as fast moving. Usually spread by person-to-person contact, it was believed to have arrived in Pere Cheney on the train, which frequently brought in illness from tourists or workers on their way to Jackson. However, some people believe that there was a more sinister supernatural cause at work.
One theory is that the town of Pere Cheney was built on cursed Native American land. Built on a territory once occupied by the Potawatomi tribe, when George Cheney received his land-grant from the government (which took away area from the Natives), it is said that the tribe cursed the land. Another theory says that a young woman who had a child out of wedlock, thought to also be a witch, was banished from the town and forced to live on her own in the woods with her newborn. While living in banishment, her child became very ill and eventually died. Distraught, she put a curse on the town and all of its children.
The first outbreak occurred in Pere Cheney in 1893 and wiped out a good deal of the population – mostly children who are very susceptible to the disease. Once the disease was contained, the town struggled to rebuild itself. However, in 1897 the disease came back. This time it reduced the town to just 25 residents. And 1917, there were only 18 residents remaining forcing officials to declare it a ghost town. The structures that now remain of the town are immersed in ghost stories. People claim to have seen the witch haunting the old graveyard. Others say they’ve heard her child crying in the woods. The last remaining signs of what was once a town of 1,500 is the old cemetery. Most of the headstones have been lost to vandalism and age.
If you’re looking to visit the remains of Pere Cheney, be warned- not only is it considered trespassing, but the cemetery is quite a ways off the road and difficult to get to without a four-wheel drive vehicle. You should also know that back in 2009, a group of teens who were hanging out at the cemetery were chased off by a man firing a shotgun at them- which could be worse than a witch.