The Ghost Town of Aral in the Sleeping Bear Dunes
Esch Beach, Otter Creek by Sara Hunt/oni_one_
The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore tells the rich tale of the ghost town Aral:
Aral was located on Lake Michigan where Otter Creek empties into the Lake just south of Esch Road, a few miles south of Empire, MI. Today this is one of the most popular swimming beaches in the Lakeshore, but in the 1880s, Aral was a booming lumber town!
When the United States acquired land, it first had to be surveyed before it was made available to individuals. In the summer of 1849, Orange Risdon was one of the surveyors assigned to the area around Grand Traverse Bay. In 1853 soon after he finished the survey, Risdon and his wife, Sally, bought 122 acres where Otter Creek emptied into Lake Michigan.
The US Civil War began in 1861, and to induce able-bodied men to join the Union forces, the US government offered $100 bounty to men who enlisted. By 1863 the bounty was increased to $300, and finally a draft was instituted. An interesting provision of the draft act allowed drafted men to avoid service by hiring a substitute or by paying $300. One of the men receiving draft notice was Robert F. Bancroft, who was married and 30 years old. He chose to take advantage of this provision by hiring a German immigrant to take his place as a soldier, but interestingly he followed his replacement to the battlefield. Instead of carrying a gun, he brought his camera and became one of the first battlefield photographers.
Following the war, the veterans returned home, and Robert Bancroft settled with his wife Julia and daughter Anna in Traverse City. He began buying land in Platte and Lake townships as investments and in late 1864, he bought the 122 acres from Orange and Sally Risdon of Saline, MI.
Bancroft cleared 20 acres and built a log cabin for his family to live in. Then he planted some black locust trees and an apple orchard around the cabin. Lumber speculators soon arrived looking for stands of white pine. Most of the forest in this area was hardwood, but there were some stands of white pine inland from Otter Lake. By the late 1870s Daniel Thomas bought a 5-acre parcel on Lake Michigan south of Otter Creek, but he decided to build a house across the road from the Bancroft’s. Lumber speculators were on their way north as the forests near Grand Haven and Muskegon were harvested.
…By 1883, the lumber business was booming and the town was growing. A post office was required. The community was known as Otter Creek – the “Krik” by locals. When they applied for a post office, their name was rejected because there was already an “Otter Creek” in Michigan. “Bancroft” was the next suggestion, but again the name had already been used. One of the workers suggested the name “Aral” because of the beautiful Aral Sea in Europe. Locals continued to call it Otter Creek though. Dr. Frank Thurber was named the first postmaster. Keep his name in mind, for he too would play a central role in the murder.
Murder you say? Indeed – read on for lots more…