An underwater ghost town? Check out this incredible story about a Civil War-era village that went underwater in the 1920s.
It may not be as well known and romanticized as Atlantis, but did you know that Michigan has an underwater town? Situated near Ypsilanti and Belleville in the depths of Belleville Lake is Rawsonville Michigan — a town with an interesting past.
There’s little more than a marker in front of a McDonald’s to signify this historic Civil War-era village, but Rawsonville was once a thriving spot in Southeast Michigan and deserves its place among Michigan’s many fascinating ghost towns.
Getting to Know the Ghost Town of Rawsonville
What Makes a Ghost Town a Ghost Town?
The name may sound spooky, but a ghost town is called a ghost town because the economic activity that supported it has ended for some reason. In Michigan, ghost towns are often at the sites of former mines, former mills, and natural disasters such as floods.
From Snow’s Landing to Rawsonville
Rawsonville Michigan was first settled by Henry Snow in 1800 and was originally called Snow’s Landing on the boundary of Wayne and Washtenaw counties, about a half hour east of Ann Arbor.
Amariah Rawson and his family arrived in the community in 1825 and filed a plan (known then as a community plat) with two other villagers to christen the village as Michigan City in 1836.
Neighbors petitioned the state government to change the name to Rawsonville, and the act was passed in 1839. The community post office was also moved to Rawsonville in 1838 and given that name.
A Thriving Civil War-era Town
Rawsonville was once a thriving community, reaching its peak during the Civil War. The village once boasted three saloons, sawmills, grist mills, copper shops, a wagon maker, general stores, and more.
The village’s undoing was its failure to attract railroad service through the town. As the main mode of transportation of the time, railroads tied the country together, and having a railway station in a town or village was a major boost for the local economy.
By the 1880s, though, Rawsonville residents began to move away, and the businesses and mills closed.
Belleville Lake Consumes Rawsonville
Belleville Lake may be a lake by name, but it’s actually an artificial reservoir created in 1925 when the French Landing Dam and Powerhouse was created along the Huron River.
The creation of the dam and the resulting reservoir flooded Rawsonville and its remaining structures. This cemented Rawsonville’s legacy as Michigan’s underwater ghost town.
After being lost to the lake depths, Rawsonville’s legacy was celebrated in October 1983, when the community was designated a Michigan State Historic Site. The historic marker can be found in front of a McDonald’s on Rawsonville Road, across from South Grove Street.
The historical marker in front of the Golden Arches reads:
Old Rawsonville Village
Rawsonville, now a ghost town, was once a thriving village. On September 13, 1823, the first land patent in Van Buren Township was given to Henry Snow for this site, which was soon known as Snow’s Landing. Called Rawsonville by 1838, the community reached its peak around the time of the Civil War. It then boasted saw mills, grist mills, two copper shops, a stove factory, several drygoods and general stores, a wagon maker and three saloons. Rawsonville’s failure to attract railroad service led to its decline. By the 1880s many of its businesses and mills had closed and its residents were moving away. In 1925 a dam erected on the Huron River covered most of the remained structures with the newly-formed Belleville Lake.
The town is also remembered on I-94 at Exit 187 for Ypsilanti by Rawsonville Road.
Some have argued that, because of Belleville Lake’s location on the east side of Rawsonville, only some of the town may have been lost to the lake, and what sits on the lake bottom now is sand and silt, not buildings or a network of roads.
Have Fun on Belleville Lake
In addition to being atop Rawsonville, Belleville Lake is a popular recreational site for Michiganders who love being by the water.
The lake is home to several lakeside parks in Wayne County, including Horizon Park, French Landing Park, Van Buren Park, and Doane’s Landing. Boaters can use one of two DNR-maintained boat launches to access the lake, try their luck fishing, and enjoy recreational boating.
Anglers love Belleville Lake too, and it has built a reputation as a popular Metro Detroit fishing spot. They can try their luck fishing for carp, bass, muskie, perch, walleye, bullhead, and more. The Michigan DNR routinely stocks and monitors the lake and has an established population of round goby.
The fishing is so good that the lake has many listings on Michigan’s Master Angler Entries, including carp and channel catfish.
Embrace the Past & Present in Ypsilanti
A trip to Ypsilanti is an opportunity to embrace both the past and present. Ypsilanti boasts a thriving art scene, historic buildings, and plenty to see, despite being close to Ann Arbor.
The Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum is a car lover’s dream, featuring more than 30 classic cars, regular car shows, and vintage memorabilia. Likewise, the Yankee Air Museum is a dream for fans of planes. There are unique permanent and rotating displays that will delight visitors of all ages.
After a busy day of exploring the city, stop in for a bite to eat and a delicious beer at the Arbor Brewing Company Microbrewery. This locally-owned spot serves great brews and uses solar power, making it a true “green” brewery.
Explore More of Michigan’s Ghost Towns
Ghost towns in Michigan may not be spooky or haunted, but they appeal to residents and visitors alike because they offer a glimpse into the past.
From former mining sites in the Upper Peninsula to tiny lakeside towns to former logging towns, Michigan has more than a dozen ghost towns worth visiting.
Glen Haven is one of Michigan’s most unique ghost towns. Situated close to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Glen Haven is in the middle of a revival. This mid-19th-century settlement offers visitors a chance to see a functioning general store and blacksmith shop.
Old Victoria is one of the most famous ghost towns in the Upper Peninsula. It’s the site of a former mining town and can be a truly haunting experience. Visitors can take guided tours to see what 19th-century life was like, including four preserved log homes.
Learn About Rawsonville & Visit a Michigan Ghost Town Today
There may not be much more than a marker to commemorate the thriving village that was once Rawsonville Michigan.
But, this underwater ghost town isn’t unlike the other ghost towns in Michigan. It has a fascinating history and leaves you with a sense of wonder, imagining what it must have been like for villagers to live and work there.
While there’s no actual Rawsonville for travelers to visit, there are more than a dozen ghost towns in Michigan that can be visited and explored. Some even offer guided tours so that visitors can see for themselves what life was like in simpler times.
So whether you’re planning a trip to visit a ghost town in Michigan or you enjoy learning about them, take time to read up on these compelling parts of the Mitten State’s history!