Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ghost Towns

A burial vault on the abandoned island of Stroma. By J M Briscoe, license here

I would like to apologize in advance for the lack of sources in the following article. It's covering a very wide bredth of information and my own personal thoughts picked up in a disorderly manner over a long period of time and a train of thoughts that would probably require dozens of sources to properly verify. This article is a romp. If you would like to debate any part of this article, feel free to do so in the comments section and I will do my best to defend my writing. There's a chance it may even be indefensible - there is some wisdom in checking with sources - if so, I will concede.

With so much talk about development, growth and the consumption of resources, every now and then I think it's helpful to return to the flip side - what happens when growth, in fact, goes in reverse. Stroma was at one time well populated, and the source of a feud between the Earls of Orkney and Caithness. The burial vault depicted is the mausoleum of a family that owned the island in the 17th century. In 1901, the population was about 375. The very last family left the island in 1962.

Stroma is not unique. The main Scottish side of my family, the MacRaes, are sometimes referred to as "Children of Kentail." Kentail is now part of the National Trust of Scotland, which is another way of saying that, by 1944, it was so underdeveloped that there was less interest in keeping it inhabited by human beings then in turning it in to a wildlife preserve. This is not unique to Scotland.

In the Mojave desert of Southern California, the desert of Nevada, and the mountains and timberland of Washington state are dozens upon dozens of ghost towns, that, in some cases, once had thousands of people, but are now only buildings rotting away, or already too far gone to be recognizable. The town of Redtown on the slope of Cougar Mountain is sometimes accredited with being the birthplace of Seattle, and had the greatest coal mines on the West Coast. They began mining there not long after the city of Seattle, about a thirty minute drive away, was settled in 1852. By 1918, the mines were totally abandoned, and the town found no further use until the Cold War, when it was briefly sealed off and used as a Nike missile launch site before finding its current use as a wilderness park. The buildings can no longer be seen, with the exception of a few sealed or grated mineshafts and a couple large cement foundations, now covered with moss, for steam hoists. Railroads were built there, but the tracks have been torn out, and the right of way used for biking paths.

You might complain it was a mining town, and the minerals ran out. That's not true - there is still coal in the ground. The demand, however, did run out. By the turn of the twentieth century, railroads to Colorado and Minnesota were carrying higher quality coal that burns cleaner and brighter inexpensively, and the cheap but almost worthless lignite at Cougar Mountain was no longer used for anything but steam boilers in ships. By 1918, there were no longer enough of these steamships on the sound to keep the mines open, and a series of smaller but higher quality mines to the Southeast in Black Diamond (a rural railhead still in use by local farmers) remained open until the 1980's for the small number of steam naval ships docked at Bremerton.

Kentail and Stroma were not mining communities. Stroma is a sheepfarm and harbor - a new port was built to service some commercial traffic shortly before the last families left, and both the harbor and the sheepfarm see some limited use still, but no one lives on the island full time, not even its owners. Kentail was partially farmland, and partially a meeting ground for Clan MacRae - the war cry of the MacRaes is a variation on the name of the mountain Squrr Fhagran (Squrr Uaran) that borders Kentail and can be seen from far away. Both of them, however, succombed to essentially the same fate as Redtown.

Although most farming communities in the US have suffered poverty and a population exodus over the last 100 years as modern farms brought lower prices and less need for labor, the US still has a reasonably strong agricultural economy that has retained SOME local population. The Highlands have not. The difference may be that in the US, our extensive system of railways and intermodal ports have centralized and strengthened the transportation of American produce, so that America is the agricultural exporter of choice for many nations that cannot produce enough to feed themselves. The American railroad may have saved the American farmer.

Great Northern train depot, Fargo, ND, 1939, Public Domain, work of Farm Security Administration


Andrew G. Carson said...

That was a very interesting and well informed post even without listed references Jeremy, the problems with the highlands also include the loss of revenue from the rich fishing industry as the UK government sold fishing rights off the North of Scotland to Canada in the early seventies killing a healthy home based industry in the process. My Clan has past ties to Stroma also as they stayed their in hiding from the English during one of Scotland’s many occupations due to there being warrants out for Briar Carson’s “the Clan Leader’” death for his allegiance to a defeated Scottish ruler at the time.

Jeremy Janson said...

Thanks for stopping by. Yeah it seems like it would be a good place to hide - small enough to not be suspected but resourceful enough to not starve you to death while you're hiding there. Did you know the name is Norse? I found out about Stroma when I was doing research for Biology homework - see, the word "Stroma" also refers to a sugar synthesizing plasma in the chloroplasts of plants that helps to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis. This presumably comes from Latin or Greek!

I'm glad you brought up the fishing rights, I know that commercial fishing has brought a lot of wealth to Seattle, an entire neighborhood off of Shilshole Bay built itself up that way. I can see how giving such rights randomly to Canadians would cause a lot of economic death to an area that's already received nothing but batters and bruises since 1755 when its human capital was largely drawn out of it.

It's kind of funny writing this because I myself am a child of war. War brought my mothers side of the family to North America, where they met up, in 1973, with a Norwegian American family that they otherwise would never have met, who in turn took their land from wars of conquest fifty years before they arrived, and even before then were wealthy squires in Norway, most likely as the result of viking raids (they come from West Norway, Vikingville) in the early middle ages. I suppose that makes me as much a child of Ares as any man alive.