October 24, 2013 § 9 Comments
Amity is a blink-and-you-miss it tiny town on Route J in northwestern Missouri. The last census put its population at 54, though it has since shrunk to 47 (though, in the stupidity of American metropolitan areas, it is apart of the St. Joseph MO-KS Metropolitan Statistical Area, despite the fact that there is 30 miles of relatively empty farmland between St. Joseph and Amity). It looks, for all intents and purposes, like a dying town. Amity was founded in 1872, but when the Chicago and Rock Island Railway was completed in 1885, the townsite moved about a mile north to straddle the tracks. In its new location, Amity thrived, as general stores, hotels, banks, schools, and churches popped up as the town became an important stop on the railway. A stockyard for the Rock developed and the town became a waystation and loading zone for agricultural products from DeKalb County onto the railway. Similarly, consumer items were unloaded in Amity for the stores there and for DeKalb County in general. The town’s population rose to a high of 225 in the 1920s.
But Amity was a victim of circumstances, as it lived with the Rock, it also died with it. The Chicago Rock Island and Pacific (as it was eventually called) was a notoriously poorly-run and inefficient railway. By the 1970s, the gig was up. It had been run into the ground, and it pulled out of Amity in 1975. But the Rock (and Amity) were the victims of more than just poor management. Deindustrialisation was also central to the story here. As factories shut down in the major cities of the MidWest, from Chicago to Kansas City and beyond, the railways became increasingly less important to the heartland of the United States. And Amitysuffered. Even before the railway pulled out, the stores were suffering, the schools and churches were closing.
Today, Amity is barely hanging on. During our cross-country trip in August, we stayed with friends in Amity, Sam and Monica. To my city eyes, Amity was a piece of rural paradise. But Sam and I got talking about the history of the town. Sam is a native of Amity and Monica is from nearby Maysville. The longer we talked, the more fascinated with Amity’s past and present I became. I have written before on the changing rural landscape in North America (Hawley, Massachusetts, Phoenix, British Columbia, and Sainte-Sylvestre, Québec), but in talking with Sam I began to think about the costs of deindustrialisation in North America.
Reams of work has been done on deindustrialisation in major cities (Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Hamilton), and my own work has looked at the cost of deindustrialisation on Griffintown, Montréal. But there was a real trickle-down effect at work here. The landscape of the MidWest (to say nothing of the rest of the continent) is cluttered with Amitys, places that were once important waystations on the railways, or homes to factories themselves (Monica’s mother worked at a Quaker Oats plant packaging instant oatmeal for two decades before it closed down). But their stories are in danger of being lost through little more than negligence.
As a culture, we don’t pay attention to these forgotten places, hell, we don’t even pay attention to the MidWest, at least outside of Chicago. For the life of me, I cannot call to mind a single TV show or movie set in a Midwestern city that’s not Chicago in the past quarter century. No wonder the people of the MidWest feel left out.
But there is history here (I realise that sounds like a dead obvious statement) and the stories from places like Amity are important, as they speak to the human and cultural cost of deindustrialisation in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s just as much as those stories that arise out of Buffalo and Hamilton and Milwaukee. They place a human cost on the depopulation of rural areas of North America, and they place a cost on the loss of culture. The four of us (my wife, Margo, and I, Sam and Monica) are barely into our 40s, but we have lived through a series of cultural revolutions, from politics to technology. We are a transitional generation between the old ways of doing things and the (post)modern, post-industrial culture that we live in today. We remember rotary telephones and a world before the internet. Hard to imagine. But we’re also glued to our iPhones and lost without the internet when it goes down. Sam’s work as an artist seeks to preserve what he calls “obscure” technologies, printmaking and pottery. And I am an historian, my entire professional life is centred on the past. As a public historian, my work is centred on how we remember that past.
I am currently working on a research project that looks at the relationship between the far right of American politics and its relationship to history. But once that wraps up, hopefully in the next 6-8 months, I am going to begin work on my next project, which will be based on Amity and DeKalb County, looking at the cost of deindustrialisation on these rural spaces in the MidWest.
February 5, 2012 § 12 Comments
Continuing in the vein of the Hawley Town Commons in Western Massachusetts and the changing rural landscape of Saint-Sylvestre, Québec, I present now to you the ghost town of Phoenix, British Columbia. Phoenix is located in the Kootenay Mountains of eastern BC, not far north of the American border.
About a century ago, Phoenix was a thriving copper mining town. It boasted modern amenities such as electricity and phone lines, there was a ballroom and an opera house. it had a stop on the stage lines that ran through the Boundary Region of the Kootenays, there was a post office and around 1900, both the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Great Northern Railway arrived in Phoenix. In short, the town had made it. It was thriving. But as was often the case in the mining regions of the North American west, the boom years were short. At the end of the First World War, the price of copper dropped dramatically and the Phoenix Mine was shut down. And the town of Phoenix died.
In the 1920s, the homes and buildings were torn down or buried and there was nothing left of Phoenix, except for its First World War cenotaph, which is still there today. Otherwise, nature has reclaimed the old town site of Phoenix, despite the operation of an open-pit mine in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. When I visited Phoenix about 15 years ago, I was floored by the site. I had seen other ghost towns in BC, most notably Barkerville, a tourist site. But many other sites I had seen were maintained to at least some degree. Phoenix was a smallish clearing in the dense forest, and the forest was rapidly moving back in, re-claiming its territory. The grave yard was the most fascinating location on the old Phoenix townsite. Most of the head stones were long gone. Many of the graves no doubt never had a proper head stone in the first place, graves marked by wooden crosses, wooden heads, or whatever was handy. One grave, otherwise unmarked, had a furniture cabinet as a marker.
But otherwise, the grave yard had 80 year old pine trees reclaiming their territory, encouraged by the heavy fertiliser in the soil in the form of decomposing human bodies. (Since my visit, residents of nearby towns have sought to restore the graveyard some, restoring the headstones that do exist). What struck me the most about standing in the Phoenix cemetery, though, was not so much the dilapidated headstones, the cenotaph in the distance, or the trees. It was the black bear about 500 metres away, happily munching away on some berries. It was also the bear that convinced us to get back in the car, slowly and quietly, and get the hell out of there.