In the heyday of heavy industry, the smoke and grime that factories, plants, mills and shipyards brought with them were considered signs of prosperity. Of people hard at work. Of communities flourishing. In 1919, Charles Fitzhugh Talman—an unapologetic futurist—even went so far as to compare the humanistic achievement of America’s steel plants to the building of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Taj Mahal. Time, with all its sobering perspective, has read things differently.
That said, the enduring legacy of heavy industry remains complex. The question I personally keep coming back to is, “what’s left when the work dries up?” Certain manufacturing centers and types of industrial enterprises have been selected out of existence by a kind of global-economic Darwinism. In many cases, the factory towns that grew up around them have disappeared, too. Or at least been left to wander the post-industrial desert in search of a new way of life.
While photographing a defunct lumber mill on the northern California coast, I came upon a poignant reminder of the relationship between industry and its industrial communities: scrawled in white chalk on the side of a rusting furnace wall were the words, “Goodbye powerhouse. I’ll miss you.” Later, in the town, the proprietor of a local drinking establishment explained that on the day the mill closed, hundreds of employees wrote personal messages to the mill in locations known only to them.
Today, around the mill site, official words like “remediation” and “redevelopment” have replaced the old words of affection and respect. A stretch of decimated coastline will be meticulously refashioned into something resembling a native landscape. Restaurants will be erected where lumber was once treated with chromated copper arsenate. And the lumber we Californians need to build suburbs to accommodate our state’s ever-swelling population will come from a different mill, a different town, maybe even a different country.