March 08, 2007

Of Oliver Ames and oredocks

I have a book reading and slide show next week (Wed., March 14 at 6:30 PM) in my hometown, Easton, Massachusetts. The venue is the Ames Free Library, one of the half dozen buildings in town designed by renowned 19th-century architect Henry Hobson Richardson. The North Easton Historic District is rich in art, architecture and landscapes created by Richardson and contemporaries like Frederick Law Olmsted, John La Farge, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Stanford White and Fletcher Steele. These treasures exist because of the Ames family, which, under the leadership of Oliver, who came to Easton in 1803, amassed a fortune making the shovels that helped build, among other works and movements great and small, the transcontinental railroad. The family used part of that fortune to commission the gracious structures, sculptures, stained glass and open space enjoyed today by Easton's residents and visitors. The Ames philanthropic legacy is everywhere in Easton, from the historic village core to former family estates at Sheep Pasture, Borderland and Stonehill, now a conservation area, state park and college, respectively. Easton plays a role in Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America. An excerpt:

For 9,900 miles, I’d been keeping a list in my head. A list of communities I held as special. These towns had, for different reasons and in different ways, especially touched me. When I thought of them, I smiled from the inside out, and that’s what they had in common. New River Gorge, Lexington, Memphis, Natchez, New Orleans, Santa Rosa, Acoma, Santa Fe, Bluff, Lee Vining, Fort Bragg, Bend, Boise, Red Lodge, Sundance, Belvedere, Duluth, Ashland.

I added Marquette, Michigan to the list. She sat on hills above Superior, her old neighborhoods collections of trim, fresh-painted, wooden workingman houses set amongst mature trees, streets undulating up or down depending on one’s orientation to the lakeshore. Her downtown was a wonder of fire-red stone and brick.

If Ashland had been beautiful red sandstone, Marquette was beautiful red sandstone on steroids. Marquette’s historic districts brimmed with Classical Revival, late Victorian, Gothic, Italianate and Romanesque buildings, and these last called loudest.

I live in a town whose past and current beauty owes almost everything to one family whose fortune from shovel manufacture allowed the commission of works, all within blocks of my home, from such artisans of their day as Frederick Law Olmsted, John LaFarge, Fletcher Steele, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Stanford White and Henry Hobson Richardson. It was Richardson’s magnificent Oakes Ames Memorial Hall, an architectural poem in glowing red stone that sits around the corner from my house, which made me want the house to begin with. The house needed work when we found it, but if Richardson had rolled up his sleeves in this neighborhood, how could we walk away? And so, I loved Marquette on sight because I was primed to. I’d lived 13 years daily drinking in the beauty of H.H. Richardson’s sandstone.

I could make another possible connection between my town’s streets and Marquette’s, a link forged by old steel rails. The Ames shovels, fortune, and family that brought Richardson to my town played key roles in the building of the transcontinental railroad. When rail became king, Richardson would design ornate railroad stations, one of which sits two blocks from my house. In the late 19th century, as rail moved the goods and grains and ores of the nation, stations from Detroit to Chicago were built in Richardson’s Romanesque style. And, great Richardson-inspired buildings of colossal sandstone appeared in the downtowns and civic hearts of railhead cities in the Upper Midwest. Perhaps the builders of Marquette’s imposing, beautiful downtown had looked on photographs and plans of the buildings that grace my little village before they erected their own crimson halls and churches.

I’d fallen under the spell of Marquette’s architecture and undulations and hilltop setting above the bay. By the time we laid eyes on the oredock, Marquette had already shown enough treasures to make it hard to leave. We checked into the Super 8, $45, with indoor pool, Jacuzzi, free breakfast, and a view of Superior at the end of the long Route 41 downhill run to the lakefront. We’d play, swim, eat and rest, and give the oredock our full attention in the morning.

I figured God put him there on purpose. We’d driven down to Matson Park at Lower Harbor, eye level with the oredock. The kids ran around and did kid things while I eavesdropped on two old men discussing pike. Seagulls buzzed my head while I shot pictures. I turned around to check on the kids, and there he sat. A twenty-something guy with spiked yellow hair and blue-tinted sunglasses sat inside the trunk of his car listening to music pulsing from speakers that should have been on a living room floor. He stared out at the oredock. He had to have been purposely sent for me to talk to, because it was too early for someone that age, unless he had to get up for work (it was Monday, so a possibility, although he didn’t seem to be going anywhere) to be out of bed.

I approached the trunk and introduced myself. He turned down his music and began telling me about the oredock, which he clearly loved. He spoke with passionate intelligence.

He was from Ishpeming, a gray place we’d passed through. He sat in the trunk and told me how everything had once worked. He described an ore loading, from the train’s approach, to its screeching crawl out over the water to the end of the dock, to its dumpers opening wide, to the pellets screaming down the pockets into the ship’s hold, to the freighter sitting lower and lower as its load mounted.

And then he turned to today. "The Marquette dock closed down about 10 years ago, maybe more. The only working dock in the area is at Presque Isle."

"Is the Presque Isle dock busy?"

"Yeah, pretty busy. The Chamber of Commerce should have a ship schedule, but if you spend the better part of a day there, you should see a ship."

Presque Isle was north, and we had to head south, so I asked him to tell me more, to paint more pictures of what it was and is like to live here.

"Cheap foreign steel is flooding the economy, and it’s a real pain in the butt." He said there were only two operating ore mines in the area, Tilden and Empire, both run by the giant Cleveland-Cliffs corporation.
"Ishpeming’s mine is closed down. They’re thinkin’ of makin’ it into an amusement park."

There were more old ore mines around than working ones.

"Ya know Negaunee?" he asked, looking at me through his blue lenses.

"Yes. We drove through it. Pretty lake. Had a gorgeous brown stone church with mint green and white trim. My daughter said it looked like a cake. Like a gingerbread house."

"Yeah. Well, there’s an old mine there, on school premises. Negaunee High School’s built over an old mine shaft. You can still go down in it."

"What about Marquette’s oredock? What’s happening with that?"

"They’re deciding whether to tear it down. Public safety. For now, they show fireworks over it on the 4th of July."

I thanked my friend for his time. He shook my hand, said to have a good trip, and turned his music back up.