January 02, 2008

Ashland: Home of the Oredockers

As we moved through America we were, for periods of time that were always too short, part of so many places that radiated pride, history, industry, honesty, these strengths sometimes lying beneath a tired, wizened surface, making you scratch a bit to find whatever gave the place its meaning.

As we approached Ashland, Wisconsin on Route 13, something singular appeared. The road rode high, and the view opened into a wide sweep. Something monstrous and hauntingly gorgeous jutted a quarter-way out into Chequamegon Bay. It was clear it was a ruin, once powerful and important, now disused. It looked like a bridge, an aqueduct, a railroad trestle, a giant pier. It was mysteriously beautiful.

Ashland’s Soo Line oredock was the first of several we’d see on the Great Lakes, mammoth, hulking vestiges of the once mighty iron and steel industries. Colossal steel and wood cathedrals across whose tops ore-laden railroad cars had rolled to the literal end of the line and dumped their cargo into the holds of freighters waiting in the water below, freighters like the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Ashland seemed a Carl Sandburg place. He would have found poems here, I think. A crimson sandstone city that once pulsed to the beat and brawn of arriving and departing ore trains and ships. The rich red stone and towering silvery-white steeple of Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church commanded the hillside above the bay and glowed in the intense sun as if afire. Vivid murals with scenes from Ashland’s history adorned the old brick sides of buildings all over town. Main Street was a parade of exquisite late 19th century red sandstone buildings and big old banks like Greek temples, built, I imagined, to hold all the iron, railroad and freighter money of an earlier Ashland. Main Street rivaled the best of the scores of pridefully preserved old American downtowns we rolled through on this journey, downtowns that wore their pasts like medals and badges of honor, and that presented a looking glass into our history, history sadly overlooked or, worse, lost, in the numbing sterility of strip malls and interstates.

The longer we spent in it, the more I loved Ashland.

But it was the great black and rust oredock that kept drawing us back. A mammoth ribcage, gritty and haunting. It captivated, then choked you with melancholy. I couldn’t leave it.

The $20-a-night RV sites next to Kreher Park sat in the shadow of the leviathan oredock whose last load shipped out in 1965. The campers could boat, swim, read in a chair on the beach, or consider the mighty rusting ore chutes overhead that ran the length of the massive dock. We parked under the rail approach to the dock, and looked up between the wooden ties and steel rails and imagined the great Soo Line cars rolling over our heads out over the water to the end of the dock, freighters lined up, hungry holds open and agape, metal clanging, ore pellets booming down endless chutes called pockets, men yelling, whistles wailing.

Up the road at Bayview Park, some kids dashed down a wooden swimming pier, screeching and hollering as they jumped off into cold Superior. Their parents sat at a picnic table under a tree and ate chips and big sandwiches. The kids would jump off, swim to the beach, catch their breath, then whoop again down the pier. The parents were consumed by their food, so the lean, young lifeguard was left to monitor every pier-length dash, every leap off the edge, and every swim back to shore, making sure every kid was at all times accounted for. He shared bits of oredock info between leaps and dashes.

“We’re the Oredockers,” he said, of Ashland’s high school sports teams. (I imagined him the star quarterback.) He pointed to long, straight rows of seagulls sitting in the water near the pier we stood on. “That’s an old dock right there.” We looked closer, and saw the submerged remnants of an oredock, now just flooded pilings that made excellent bird pedestals. The exact skeleton of the dock was revealed by visually connecting-the-gulls. “There used to be seven or eight oredocks right here around Ashland,” said the blond Speedoed teenager before he sped off again to check on the running, leaping, swimming triathletes.