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This town is haunted by whispers of a distant prosperity. It's like an inherited memory, something we should be. Something we were.

Now a city plagued with persistent economic malaise and double digit unemployment for decades, Muskegon once boasted more millionaires per capita than any other city in the world, and believed it could one day rival Chicago in size and regional dominance.

Those were the lumber baron days. A story over a century gone, but it persists in our inherited memory.

We had our own personal America once, and it fell away generations ago. But we keep telling ourselves that's who we are.

We tend to indentify ourselves with the high water mark.

Beyond the frozen lake and fishermen, is the village of Port Sherman. A popular resort destination for the Chicago elite in the 1800s. Train service around Muskegon Lake to Port Sherman began in 1882, and the village became part of Muskegon in 1889.

Don't see anything?

That's because there's nothing there. The woods and dunes have swallowed it up. Nothing exists but unusual hollows where foundations once stood. My father used to excavate the area as a child, finding clay pipes and green glass medicine bottles. Nature is all too eager to reclaim what we think we've tamed the moment we stop tending it. The dunes close in and the trees grow, and a whole city is forgotten in the space of a few lifetimes.

Muskegon's meteoric rise was nothing short of inevitable once. This 1892 document from the Muskegon Board of Trade showed an intoxication with the city's growth and potential:

The center of population for the U. S. is now in the great Lake District. Eight states abutting the great lakes, contain nearly half the population of the 44 states comprising the Union. The four states surrounding Lake Michigan have over ten millions of people- nearly one-sixth of the entire Union- although having an average age, as states, of but 63 years. Muskegon is the third city in population on Lake Michigan, the fourth for marine business; her harbor is accessible in the coldest weather and location the center of the great Fruit Belt. Michigan produces half of the iron ore of the Union, nearly all the copper, is first in salt and lumber manufacturing and capitalists are "catching on" to the fact that these advantages are sure to bring furnaces, additional iron, wood and other industries of magnitude, to Muskegon, at no distant day.

Under the shadow of the lumber mills, Muskegon grew and prospered and courted industry. It generated untold wealth for those harvesting and processing lumber to rebuild Chicago after the fire of 1871, and create furniture and ships for a growing America. Muskegon thrived as a center of culture and leisure and wealth.

And then. One day. The native white pine forests were exhausted.

The lumber was gone. The lumber barons had spent decades in a mad dash to claim as much of the lumber as possible before somebody else did.

And just like that, the lumber mills stopped. And the barons moved on. The remnants of Port Sherman vanished with them.

Despite the efforts of a great and highly regarded local lumber baron named Charles F. Hackley to reinvent Muskegon and bring new industry here, the city never reclaimed its glory.

Let me repeat.

The wealthy lumber barons stripped the area of resources and vanished with the money. A small class of people made a mad, reckless dash for money that laid a city to waste with no thought of the future of the citizens.

Sound familiar?

And the town never reclaimed its glory.

A hundred years on, and we're still looking back at what what was. At what we were. At what we believe we can be again.

The Hackley Mansion

Originally posted to Muskegon Critic on Tue Mar 03, 2009 at 01:09 PM PST.

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