Skip to main content

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.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site