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20 June, 2014


On the Road to Now-nowhere
The archaeologist hacking his way through the jungle, parting the bushes and glimpsing a Mayan pyramid in the grasp of lianas rising toward the canopy, is as easy for most people to imagine as the other archaeologist (this time wearing a pith helmet) kneeling at the base of an Egyptian pyramid in the desert.

In this part of the world, tribes built no pyramids, and the rains made ruins of their mightiest longhouses before archaeologists got to them. There are no ancient lost cities in the Northwest rainforest, at least not anything as obvious as you would see in Honduras or Peru.

What does exist are more recent cities, no less festooned in ferns or draped in vines. Entire towns that thrived into the 1940s have been swallowed by our temperate jungle. You might realize you are approaching one when you find yourself on a causeway, smaller trees in your path and a slit of sky above, as in the first photo. This path used to be a road, or if flat and not so curvey, a railroad. Rails and ties are gone, because like the towns, timber railroads flowed and ebbed; when the trees were cut, the rails were lifted and sent elsewhere to haul out another forest.

Once upon a time, this perspective would be under a railroad.
Huge swaths of western Washington were stripped of their trees. It started with the California Gold Rush, when Puget settlers found a ready market for logs and lumber, but the pace and scale really took off a generation or two later, when steam power jumped ashore in the form of donkeys (a machine used to haul logs) and iron horses. Instead of a few lumberjacks and teams of oxen (I don't see much evidence that actual donkeys played a major role in NW logging, ever), logging became an industrial affair. Men who had cut their fill in Minnesota in the 1870s moved west and by 1900 were engaged in technologically and logistically more advanced logging.

As Europe crept toward WWI, its New World sons built mills to saw the great Northwestern forests into boards and shingles. As the war erupted, they kept on cutting and eve picked up the pace. Huge mills sprang up by rivers and streams, no longer because a water wheel provided the power, but because dammed waterways made ponds capable of holding vast quantities of logs dumped from trains, sorted, and fed to the machines before being hauled back out as lumber destined for markets nationwide.

The scale of some of these operations boggles the mind, given their seemingly remote locations to modern residents of Pugetopolis. Substantial amounts of capital were sunk into towns stretched out along rail lines in places where less-traveled road pass today. Hundreds of people answered the work whistle every day in places that now boast a few trailer homes and little more, or that have been completely swallowed by resurgent (of degraded) woods.

Because of Wobbly Slavs, Commie Finns, and their other organized comrades, the mill owners built housing and infrastructure to attract and retains the hundreds of people needed to cut the trees and run the mills. They sometimes got electricity and sewage before their neigboring communities. Though the work could be brutally demanding and dangerous, workers came, and the Company was ready with houses for the family men and hotels and pool halls for the lone lumberjacks, ready to circulate the paycheck back into company coffers. There would be an office in town, but nearly always, the money ultimately flowed to Seattle or back east.

Didn't I see this in Myst?
Workers' fortunes flooded and ebbed with strikes and strike-backs. Owners went boom and bust as markets rose and fell. But ultimately, few of the early 20th Century timber towns escaped the inevitable: when forests became stumps, there was no money to be made. Companies that owned the land they'd harvested might eke out a few more bucks enticing hapless outsiders (among them, Dustbowl refugees) to buy clearcut land for farming, but the towns went down. As soon as the timber ran out, so did the companies, salvaging what they could of the machinery and rails before they pulled out.

Workers went elsewhere, voluntarily or otherwise, and the businesses that served them went under. Salmonberry settled and alders arrived, vanguards of a long distant old growth forest that may see the whole cycle repeat. Wooden buildings were burnt or demolished or just left to collapse. Mill roofs fell in, leaving only concrete shells of the buildings. Log ponds were colonized by beavers or eutrophied on their own.

And now, less than a lifetime after many of these towns heard the whine of saws and hoot of the whistle at the end of each shift, only the birds and wind make noise. Trees, vines, ferns, mosses, and untold numbers of microbes and arthropods colonize these old towns in the name of nature. Even in my limited awareness, there are dozens of these abandoned towns, sprouting timber (some of it now being harvested). The high water mark of civilization's tide is way back in the woods these days, and towns that were are swallowed.

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