This is the image I was searching for the other day when I was distracted by the portrait of Willie Nelson. This is a scene from the very early 20th century at the railroad station in Forestport, NY, in the lower part of the Adirondacks. It’s where my great-grandfather had his logging operations back then and maintained a home as well as a couple of other businesses.
As I’ve read about that area and that time I am struck by the contrast between then and now. If you drive through the Adirondacks you encounter town after small town, all sleepy little affairs with hardly anyone around except for the seasonal tourists. Forestport is one of those towns. But back in the day, Forestport was a buzzing, vibrant town. It had numerous mills, processing the trees coming from the Adirondack wilderness to supply the lumber to build the growing cities of the northeast. There were huge numbers of loggers going into the forests every day — my gr-grandfather had 250 lumberjacks working for him at one time. There were canal workers that transported the lumber with mules and horses down the Black River Canal to the Erie Canal. There were boat-builders there who built the barges that traveled the canals and carriage builders to make wagons to haul logs and people. These workers spawned a whole support network that created cheese factories, breweries, retail stores, restaurants and taverns, all employing numbers of other workers.
Everything was local, nearly everything produced nearby. Ironically, the very canal and later highway system that allowed the town to ship out the resources that allowed it to grow were the beginning of the end, as new products from outside the local area were now easily shipped in on these transportation portals. Products became more regional then national and most of the products consumed were no longer local in any sense of the word.
As the forests depleted from the voracious cutting, there were fewer and fewer loggers. Fewer and fewer mills. The canal was replaced by the railroad at first then the highway so the canal workers and boatbuilders became obsolete. The newly popular car and truck replaced the local carriage builders. And with the loss of these workers came the end of the need for the businesses that supplied and supported them. The cheese factories closed. The stores and restaurants were boarded up. Slowly, the town dwindled until all that remained was sleepy little burgh that wouldn’t be recognizable to the residents from that time.
I’m not saying this time or that time was better or that it’s a crying shame that this place no longer is the same. Things change. For many reasons. There are thousands of places like Forestport throughout the northeast and spreading through the midwest of this country, towns that are like little dying planets whose heyday has passed.
The interesting thing for me is that bustling, life-filled world is barely remembered, only existing in a few photos and a few writings. Makes me wonder how what we view now as the centerpoints of our lives will change and if, a century from now, this time will exist only in memories and images that may be of little interest to the citizens of that time.
Of course, Ted Williams, Walt Disney and I will be there to remind the people then of this time, after they revive us from our cryogenically induced naps.