The world is dotted with ruins. Europe has its bleached temples, its abandoned aqueducts, its Druidical stone piles keeping Celtic twilight time. China has its Great Wall, Egypt its pyramids, Mexico its Mayan cities, Turkey its multiple Troys. Wherever they are, ruins foster the understanding that empires rise and fall and that human works, like their makers, are destined for decay and death. Little wonder America has resisted the charm of ruins. In the city on a hill, the progress of human history reaches its Columbian climax: novus ordo seclorum. The New World wants to be forever young.
And yet, for some time now, they have been appearing, blighting Main Street or trashing the pastoral vista: America's ruins, standing in silent testament to the fact that all new orders eventually grow old. Ruins tell stories of loss. Egypt's mark the fall of Pharaohs, Rome's convey the collapse of an empire stretched too thin. I sing of arms and the man. So, too, in America something vanishes, and the traces of its demise have a tale to tell. Whenever I travel, I collect ruins and try to glean their lessons. Historical memory is handy, as are wire cutters.
Farm near White River, SD
As industrial agriculture makes family farms economically untenable, abandoned farmhouses have become an increasingly common form of ruin on our landscape. This house has a tin roof and a television antenna, giving some idea of when its last occupants might have left. The kitchen cabinets were metal and the drawers were filled with dirt.
Farm equipment junkyard, WY
Like farmhouses, junked farming equipment speaks to the death of the family farmer. This junkyard in Wyoming was filled with tractors, threshers, tillers, loaders, old trucks and even the occasional bicycle, all of it sadly standing around in the tall grass, irrelevant to the age of industrial agriculture.
Bethlehem Steel blast furnace, Bethlehem PA
Another increasingly common ruin on the American scene: old manufacturing infrastructure. This steel plant employed around 30,000 people at its peak. Today it sits abandoned, awaiting possible development as an arts and entertainment complex. So far, the only completed part of the project is the Sands Casino next door, where patrons can play slots and video poker, and have cocktails at a bar called Molten.
Motor court near Dinosaur, CO
The ascendancy of the automobile brought with it a supporting infrastructure of motor courts, car camps and roadside motels that lined the old two-lane highway system. The interstate ended their reign.
Closed diner, Duchesne UT
Near Starvation Lake, an irrigation reservoir, Duchesne is on old US Highway 40, which wound from Denver to Salt Lake City, a route now largely replaced by interstate 70. The sticker on the closed diner's door says “We love the trucking industry.”
Wendover Air Base, Wendover UT
Once the nation's largest air base, Wendover Field was used to train B-24, B-17 and B-29 bomber crews for World War II, including the crew of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The base was inactivated in 1961 and turned over to the town of Wendover in 1977. The Enola Gay hanger, the rusting ruin beyond the abandoned barracks, has been declared one of America's 11 most endangered historic places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Abandoned hydroelectric plant, Peterborough NH
In the woods at the edge of Peterborough sits the ruin of a hydroelectric plant. In the early 20th century, it provided power for the whole town. When the electricity industry consolidated and shifted toward cheap fossil fuels, this plant and other like it were abandoned. Our power grid is now huge, centralized, and largely invisible. Gone are the days when the local river would run low, and everyone in town would be expected to turn down the heat and lights. As we grow distant from our power production, our consumption of power knows no bounds.
Train tracks, Bartlett NH
These tracks to nowhere are in the White Mountains, where tourist trains threaded the area, but there are similar tracks across the nation. Even in my home state Michigan, small towns and farming communities statewide were once connected with a vast network of electric interurban trains. It wasn't just in cities where the embrace of automobility drove the rapid supplanting of rail by roads: the entire nation took less than 50 years to dismantle one infrastructure and build another.
Downtown Braddock, PA
I wrote about Braddock for Orion magazine. A former steel town on the edge of Pittsburg, Braddock has lost 90% of its housing stock to abandment and decay. It stands testament to a lifestyle grown so wasteful, it throws whole towns away.
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