We interrupt this daily cavalcade of horrors to think back to a time when you could cruise the Great Lakes in luxury, before they set the boats on fire for scrap metal.
MLive.com, which is a really good site if you want news on the Great Lakes, and especially environmental issues regarding them, had a fun slideshow yesterday about the 60th anniversary of the end of Great Lakes luxury travel. It ended, as so many things do, with a fire in Detroit.
But don’t worry; the fire was intentional! It was burned to make it easier to collect scrap metal, because the ships were no longer profitable. It was fairly emblematic of the region, really.
And not just Detroit, but the whole of the Great Lakes region. These cruise lines were luxurious, and in the days before highways, an elegant way to get from one city to another, back in the day when going from Cleveland to Buffalo wasn’t some sort of Stygian death trip*, but a pleasant thing to do.
It also reminds us of a time when Great Lakes cities were, well, oriented around the lakes. Shipping and transportation were the lifeblood of the lake cities. Whether it was bringing ore from the Iron Mountains down to the great riverine mill towns, opening the west via the Canal to the Hudson, and down to New York and thence the world, or providing portage to the Mississippi, the lakes were the lifeblood of these towns.
And then industry started to dry up, and jobs were lost, and the boom of the early days oxidized into the grimness of the 50s and 60s. Highways made spending money to go to Buffalo in luxury unfeasible, and the general Buffaloness** of it all made it seem a little sad.
And as the region’s economy has bounced back, to different degrees and in different ways, the relationship with the lakes have changed. While there is still an enormous amount of shipping, it is off to the side, not really remarked upon, and most people who live around the Lakes view them strictly as recreational. Unless you’re in the smaller shipyard towns, like Huron Ohio, an actual port town like in Northwest Indiana, or a transit point like the Sault or Mackinac or St. Clair, you might rarely catch one of the huge Great Lakes freight ships.
They’ve become part of the landscape, and not something vital economically. Certainly in cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, and increasingly, Cleveland, the lakefront is for catching concerts or riding your bike or looking at people in better shape than you.
And that’s fine, and even great. In a way, that makes them more vital (if you ignore the loss of jobs and its ramifications, more of which in: every other post on this blog). They are actually living lakes, enjoyed for what we put into them, not what we can harvest. Not for being an economic engine, but a natural one. We enjoy them for what they are, with their serene beauty and then terrible power, their shifting moods, and weather-controlling enormity. We love them because we can sit and relax on them one day and then feel the chill blast of their bitter winds, pulling up the accumulated cold of glacial winters, and spreading it into our suddenly impermanent-seeming cities.
So this is an elegy for a lost time, but also a tribute to what might be a better one. But more than that, I wanted to write about this today to remind us that, in the near past, people were just absolutely fucking insane. Look at this ad. Look at it!
Is there someone who can tell me what’s going on? I get the Buffalo part, obviously, but were, like, frogs the symbol of Detroit? Or Cleveland? Especially frogs who acted as jockeys, even though they’re in the water? And don’t tell me that a frog couldn’t jump across lake Huron; that buffalo, barely bigger than the frogbeast, is literally walking in it.
And the gnome? Was there a famous Cleveland gnome in the 1920s? Was a giant man of the woods a symbol of industrial strength? He doesn’t look terribly happy at what’s going on, either. He’s coming toward them like a weird Germanic Godzilla.
I’m not sure if it makes me happier to think that in 1925 this meant something to people, like they were like “Crackerjack! The gnome’s got a new destination, and it’s Buffalo! The market will never crash! Let’s jitterbug with Al Capone!” or if it was just as weird and disconcerting and unsettling to them, like walking past an alley at night and seeing two grown men in baby masks silently pantomiming Hamlet by the light of a garbage fire. There’s nothing strictly wrong with it, but you’re uneasy for days.
Or, no one put the gnome on. He was just there when it was printed. If you’re looking for the primary cause of industrial decline, maybe don’t point the finger at capital flight. Maybe there’s a curse.
*Actually, the drive from Cleveland to Buffalo is really beautiful when Lake Erie comes into its lengthy view over a curving horizon, and you get a sense of its enormity. I just had a very bad and stormy experience with it over this summer.
**All jokes made in a spirit of midwestern love. I don’t have enough readers to potentially antagonize any.
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