Thoughts on the death of a pipeline…

I was raised in coal country. My childhood memories are punctuated with the sound of a CSX locomotive and open coal cars rumbling through the center of town. I don’t have to tax my memory to recall its whistle screaming as the engine pulled its load across the level crossing at Union Street. Those trains were as much a part of town as any of the buildings that stood overlooking the tracks. Still, they haven’t run coal south through Midland in a long time. Then again, a lot of those old buildings are gone now, too. 

My home town’s entire reason for being was to support the men who went down the mines in the 19th and 20th centuries. I grew up riding bikes in the shadow of draglines and immense tailings piles carted out of the deep mines a hundred years before I was born. Even those “coal banks,” pressed hard against the backs of the town’s two churches, are long gone following a spate of reclamation and restoration efforts made a decade or two ago. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that, for good or bad, we’re living in the closing era of the coal industry. Government – and the people – are going to demand “clean” energy options going forward.

You can rage against it all you want.  There’s no silk weaving mill in Coney anymore because it didn’t make economic sense in 1957. There’s no Kelly-Springfield plant in Cumberland because it didn’t make economic sense in 1987. There’s no Bethlehem Steel in Baltimore because it didn’t make economic sense in 2012. Maybe you see where I’m going with this line of thought.

Sure, hang on grimly to your plant or pipeline. Get out of it whatever you can in the time it has left. The oil is still going to flow – by rail or truck or one of the hundred other pipelines crisscrossing the continent. A few mines may hang on for decades yet, but the battle is over. Coal from western Maryland will never again fuel the ships of the Great White Fleet. Oil, over the next few decades, is going to be phased out. The future is ugly ass wind turbines marring every mountaintop and offshore vista and acres of solar panels where there use to be open fields.

The economy has always been built on creative destruction. It sucks when you’re on the “destruction” side of the equation. Ask the men who built wagons what happened after Henry made the car affordable to the masses. I take no pleasure in acknowledging this, because the end of this type of industry is going to have real and lasting negative impacts on my old home town and the people I know there. Pretending it’s not going to happen, or that we can somehow reverse the inexorable march towards the future isn’t going to help them, though. 

Times change. Technology evolves. King Canute couldn’t order the tide to go out and we’ll fare no better trying to resuscitate dead and dying industries and ordering the future to be an exacting continuation of the past. 

That’ll be an unpopular opinion where I’m from, but as a lifelong holder of unpopular or controversial opinions, I’m ok with that. 

Home is a funny place…

I grew up in what many people would describe as “the sticks.” The town where I grew up was so small it didn’t warrant having its own stoplight. You had to drive to the next town down the crick if you wanted to see one of those in action. Most of the towns in the area were so small that for all practical purposes that if a particular service was available in the county, it was considered fairly local.

Once upon a time, the region was a powerhouse of both light and heavy industry. Generations of a family’s men made their living by “going down the mines.” By the time I was a kid, most of that world was dead or dying, though I’m old enough to remember the last of the coal trains rumbling through the center of town to be used out there in the wider world beyond the ridges and valleys of home. Some bits of that life have clung on grimly, but it’s a world gone now for 30 years.

You’d never know it from listening to people, though. Even now, there’s an inexplicable feeling that tomorrow or maybe the next day an enormous, smoke belching factory will spring up along the banks of the Potomac and all will be well again – that the future can be exactly as it was in the past.

I’ve got an expatriate’s love of my home town (of the region, really), even while knowing I’ll likely never do more than visit occasionally. Maybe I see its charms and its flaws a bit more clearly because I’m looking from the perspective of someone who hasn’t lived there in over two decades.

Home is a funny place. 

One of the favorite local sports is bitching that business don’t want to open, or industry has left, or that six other things are fucked up and use to be better… but then immediately bitching and complaining when someone opens a new business or has the audacity to try something different.

The county is getting its first Starbucks. Already people are out of the woodwork bitching that burned coffee, overpriced, unpatriotic, corporate chain Starbucks would dare to open a shop locally. My favorite bit of local-ism is that “Having a Dunkin would be better.” Some of us are old enough to remember when there use to be one of those, too. It went out of business, so maybe it’s not as popular an option as people seem to think.

A few weeks from now, the furor over Starbucks will dry up. Everyone will be back to bitching that they want more stores or restaurant chains. Bring on a Panera or a Chipotle or an Outback. But take my word for it, as soon as one of them announces they’re coming, that business will be awful, their food will be overpriced slop, and we don’t want them here.

You’d be hard pressed to find an area more desperate for new business and economic development… as long as it changes absolutely nothing.