Sunday, August 28, 2022

What's Left, Part One

A recurring theme in my photography the past twenty years has been places either discarded or that have been subsumed by nature’s wrath. Today’s story looks back at a few images from two decades of photographs that depict the blighted and beaten remains of man’s failed attempts to tame an unforgiving land.  Wilting heat and the worst drought in 1,200 years have turned rivers to trickles, rushing streams are parched washes and shriveled lakes reveal the carcasses of mob hits in steel drums. Many a desert settlement has returned to the wind and sand. Fecund oases like the Owens Valley in California have become alkaline dust bowls thanks to greed, corruption, and willful ignorance. The major landholders in the valley sold their water twice to slake the rapacious thirst of The City of Angels and Owens Lake became a desert.

Good Luck

Malone Street, Keeler, California

As the road flattened 15 miles shy of Lone Pine, I saw a sign to a place called Keeler. Being a curious soul who’s easily distracted turned left and entered what’s left of the town sitting on the eastern shore of what once was Owens Lake. Little did I know that a single image from that detour to Keeler, Good Luck, would inform my photography from that moment forward.

Good Luck, the trailer that no longer stands, pointed me toward an evolving portfolio of photographs that memorialize what once was and is no more. I have variously called the series, At the Edge of What’s Left or The Edge of What’s Left or its abbreviated cousins What’s Left or The Edge. I still prefer the wordy but descriptive At the Edge of What’s Left.

There are common themes in these blighted yet beautiful places. Sometimes the mine petered out. Other times the railroad stopped stopping. Or the water source dried up and the town with it. The Interstate Highway bypassed the place, and it became a footnote. Or trying to inhabit the location in the first place was a fool’s errand come to naught. Every one of these fading places has a story of when and why it's gone. Many of these stories are well chronicled while others have no recorded history, and we are left to write one from our imaginings. Often the bounty upon which the economy of the town was dependent disappeared or become too expensive to extract. It’s the depletion of that resource, say silver or gold, that precipitated the collapse.

Denver City Mine, Leadville

Remains of the Denver City Mine fire

That’s the case in Leadville, Colorado. In Leadville the Gold Rush lasted from 1860 to 1866. Silver was discovered and the boom lasted till 1894. It was the most expensive real estate in the world in 1879. But when the US Treasury stopped supporting the Silver Certificate in 1894 and silver fell to at 60 cents an ounce the town went belly up. What’s left is tourist town built on the bones of its handsome historic downtown.

It can be said that mining, water, and the railroad built the West. New Mexico is crosshatched by 2,000 miles of railroad tracks. Though it feels like much more since it seems that every village in the dusty reaches of the state sits alongside a track. Small towns sprung up to build the rail lines and to maintain them. With little else to provide employment these towns with few other means of employment withered and died. Encino, New Mexico such a place.

No more services, Encino, NM

Terminus or the end of the line, Encino

Encino’s location traces back to a spring that was a welcome oasis for travelers. A post office, two churches and a general store followed. In 1905 the Burlington Northern Railroad announced that it was building a depot in Encino. It was a magnet for homesteaders and speculators ready to ride Encino’s wave of prosperity. Two newspapers were established in 1910 and 1920. Both quickly failed. Encino’s railroad depot closed in 1965 and that spelled the end of Encino. Its high school closed its doors in 1982. It's a too common story on the plains of Central New Mexico.

This an edited portion of my September-October article What's Left for Shadow and Light magazine. At this hot minute I expect there will be two more posts along these lines. Then again things change. Who knows?


Blacks Crossing said...

What's Left, Part One is certainly worthy of the Shadow and Light Magazine article, not only for the photography but your amazing writing. Juicy kernels like "Fecund oases like the Owens Valley in California have become alkaline dust bowls thanks to greed, corruption, and willful ignorance." as well as general descriptions of the deserted, make it noteworthy. Love the "Remains of the Denver City Mine Fire" and "Terminus or the end of the line in Encino". They have your talented fingerprints all over them - stunning wide open skies - with or without mountains of clouds - and beautiful human detritus dotting the landscape. I look forward to several more blogs, featuring work from your creative mind!

Anonymous said...

Stirring comments on the passage of time and it’s impact on settlements and people’s dreams. I can’t wait to read the next installment so keep writing please!