History vs. reclamation: which trumps?

Concrete, as they say, is forever.

But as chance and history would have it, the mill town of Port Blakely came and mostly went before the automobile made impervious surfaces the foundation of urban development. Which explains how the bootprint of industrial man on the natural landscape has largely vanished from the picturesque south-end harbor.

Port Blakely’s main street was a boardwalk – much easier for nature to reclaim.

Stroll what we now enjoy as Blakely Harbor Park, and remarkably few vestiges remain of what was once billed as the largest sawmill in the world (turning out at its peak 100,000 board feet of lumber a day), surrounded by a bustling community 1,000 strong. Yet even those scant remains – a few piling stubs at the shoreline, a crumbling cement building, a rock jetty – find themselves the objects of one final restoration effort, not by time but by man himself. The jetty is said to impede fish passage to the mill pond and upland streams beyond, while the pilings may harbor toxic creosote. The concrete building has the misfortune of sitting in the middle of delicate salt marsh.

It poses an interesting philosophical question: when historically significant ruins stand in the way of habitat restoration, which should trump? It’s a textbook case of the paradox of “competing goods” that plays out in this community time and again: forests vs. ball fields, better traffic connectivity vs. neighborhood peace and quiet, bike lanes vs. narrower “country” roads, more services vs. lower taxes. We hope this chapter gets a vigorous public debate, before what remains of Port Blakely is wiped from the earth for good.

Indeed, nothing strikes park-goers as egregious about the mill town’s ruins; they are objects of fascination. Even the broken hulk of the power plant elicits more curiosity than contempt, sullied only by the occasional attention of graffiti artists. Together the ruins are key to telling the story of land, and those who planned out the park’s future once agreed. While noting its presence in a marsh, a 2001 task force called for reclamation of the tumbledown power plant as an interpretive center, with informational signage and windows opening up to vistas suggesting the scale and grandeur what once was. Impacts, the group said, could be mitigated by construction of a boardwalk that would allow visitors to pass over the marsh rather than treading through it.

The jetty’s historical value is somewhat more tenuous, as it was largely rebuilt by the previous landowners in the 1970s. Even so, it’s been there long enough to have assumed – or perhaps, re-assumed – its place in the lore with which the property is suffused.

The questions come to the fore now because, six years after the task force issued its report, little has been done to act on their recommendations and improve the park. It’s a shame, because Blakely Harbor Park is defined as much by its man-made history as its ecology. Park officials need to decide once and for all exactly how to tell that story, before committing to the removal or destruction of its artifacts.

Reclamation may never see the highest standards, habitat-wise. But remember that a mill town grew up from the earth, and then disappeared back into it.

That’s a pretty good recovery right there.

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