The Shape of a Place

I’ve only seen it in pictures, but lately the Ashland skyline has captured my imagination. Perched on Lake Superior’s shore since 1916, the Ashland ore dock dominates the silhouette of the small northern Wisconsin city. And from what both residents and travelers tell me, this dock inspires awe. It stands 80 feet tall and stretches 1,800 feet–or about a third of a mile–into the lake.

Ashland native Michael Sullivan submitted the photo of the ore dock that appeared on Portal Wisconsin’s homepage last week (also seen above). He writes: “I grew up in Ashland and the oredock has always been a symbol of home–whether coming from the east or the west into Ashland, you knew you were home when you saw the oredock. As kids, we used to ride our bikes out to the end and there would always be people fishing from it. It’s one of the last remnants, I believe, of what Ashland was at one time.”

By all accounts, Ashlanders love their ore dock. Just last year, mural artists Sue Martinsen and Kelly Meredith paid it tribute in paint, when they completed a life-sized ore dock mural in downtown Ashland as part of the city’s historic Mural Walk. (The mural “truly is as long as the ore dock is long, and as high,” Sue tells me.) The City Council proclaimed it a local landmark in 2002.  Even the public school sports teams are called the Oredockers.

The ore dock remains as a monument to the area’s maritime culture, but not for long. Once used to load ore boats destined for eastern steel mills,  it hasn’t been employed for shipping purposes since the 1960s.  Now the ore dock’s fate rests in the hands of current owner Canadian National Railway, which has plans to dismantle it. Repairing the disintegrating structure would be too costly, the company says, and they have public liability concerns. A couple of years ago, a pair of endangered peregrine falcons nested on the ore dock and thwarted demolition for a while. Then the city raised water quality and right-of-way issues, stalling the process further. But with permitting issues resolved just this month, demolition could begin soon.

What happens to a community when its shape–perhaps its very identity–is so distinctly altered? It’s a fascinating and complicated story, one I’ll continue to follow.

–Tammy Kempfert


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