Monday, November 24, 2008

Twilight on the St. Clair

On the American side of the St. Clair river, just south of Port Huron, stands a blocky brick structure crowned with eight narrow smokestacks. Heaps of black coal just south of the building and a tangle of steel transmission lines around it suggest that this edifice is a power plant of the decrepit coal-fired variety. This suggestion is both correct and misleading.

This was a power plant.

Marysville is not, technically, dead. Its switchyard has long been on life support, energized not by the cold and silent generators within the plant but by power transmitted from other stations. The piles of coal alongside the plant are not destined for the great stokers inside Marysville; the coal belongs to a nearby paper mill which finds the plant a convenient storage ground for their fuel. But the gate is still manned, the lights are still on, and deep inside the building, house-service transformers still hum.

And if you violate protocol at the gate, plant personnel will indeed come for you.

Marysville gazes into the abyss. Sarnia, on the the Canadian side, might aptly be dubbed the City of Dis. Refineries and chemical plants give Sarnia a wonderfully horrid skyline-- grim towers in daylight, a mirage-like shimmer of golden light after sundown, and a beacon of eternal flame poised above it like the Eye of Sauron over Mordor. The squat outline of Marysville is almost comforting when compared with the vista of industrial sprawl that is Sarnia. But Sarnia burns through the night because men are working and things are being made.

Marysville is a relic of the days when things were still made. Inside the plant one reads a litany of names from the gospel of American Industrial Might-- General Electric, Westinghouse, Worthington. The pumps were cast in Erie, Pennsylvania, the relays were made in Schenectady, the manhole covers in the parking lot bear the insignia of the power company's own shop. The Marysville shop is abandoned now; one can peer through the glass of the door and see tools and workstations, in disarray but apparently salvageable. Right outside the shop door is an outbox dedicated to issues of the Marysville Megawatt Monthly, something else the employees made to express their pride and sense of community. In the administrative building are other relics of that sense of community-- photographs from the nineteen-twenties showing happy employees outside the plant the day the first boiler was lit, showing the interior of the plant clubhouse, which boasted a cafeteria, a gymnasium, a movie theater. The clubhouse is still standing; the lovely brick mansion could pass for a private riverview home if not for its location. It has a glorious view of the switchyard, and of Sarnia. I wonder what they will do with the clubhouse when the lights go out in Marysville forever.

Marysville is, and it was. It lingers in twilight. The most recent of its generators has existed in cold storage, theoretically at the ready should someone call on its 150 megawatts of power. But the abyss it faces is not the view of Sarnia, but the day when the lights go out. It is not in production. It is not abandoned. It is filthy, derelict, inexpressably sad, like a cathedral after a bombing raid. No one ever comes to pick up the Megawatt Monthly from its yellow-lettered outbox. I have no idea when the MMM was last published. I don't know when the plant employees stopped counting their safe-work days-- the scribbled calendar on the bulletin board starts counting on some illegible date in 1988, but there is no end-point, no total of days counted. I don't know when the movie theater stopped screening films, when the Marysville basketball team disbanded. The team members grin out of a black-and-white photograph in a case at one end of the turbine floor. Their names are not inscribed on the photograph; does anyone still living remember who played for Marysville? What team did these young men play against-- did they have a spirited rivalry with the boys from Connors Creek?

Connors Creek, or the part of it that was standing when that photograph was snapped, is dust. Marysville, too, will be dust before its centennial. The age of DC distribution, of low-pressure generation, of breakers and pumps and turbines labeled "Made in U.S.A." has passed. The age of incandescent lightbulbs is slipping by, and across the river in Mordor/Dis/Sarnia, coal-fired power plants are scheduled to fade into history. Generator Number Eight will never be called back into service because power will come, in part, from the wind turbines sprouting like monstrous trillium blossoms all over the Great Lakes region.

I looked away from the case of fading pictures, and stared across the ruined floor of the turbine hall. The dirty windows and overcast sky filtered sunlight into the green-tiled depths of the hall, and around me lay the carcasses of pumps and generators like undersea beasts. Above this Leviathan's graveyard, several stories up the wall, was a wedge of yellow light, and through a grimed glass I could make out the silhouette of my co-workers. I went back upstairs, where the relay panels still blink orange and white and red, and where the outdated posters on the wall hail from the last decade rather than 1988, or '58, or '28. And my co-workers set about bringing forward the day when Marysville slips from twilight into darkness.

When that day falls, I hope someone remembers to slip into the green silence of the turbine hall, and liberate the smiling ghosts of Marysville from their glass case. Marysville's turbines helped power an empire; as that empire, too, falls to twilight, perhaps the ghosts should have their say.

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