Ghost towns of the Midwest, sand dunes edition

While Americans might associate ghost towns with the West, communities elsewhere across the United States have also disappeared. Here is the case of one such community on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan:

Silver Lake, Michigan

A small town once stood on the riverbank, where the river bends before ending its journey at the lake. For several decades in the mid-1800s, the village of Singapore was a humming lumber and shipbuilding hub. Residents and sawmill workers processed the plentiful white pine trees of western Michigan, then loaded them onto schooners for Chicago and Milwaukee.

The founders of Singapore had big dreams. They envisioned their town, then located north of present-day Saugatuck on the southwestern Michigan shore, as the next important Midwestern city, rivaling the growing metropolises in Illinois and Wisconsin…

After the lumber trade waned and a series of fires roared through the area, leading to the destruction of many of Singapore’s houses, the town was abandoned. By 1875, according to Eric Gollannek, executive director of the Saugatuck-Douglas Historical Society, the lumber boom was over, the mills were dismantled and moved to St. Ignace, Michigan, jobs dried up and the village slowly disappeared.

Eventually, what was left of Singapore was buried beneath the sand.

The sand dunes of Lake Michigan are an underrated natural feature. Since I have seen them on top of a house or two at Silver Lake (see the image above), it is not surprising that they cover the remains of a town.

I would guess that the early decades of Midwest settlement is a ripe time for finding ghost towns or abandoned communities. Many early settlers had dreams that their town would prosper in the future. But, time, outside social forces, and internal decisions helped seal the fate of some places while others thrived.

The possible forces at work are numerous. Perhaps it was the changing of transportation technology; the coming of the railroad, the slowdown or rise in traffic along a road, shifting harbors and waterways. Perhaps it was the consolidation of residents or trading activity in one community as opposed to another. Perhaps it was the presence of a particular industry or the the decline of an industry. Ecological conditions can change as well, ranging from droughts to major storms to fires to human activity that changes the landscape in significant ways.

Today, it is hard to imagine that established communities of a particular size could disappear. Yet, history suggests this has happened before. It may not take sand dunes or cutting down many trees (something that happened all around Lake Michigan) but the communities of today are not guaranteed to be the communities of the future.

Places that might be deserted due to a lack of homebuyers

The issue (amongst many) in the ongoing economic malaise is a lack of homebuyers. To have a hot housing market, such as happened in much of the 1990s and some of the 2000s, you need both sellers and buyers. What happens if this temporary trend of a lack of buyers turns into something less than temporary?

One suggestion is that certain areas will be deserted:

Many economists argue that the housing market may take four or five years to recover. Even if that’s proven to be true, the all-time highs of 2006 may never be reached again.

The devastation in some regions will never be repaired. Parts of Oregon, Georgia and Arizona have become progressively more deserted. Since jobless rates may never recover, there is little reason to hope that the populations in these areas will ever rebound. Some homes will be torn down in these pockets of high foreclosures in the hopes that reducing supplies will boost prices. Whether that idea will work in hard-hit areas such as Flint, Mich., and Yuma, Ariz., remains to be seen.

If this comes to pass, this would be an interesting period in American history. Yes, we do have some instances of population loss: the “ghost towns” of the Old West come to mind as people poured into a region and then seemed to leave just as suddenly. Rust Belt cities like Detroit and Buffalo and Pittsburgh have been experiencing a slow but steady population drain over the last few decades. And I have tried to find evidence of “lost suburbs” – places that would go against the typical narrative of American suburbs continuing to grow in population and sprawl further out from cities.

But this prediction suggests that certain metropolitan regions might not have any hope of recovery. While some of these are Rust Belt places that already had issues (like Flint), others are newer, particularly locations Nevada, Arizona, and California. As a matter of public policy, what should be done? Should we prop up locations with government aid? Should we write certain areas off and let them slowly lose population until the critical population mass is gone? Is contraction worthwhile (something that has been debated now for several years regarding Detroit) or is simply losing a city or region a better option?

In the long run, the only possible solution seems to be to convince people that these areas are desirable places to live. One selling point, and this seems to come up a lot on the front page of Yahoo, is that these places have affordable housing. This may be the case but that won’t be enough to attract people – these areas need jobs, economic engines that will bring stability and profits to hard-hit regions. And which companies might be willing to step up?

Interestingly, Illinois ranks #5 on this list. It looks like this analysis says the main factors are a limited population growth and a severe loss in manufacturing jobs over the recent decades. Certain areas of the Chicago region seem more immune to this than others. DuPage County is populous and wealthy, partly due to the influx of higher-end, technology-related jobs that have entered the county since the 1960s. Because of this, DuPage County has an unemployment rate always multiple points below the national average.