Today, let's visit a small town. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Summer of 1949 in the town of Loomis, north central Washington state: I worked with the Bureau of Public Roads, laying out a forest access road into the eastern Cascade Mountains. Loomis was then home to some 300 souls. It'd once been the center of a turn-of-the-century gold rush with thousands of people. Now it was twelve streets, a grocery store, a gas station, and a mechanic's shed. On weekends we went up into the dank, abandoned mines in the hills behind the town. We walked along neglected rails through the tunnels, prying out lumps of iron pyrite -- fool's gold.
That road is still there. I doubt that any of the same people, with their intertwined lives, remain. Mostly I remember Margaret, a middle-aged widow who made ends meet by feeding our road crew, farm style, and sending us off each day with sandwiches wrapped in wax paper.
Loomis was an America few of us get to see. Barren beauty all around. Rattlesnakes when you didn't step carefully. Hundred-and-twenty-degree heat in the high-altitude air. And quiet -- soul-settling quiet -- whenever you shut your mouth. I did mathematics for recreation.
Now I've found Dennis Kitchen's book, Our Smallest Towns. Kitchen crisscrossed America with a panoramic camera visiting tiny towns, rounding up the citizens and photographing them. Garrison Keillor's introduction calls these towns so small that "The bride has to sing at her own wedding." Only four of his towns are larger than Loomis was back then. Most have fewer than a hundred people.
A few of Kitchen's towns are novelties, like Hoot Owl, Oklahoma, with no people at all. But most are real towns, alone in the landscape. The photos show groups of twenty or a hundred people -- old and young, ethnic mixtures, all looking proudly at the camera. Like loomis, Ophir, Utah, population 22, is the remnant of a mining town. Ophir boasts a firehouse and a city hall. A man created Mustang, Texas, population 27, by building a trailer park. He needed a town to get a permit to build a big dance hall.
Most of these towns are remnants of dreams. A highway moved, a railway abandoned, an ore vein run out. The people are stubborn -- not to be brushed aside. People who, for the most part, have figured out how to live close to one another's foibles.
I spent that summer in Loomis missing life in the city. Yet a part of my young psyche feasted on remoteness, on contact with Earth and sky, reliance on inner resources. I began to understand, one August day, when two bearded men and four mules came down out of the mountains. They'd entered that vast forest near Bellingham in the spring and spent all summer clearing the Forest Service trail with axes and machetes. To be that alone, free and independent was a wonderful thing. Back in populated Loomis that evening, those men lay upon my mind. The lights winked out in the scattered houses, and I dreamt about a night sky over the inaccessible reaches of the Cascade Mountains, far from this suddenly crowded town.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Kitchen, D., Our Smallest Towns: Big Falls, Blue Eye, Bonanza & Beyond. San Francisco: Chronicle books, 1995.
That summer of 1949 we laid out the first two miles of the Toats
Coulee Creek Road, the road running west toward Gold Hill.
Last time I saw Loomis it seemed larger. But the town is still
too small for its population to be listed in any of my atlases.
Battered photo of the author with the "powder monkey" on
the road construction site above Loomis, Washington, 1949