Marathon Ontario is the town my mother first lived when she moved to Canada at the age of 2 in the 1950s. Located on the northern shore of lake superior, it is a purely resource based settlement, beginning with a pulp mill in the 40s, and joined by several mine in the 1980s. The mill is still standing, and only shut a few years ago due to issues surrounding the liability of corporations for containers filled with mercury sitting in the lake.
The town has an old-world feel to it. The subdivisions, built in the 1940s and 50s, twist and wind to the contour of the hill on which the town is built, and the main building downtown is the legion hall. The town does have its share of modern suburbia to it as well – the opening of the mines in the 1980s brought growth which resulted in many big box stores. Now, most of those mines have shut down, and the mill as I previously mentioned, and it seems as a result everyone is working in retail. Everywhere we went was overstaffed, with hardly any customers. The town’s free museum even has three paid staff doing full time research. A flashing sign in the mall parking lot bleets “shop local means local jobs” – but this is only a half truth: without some money coming in from the outside (i.e. purchasing natural resources), the town has no reason to exist. Since the Mill has been mothballed rather than torn down, there is the possibility it could re-open, and with rising metals prices perhaps the mines will become profitable again, so it isn’t that Marathon is necessarily a dying town.
Ghost towns are interesting because they show the transiency of resource extraction as a basis for a human community, but they only show one side of that transiency – decay, loss. Any anxiety and uncertainty associated with the demise of a ghost town disappears retrospectively, and it downfall appears necessitated in advance. Marathon demonstrates something a bit more interesting – not just the past, the fall of a town, but the uncertainty itself. Not just the past, but also the to-come, the “who knows?”.