As an archaeologist by trade, my labor is often focused on searching for things that we did not know existed. Sometimes this investigative work produces the identification of isolated artifacts and complex sites, but more often than not these surveys produce negative results – meaning despite our best efforts, nothing was found.
Trying to uncover missing narratives of our past is one of the more enjoyable aspects of conducting historic research. Similar to archaeology, an objective of conducting research is hoping to uncover a narrative that may have been forgotten, or in some cases intentionally hidden from the public. However, like archaeology, this research, too, often fails to produce any smoking guns.
Since a primary focus of mine lies within the industrial heritage - my attention has been placed on looking for what is missing in the discourse of our industrial past. Studies in industrial heritage and archaeology have elucidated the technical workings of the built environment and the role of workers within these landscapes - adding a needed empirical element to the historical narratives of these places.
Studies in industrial heritage have also contributed to our understanding of worker culture, resistance, and oppression within 19th century heavy industry. Although research in industrial heritage and archaeology has added clarity to our understanding of our industrial past, its focus has tended to favor those less novel industries in locations whose industrial history aligns more with the early periods of industrialization than the contemporary.
The historical actors deemed worthy of interpretation at industrial sites in the United States and abroad, too, have been dominated by specific groups of individuals - such as miners, mine owners, strike leaders and labor bosses - and for good reason - as they were influential figures in the story of industrialization and/or mining. However, a group of individuals who appear to be universally missing from the industrial heritage discourse are a group of actors whom, I argue, played roles as influential as mining captains and mine owners, yet they tend to be forgotten. These actors that I am speaking of are the chemists and metallurgists, actors whom are perhaps less heroic than those previously mentioned, but whose labor melded hard science with mining and revolutionized the mining industry at the turn of the twentieth century.
Rather than toiling in underground drifts with a pickaxe, or at the front lines of labor disputes, chemists and metallurgists experimented in laboratories and processing plants - attempting to develop envirotechnical systems that could turn a profit out of a loss, and a thin ore body into a vast resource.
In addition to extending the economic life cycle of many mines, the envirotechnical systems developed by these chemists and metallurgists shaped environments, often at a molecular level, in processes such as chemical leaching, flotation and reclamation – creating some of the most impactful environmental legacies, which were often toxic, but also obfuscated from the eye and difficult to understand.
Like the ghost plants that once played prominent roles within the industrial and environmental landscapes of the Lake Superior Iron District, the activities of the ghost actors who labored inside these facilities are absent from heritage narratives. Why is this, and how do we fix it?
By elucidating the activities of the ghost actors and the envirotechnical systems that they developed heritage professionals can add needed layers of complexity to our heritage narratives – and perhaps illuminate solutions to some of the environmental problems that we encounter as we advance into the post-industrial.
The industrial heritage process is about telling stories. It is about incorporating diverse values and empirical evidence into interpretive strategies that can resonate beyond the immediate heritage managers and into the psyche of the general public. These stories, like our own history, are sometimes difficult to talk about, yet they remain important chapters in our narrative of how we got here. If we wish to learn from our past, which includes both its successes and its mistakes, we need to incorporate both the inspirational as well as the tragic. If heritage professionals fail to tell stories that do this, we only have ourselves to blame.
John Baeten holds a PhD in Industrial Heritage and Archaeology from Michigan Technological University. His research aims to contextualize the environmental legacies of industrialization as meaningful cultural heritage.