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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Anne Arundel 100

Lessons of a Ghost Town

Written by Jeffrey Hammond, Professor of English and George B. and Willma Reeves Endowed Chair in the Liberal Arts

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"Wanna see a ghost town?" What 7-year-old could refuse this invitation, especially if it came from an older brother whose obsessions were always interesting?

The invitation stemmed from my brother's passion for trains, which had led him to investigate two massive pylons of crumbling, fitted stones in the nearby fairgrounds. Suspecting that they had once supported a railroad trestle, Dave went to the library and found some old Ohio maps that identified the abandoned line as a branch of the Cincinnati, Sandusky, and Cleveland Railroad. This branch, which ran southeast from Findlay to Carey, last appeared on a map dated 1887. This map showed something else that would disappear from the record: a village named Huber. Apparently, a ghost town lay just three miles from our house.

One bright Saturday, armed with a sketch map and some sandwiches, we walked the faint mound of the old track bed as it led out into the countryside. When it passed through stands of trees, cinders and rotted ties marked a clear path; in corn and wheat fields it became nearly invisible. As we slipped through barbed-wire fences, tip-toed through pastures of cattle and hogs, and skirted mowed farmyards to pick up the trail on the other side, my head teemed with TV and movie images of Western ghost towns. I was certain that we would discover another Deadwood or Tombstone with abandoned saloons and creaky boardwalks with hitching posts.

When we finally got to the site, of course, this was not the case at all. We saw nothing except cornfields and a county road with a rise where the tracks had crossed it. I started to whine, but Dave urged me to look harder and longer. So I did - and near the drainage ditch by the road, where the ground was too sloped and soft to plow, I caught the glint of glass shards. After kicking around in the dirt, we turned up a few rusted, square-bodied nails.

* * *

I didn't yet know that every place has its own shadow of a ghost town. Uninhabited sites hide embedded stories written by geological processes and biological evolution. At locations where people have lived, these natural stories get augmented and complicated by human ones, producing a stratigraphy of tangled narratives. Most of these narratives leave traces so faint and overwritten that they are almost impossible to read. And yet, even those of us who have little interest in history find ourselves drawn to places with a past. I suspect that this impulse refl ects our basic need not to feel isolated. People have always gathered together in space: maybe we possess a similar instinct to gather together in time.

The past of a place is rarely as present as it is at St. Mary's City. The framed-in house sites, the St. John's site, the reconstructed State House and the Roman Catholic chapel all pull the former narratives of this place into current awareness. The result is a sense of community with everyone who has shared this ground for nearly four centuries. Their stories are impossible to ignore.

Why, exactly, is historical consciousness a good thing? On the simplest level, the hardships of the past make us appreciate the present. Grow our own food? Sew our own clothes? No cars, TV, or e-mail? How did our forebears stand it? Sometimes, the quaintness of pre-industrial technology makes us yearn for the "good old days." More often, it fosters a smug sense of superiority. The notion that technological progress is the measure of all things makes it easy to succumb to the bias of "presentism": the belief that our own time and place represent the pinnacle of human history.

If we see history as a sequence of events that culminate in us, we miss a far more profound benefit of historical awareness: the humbling recognition that ours is not the only story, but only the latest to be written on a landscape filled with stories. An engaged encounter with the past mitigates our present-centered arrogance: history, if closely heeded, reminds us that our way is not the only way.

Broadened temporal perspectives can lead to broadened spatial perspectives. If we are indifferent toward people from the past, how can we develop empathy with people with whom we share the present? To respect and honor differences is the first step toward finding continuities and common ground - a fact that's as true for individuals as it is for regions, cultures, and nations, whether past or present. Philosopher George Santayana once remarked that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But history doesn't just tell us how to act. It also tells us who we are: squatters who are passing through the world, like countless others before us.

* * *

The earth had reclaimed the village of Huber with stunning efficiency. But as those nails I found revealed, the historical slate is rarely wiped totally clean. My brother also noticed three or four flattened rectangles in the ground: the foundation remnants of an old dream. He had even found a name for one of the dreamers in an old commercial directory: William T. Callahan, who operated Huber's general store. I made it a point to stand in the middle of each rectangle. How else could I be certain of connecting with someone who had just become a friendly ghost? Strangely, I found myself worrying about Mr. Callahan. When I wondered out loud if he had died here, in the middle of nowhere, Dave assured me that he had merely moved on, probably to a bigger and better store in nearby Findlay.

At Huber I learned that it's possible to send good wishes to the dead. And why not? The traces of their stories are everywhere for those who can read them. I kept one of those nails, but at St. Mary's City we don't need to hoard artifacts to connect with the friendly ghosts who dwell here. Their stories are all around us, hidden in plain sight.