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“A Disappearing Place”

 Earlier this month I read the book Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon, a work of fiction about Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, the two other occupants in the box at Ford’s Theater when President Lincoln was shot on April 13, 1865. What many people are not aware of is that less than 20 years later, Harris (who married Rathbone after the Civil War) was fatally shot and then stabbed multiple times by her husband before he attempted to kill himself. Following the assassination  Rathbone never mentally recovered (he was also seriously stabbed by John Wilkes Booth). Many historians write that Rathbone blamed himself for the president’s death since he was unable to stop Booth. He was declared insane and put into an asylum in Germany where the Rathbones and their children had been living and he remained there until his death in 1911. Rathbone was buried next to his wife in a cemetery in the Hanover/Engesodhe area. In 1952 the cemetery made the decision to disinter and cremate the remains of both Harris and Rathbone as there had been no activity or family interest in decades.

The purpose of this post is to not offer a history lesson (although perhaps for some it’s useful) but rather to discuss the sad situation of the disposal of the remains of Harris and Rathbone. These two individuals were permanently erased due to having no “activity” at their grave plots, yet they’re forever associated with the Lincoln assassination.

I recently borrowed the book 500 Places to See Before They Disappear by Holly Hughes and Julie Duchaine. The book spans everything from wildlife, rivers, mountains, ruins, landmarks, holy places to the chapter of most interest to me, “Neglected Moderns,” specifically the section on the Industrial Age. While there are some places to know that are in danger-Stonehenge (encroaching development), the Galapagos Islands (invasive species-humans and animals), Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine (continual violence and strife in the area)- would anyone consider Cannery Row in Monterrey, California or the Steel Valley in the greater Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area to be landmarks, places worth saving since at one time they were the site of terrible hardships for those who toiled there.

While Cannery Row will always have deep meaning thanks to its immortalization by the great American writer John Steinbeck, can the same be said about Pittsburgh? Although works of both fiction and non-fiction have certainly been written about Pittsburgh’s steel past, many are by local authors with neither the fame nor prestige of Steinbeck. When the American steel industry went bust in the 1970s and 1980s, Pittsburgh, a city responsible for supplying the steel that went into such magnificent and world renowned structures as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal and the United Nations Headquarters, lost its identity. Many were fine with erasing this, wanting to start fresh, not wanting to be known by the moniker “steel city” any longer.

While at one time the skies were completely black from the smoke of the steel mills regardless of the time of the day , today in Pittsburgh they’re clear. Sadly, also gone are the smokestacks with the exception of a few that have been saved. Preservationists are attempting to regroup what remains of the steel past into the River of Steel Heritage Area. The most significant part of this is in Homestead, an area south of Pittsburgh. Today it is a popular shopping and entertainment venue, but at one time it was home to U.S. Steel, the world’s largest producer during World War II. In its heyday U.S. Steel covered more than 400 acres. Today all traces of it are gone save for a row of towering brick smokestacks along the Monongahela River. It’s impossible to imagine the thick smoke that would have brought tears to your eyes, the darkness of the sky during the early afternoon, the blood that ran in the streets during a showdown between striking workers and Pinkerton detectives, when dining at P.F. Chang’s or shopping at the Gap, and yet less than a century before, these things were real.

An area may want to move beyond its industrial past, which is fine, but that past should never be forgotten about or disposed of. Steel is an integral part of Pittsburgh even if very little of it is actually produced here anymore; the same goes for the sardine-canning industry in Monterrey, California. It’s history.

The 500 places included in Hughes’ and Duchaine’s book are only a small number of the places that exist in the world that are in danger of becoming forever lost, just as the graves of Harris and Rathbone were. See what you can but don’t ever think they’ll be around forever.

Five places I’ve been to that are disappearing:

-The beaches of Cancun, Mexico
-The Tower of London
-The Alhambra
-Teotihuacan ruins-Mexico
-Valley Forge, Pennsylvania

 Hard to believe this is disappearing and yet it is…the incredible Alhambra (Granada, Spain)

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