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Brecken Ridge, W.Va: High - Tech Ghost Town
BRECKEN RIDGE, W.Va.- For over eighty years, U.S. Sand was responsible for bringing prosperity to this Appalachian town. Today former residents blame it for the town's very disappearance.
In 1910, a vein of pure silica was discovered in Bugle Mountain, at the North bank of the Potomac River. A small consortium began to mine the sand for use in the construction trade. Eventually the purity of the material came to be favored by the makers of toothpaste. The turning point came for U.S. Sand in the early 1960's, when the processing equipment was reconfigured to make silicon for the computer industry. The formerly rural industrial area became an island of middle class sprawl, expanding until the sudden collapse of the Big Three chip makers. Five years ago, the board of U.S. Sand decided to close the factory rather than restore its previous capacity as a producer of sand for construction and dentrifice. Today, the town's population has dropped to 120 from its peak in 1978 of 19,354.
Dade Heavbecker, 75, a lifetime resident of Brecken Ridge, is one of the very few who seems unaffected by the expansion and demise of the town. "My grandfather farmed this land, my father worked at the mine for a few years, but went back to farming and that's what I've always done," But he is an exception.
Other residents, like Lila Forde, 50, identify closely with the changes U.S. Sand went through. Her family was able to sell off most of its farm land to large chain stores like Wal Mart, allowing them to live in an admittedly luxurious state of early retirement. "We couldn't believe our good luck," she recalled in her half acre yard last week. "The growth and development were just phenomenal. When I think back about all the junk we bought, all the money we wasted on gadgets...we really didn't know what to do with all that money,".
The structure of the mine still keeps vigil over the now silent town. From ridges miles away, the cut in the mountain that was taken to power much of the nation's technological industry will forever remain as a metaphorical monument to economic erosion.
The prosperity visited upon Brecken Ridge in the 1960's and 70's strongly contrasted with the stereotypes of Appalachia . Former farmers quickly assumed middle class lifestyles and habits. Coupled with its Revolutionary War era history, the wealth brought by the sand mine turned the town into a popular resort. Trailer parks and unplumbed shacks gave way to schools and golf courses. Car repair shops were replaced by new car dealers, and large retail chain stores moved in to satisfy a hungry market. The town remained an island, a secret kept by its geological anomaly, and as a result, no substantial industry followed this expansion. When the sand mine collapsed, every family in the area was affected. In reverse order of their arrival, every chain store, construction supply house, real estate developer, and affordable nanny left for greener pastures. Unfortunately, the period of expansion had lasted just long enough for the fabric of the previous community to unravel, and the traditional establishments and customs found no new champions. Today the area is characterized by empty, windowless buildings, stripped of their useful and human contents, and populated by a few stalwart denizens living in a kind of suspended animation.
The proximity to Washington, D.C. attracted a liberal, intellectual demographic to the area. Several "Ideal Communities" were set up in Brecken Ridge, characterized by geodesic teepees and communal childcare parks. This period in the late 70's with its eastern version of the better known California communes, was unique in that all the denizens of the town seemed to be in harmony with the growing industry that hosted them. Burt Childess, former resident and also former board member of U.S. Sand said from his Washington, D.C. office, "We would have community meetings on friday nights. Any decision made by the company was completely public; we sought the input from the community, because, after all, we were the community,". Ultimately, however, the decision to close the mine was an economic one. "There's still sand up there; that's not the problem. The problem is that there's sand all over the place, and without computers being manufactured, good sand is as valuable as bad sand," Childess said.
The speed of the contraction of the town disoriented residents and business owners alike. "I was on the town council at the time," Childess said, "and people had cut up their property to sell to all the new "Sandies", that's what they called the hippies and the people from the city, and no one ever thought people would just move away, leave everything behind,". Those who still live in the town equate the idealism of the time with greed. "These insider people were just trying to get rich, and if they weren't trying to get rich, they were at least looking for someone to take advantage of," said Dade Heavbecker. As he looked back toward the rusting hulk of the mine, he added "they took the mountain and turned it into an idea".
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