"Beloved" is a word usually used to describe long-deceased relatives, memorable pets, an occasional author who is very, very old and things so far in the past that nobody can really remember them.
In Wisconsin, it is different. In Ashland, people refer - oddly, it seems at first - to a "beloved oredock," a hulking, deteriorating, mass of concrete and metal that juts out into Chequamegon Bay like some toppled over, half-immersed skyscraper.
I heard one person in Ashland liken it to the Sears Tower, but that is not a valid comparison. The oredock is about 500 feet longer. It was once, they say, the biggest oredock in the entire world. It is small only in comparison to what it represents.
The oredock has not been used in more than 40 years, not since the trains stopped hauling iron ore to Ashland from the Gogebic Iron Range towns. The bigger iron ore mines in places like Hurley closed in the 1960s, when deep-shaft mining gave way to other methods; and the oredock isn't even connected to the railroad any longer. Part of the dock is covered in lead paint. There is asbestos in the gear boxes that opened and closed the ore chutes. It is a hazard.
Yet along the shores of Lake Superior, people still love their oredock so much that they had "a fine art and photography exhibit" dedicated to it. They call their high school sports teams in Ashland the Oredockers. When seniors graduate, they have their picture taken in front of it. Walking through Ashland's downtown the other day, I came upon a woman painting the oredock's portrait on the side of the "Book World" building. Her arms were covered in paint colors like liberty blue, blackberry and saucy gold.
Sue Martinsen says her mural eventually will be 150 feet long. "It will be the largest mural in Wisconsin," she said, "because it was the largest oredock in the world."
And soon it will be gone.
They talked about fixing it up and preserving it for a while, but time moves on. The Canadian National Railway Co. owns it and was supposed to start initial work on demolition earlier this summer. Then somebody noticed two peregrine falcons perched there. Though common in much of the world, they are protected here by both the federal Endangered Species Act and the federal Migratory Treaty Act. Since the birds were building a nest, the demolition - which could cost the railroad tens of millions of dollars and take two years, according to the city - was stopped in early June before it even started. One thing people want to help preserve, the falcon, seemed to be helping preserve another. But even birds cannot stop progress forever.
The falcon chicks have left the nest now and so, according to Ashland Planning and Development Director Brea Lemke, demolition can start soon - prompting quips that maybe somebody should plant some rare eagles up there or maybe something really exotic like a kangaroo.
"But that," said Martinsen, smiling while she stood on scaffolding beside her mural and resting her brush for a moment, "is the only way anybody is going to save it."
Nobody is going to save it. "Nor do we need to," she added.
Sentiment is not a bad thing. But, as the artist said, "you can get lost in sentiment and not see the future, either."
Maybe, it is still hoped, the base of it can be converted into some sort of usable pier. The oredock itself, though, will be gone within a year or two. Like the mines that once defined much of northern Wisconsin, it is a relic of the past and soon will be only a thing of memories and paintings fittingly large