Move Over New Detroit, It’s New Baltimore

moonA coyote cried into the night, his face lean and fierce, his fur wet and glistening. The waves pounded against the dead rabbit at his feet, strands of fresh blood twisting in the foam.

Alfred Ashley stood frozen, shovel in hand. He could hear the coyote’s lip smack, smell the blood, like a mixture rust and death. He’d left his comfortable life in Mt. Clemens for this.

They’d called him crazy. Said he was mad. And now he was about to be killed by a pack of wild coyotes.

Terrified, Ashley walked back to his house over the empty streets he’d laid out in a grid. Somehow, amazingly, he made it back in one piece. He filled the kerosene lamp and lit it. The darn things didn’t light worth a damn, but he held it over his rifle and examined the barrel.

He’d have to order more mercury fulminate.

Ashley was, by day, the official U.S. postmaster for Ashley, Michigan. It was for all intents and purposes his town, right there on Anchor Bay. You didn’t so much as spit on a piece of property without him knowing the what, when, where, and why. He’d personally led Washington Street right up to Lake St. Clair. There were factories and piers that stretched out up to 100 feet into the lake, were the ships docked before heading up the straits to Lake Huron.

Ashley must’ve owned half the town.

pic2It was another one of those miracles of American industry. When the French lived there, the best they could do were ribbon farms. Now you couldn’t find a whaler off the coast of New England without at least one barrel on board from Ashley – or, as the locals had taken to calling it, New Baltimore. The townsfolk built churches with great big steeples, drank beer from their own breweries, and spent their days on the farm and in the factories. The women, of course, ran the homes – some, widows, even took over the family business.

Over time, a nice little downtown with brick buildings in the most popular urban styles, from Italianate to Queen Anne, popped up on Washington Street. The homes on the side streets, too, followed the fashions of the day, sturdy colonial and Victorian abodes built by hand.

There was a strong sense of pride, of ownership, as the town grew. Every shop owner put their own lil’ imprint on their store. You drove every nail in your house, slapped the paint on the walls. It was hard, rewarding work.

nb4But New Baltimore changed when the interurban and Grand Trunk Railway linked the town to Detroit and Port Huron in the 1870s. This electric, steam-powered revolution brought in both the tourists and a cosmopolitan air. Entrepreneurs opened luxurious hotels, dance pavilions, opera houses, and mineral baths. Economic self-sufficiency went by the wayside in the wild chase for big city money. A power plant and improvements in plumbing brought the promise of a brighter, cleaner future.

Until the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, spelling lights out for the tourist industry in cities like New Baltimore. And when the economy did finally get going again in the 1940s, highways and air travel had made taking the train out to New Baltimore old news. Why vacation in New Baltimore when you could go to Florida or Hawaii?

Over the decades, historic houses and businesses in New Baltimore fell into disrepair and were torn down. Others kept on. By the early 1980s, the town was a shadow of itself, a decent enough place to live, but far from thriving. People had stopped going downtown, stopped caring about the community as much. The times were a-changin’ and there wasn’t much faith in the old ways. Down the road in the neighboring village of Algonac, they actually tore down the entire downtown, modeling the city after the ever popular suburbs.

nb2And New Baltimore’s salvation, ironically enough, indeed turned out to be urban sprawl. Roughly 30 miles from Detroit, the town’s population has skyrocketed from maybe a few thousand to over 12,000 in recent years as exurbs fill in the town’s empty pockets and commercial developers revitalize commercial streets with hastily built strip malls and office buildings.

Downtown even saw some investment. Though it’s still a far cry from the old days, new restaurants and craft shops have opened up, and a redone beachfront is a hit with locals in the summer. At least, when e. coli levels from sewage runoff aren’t too high.

For a taste of some old New Baltimore, you can still wet your whistle at The Town Pump, opened in the 1940s. The “skyline” art deco bar – complete with a neon green clock and streamlined curves – beckons to a spirit long since gone. But the beer is still good.

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