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  • Jay Mather / Bee file, 1991

    A Southern Pacific train derailment on a curve near Dunsmuir dumped 19,500 gallons of a highly toxic weed killer into the Sacramento River in July 1991. The chemical destroyed all vegetation and aquatic life in the river for 38 miles downstream to Shasta Lake.

  • Tim Holt is a freelance journalist and the former editor of the Suttertown News, a Sacramento weekly.

Viewpoints: Dunsmuir, like many small towns, tries to keep the faith

Published: Sunday, Jun. 9, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 5E
Last Modified: Monday, Jun. 10, 2013 - 8:51 am

It helps to have faith if you live in a small town like Dunsmuir.

The kind of faith that flies in the face of grim realities: Since the 1950s Dunsmuir has been battered by declining railroad employment. Our sport fishing and tourist trade suffered a serious blow in 1991, when a train derailment caused thousands of gallons of toxic weed killer to spill into our river. In the last few months local politics, always pretty turbulent, reached new heights of dysfunctionality with the resignation of three of our five City Council members.

For most of the two decades I've lived here, empty storefronts have been more prevalent on the main street than thriving businesses. The town's population in 2011 was 1,635, a drop of 15 percent from a decade earlier. For most of our young people, a high school diploma is a one-way ticket out of town.

Those of us who stick around can be divided into two categories: the believers and the nonbelievers. Those who believe, despite the odds, that Dunsmuir will one day fulfill its true "potential" (whatever that is), and those who have a more sober and rational view of the town's prospects.

I recently attended an assemblage of the town's true believers, otherwise known as a City Council meeting. The two council members, looking rather lonely on the dais, had the task of appointing a third so they could have a quorum and legally do city business.

Surprisingly, there were five candidates for the position, all lined up in a neat row facing the two council members, who questioned them on their fitness for the position. All the candidates, with few quibbles, professed their faith in the town's future, their belief in its "potential." There were the obligatory calls for unity of purpose and mutual respect among the town's citizens. Represented among the candidates were those whose families went back several generations in Dunsmuir and those who had recently moved here.

These professions of faith and calls for unity are important in a town with a bleak economy and a history of warring political factions. As in many small towns, relatively liberal folks periodically move here from the big city. They tend to like marijuana but not guns. They like art galleries but not dams. All of which riles up our good old boys and gals, who prefer alcohol to art and marijuana, and like their guns and dams just fine, thank you. (You can imagine their reaction when one newbie from the big city proposed putting medical marijuana greenhouses across from the sheriff's substation.)

At this recent meeting, the good old boys and gals and the newbies participated in a session that was amazingly free of bickering, a "Kumbaya" moment that doesn't often occur here.

And this at a time when things are generally looking up. The vast majority of our storefronts now have businesses in them. We have our first tattoo parlor, a thriving new art gallery and a new water bottling plant that boasts nine employees. Is Dunsmuir, God forbid, on the verge of realizing its "potential"?

My mother grew up in Dunsmuir when you didn't need faith to live here, when it was a booming railroad town, the largest town in Siskiyou County.

Babe Ruth showed up here in 1924 to play an exhibition game, and my mother remembered seeing Errol Flynn at the train station on his way to William Randolph Hearst's estate near McCloud. Those were heady days, when on Saturday nights the dozen or so bars were filled with brawling railroad and lumber mill workers – with, I'm assuming, nary a tourist in sight.

Today, of course, we're more civilized, and the brawls are more likely to take place at the ballot box and in the letters-to-the-editor columns.

Meanwhile, we grope our way toward some form of economic salvation, be it high-tech startups (we have two so far), tattoo parlors or art galleries.

Nine jobs at the water plant and a few new businesses on the main street are a start. But it still takes a lot of faith to believe that Dunsmuir can ever be the kind of booming town it was in my mother's day.

Tim Holt is a freelance journalist and the former editor of the Suttertown News, a Sacramento weekly.

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