How these California, Oregon small towns survived after losing a big employer

Tim Holt
Zócalo Public Square
Sign points the way to Mt. Shasta, the volcano, near the Mount Shasta Ranger Station in Mount Shasta, the city.

This country is littered with dying small towns that lacked a Plan B, one they should have had in place before the mill shut down or the factory moved to Mexico.

Mount Shasta, California, and Ashland, Oregon did it right. Located in the California-Oregon border region where I live, they avoided economic devastation by having their survival plans well underway by the time their lumber mills began to shut down more than a half century ago.

Indeed, Mount Shasta was more than 100 years ahead of the curve, thanks to a guy named Justin Hinckley Sisson, who planted the seeds for the town's future reinvention as a recreational tourist destination. A schoolteacher from Connecticut, Sisson moved out West and reinvented himself as a rugged outdoorsman. In 1866, he opened a hotel and restaurant on the lower slopes of Mt. Shasta and started taking his visitors on hunting, fishing and mountain climbing excursions.

The timber boom that had begun around that time had pretty well petered out by 1990, when the last lumber mill closed in Mount Shasta. 

By then, a wave of newcomers attracted to the recreational opportunities in the area had taken up where Sisson left off, setting up outfitting stores and offering guide services. A new ski park opened in 1985. All this was complemented by a new batch of motels and restaurants.

A snowboarder at the Douglas chairlift at Mt. Shasta Ski Park.

Beginning in the late 1990s, a nonprofit organization called the Mount Shasta Trail Association, fueled by grants and private donations, greatly expanded the area’s hiking opportunities, adding 20 miles of trails along lakes and rivers and on the slopes of Mount Shasta, with another 46 miles currently in the works.

All in all, it added up to a smooth and vigorous transition from a timber-based economy to one based on recreational tourism.

Seventy-five miles up the road sits another former timber town, Ashland, Oregon. The last of its eight lumber mills shut down in 1967. But an English professor at the local college, Angus L. Bowmer, had already planted the seeds for the town’s reinvention. Bowmer had done some amateur acting on the side, and he got the idea of converting an unused structure in the city park into a venue for Shakespearean plays. The city of Ashland offered him $400 and funds for a construction crew — just enough support to get his project off the ground.

The first two productions occurred in 1935, instantly becoming an annual event: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival. By the 1960s, the festival had established Ashland as a major Theatre Town that drew fans of The Bard from up and down the West Coast. By 2019 the Ashland Chamber of Commerce estimated that over 100,000 visitors were showing up at the theatre festival each season. Its success has spawned a number of other live theatre venues.

File - Open to the sky, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre seats 1,200 people in this 2017 photo.

What do these two successful town reinventions have in common? They both carry the promise that visitors leave their drab, boring lives behind and find something new and exciting in the town. 

A successful reinvention is a high tide that raises all boats, attracts that surge of hikers and skiers and theatre-goers who fill the hotels and restaurants and keep the cash registers in the retail shops humming.

But what happens when the tide doesn't roll in?

The small town where I live, Dunsmuir, California, provides an example of what happens when you don’t have a Plan B. Dunsmuir is just 10 miles down the road from Mount Shasta. In its heyday, Dunsmuir was a thriving railroad hub for passenger trains, equipment repair and crew changes. Ten passenger trains came through every day, but now, most of that has gone away. It's down to two passenger trains each day, and freight train crews are less than half what they were in the days of steam locomotives.

An Amtrak train arrives at the Dunsmuir station in the snow at 12:30 a.m. in January 2010.

There was no Plan B in place before, or during, the railroad's decline. So now, more than half a century later, well-intentioned people here are playing catchup, trying to bring the town back to life, but through piecemeal efforts: a new art gallery, a small performing space, a micro-brewery, some pretty good restaurants.

None of this adds up to a solid rebranding. The town has shrunk from 2,200 in population when I moved here 26 years ago, to 1,700 today. This is despite a number of elements in Dunsmuir's favor: The Sacramento River runs right through Dunsmuir. It’s considered one of the best fly-fishing destinations in California. Hiking trails abound, and the slopes of Mt. Shasta and the ski park are a short drive away.

But new enterprises tend to come and go at a high turnover rate, like the outfitting store that only lasted a couple of months. An entrepreneur from Oakland who’d made a bundle selling novelty items in China, bought up a half dozen downtown properties 20 years ago and promised that it would be the beginning of the town’s revival. Those buildings still sit empty. It’s tough to get a Plan B going in a depressed economy. 

In their book, "Our Towns," the journalists James and Deborah Fallows found common factors in successfully reinvented towns across the United States. Among them was an openness to newcomers, to new people bringing new talents and ideas to their new homes. In these “open” towns, the newcomers often find opportunities to reinvent themselves, to apply whatever skills and talents they may have in new ways in this new, stimulating environment. The retired accountant who made his own beer at home opens a micro-brewery. Or the English professor gets into the theatre business. Or that Connecticut schoolteacher opens a hotel and starts taking his visitors on hunting and fishing excursions.

In Dunsmuir, we see similar personal transformations that could plant the seeds for a successful town reinvention: A former stock and bond trader from the Bay Area took over the fly-fishing shop. A former bank executive from San Francisco runs the hardware store.

Every small town has its share of talented, enterprising folks, the ones who get the art galleries and the micro-breweries going. But they can't do it alone. They need visitors and ideas from elsewhere. And people need to direct their positive energy and talent in the same direction, and come up with a theme, a story for their town to tell.

Otherwise, they're likely to have a nice, quiet town with a lot of empty storefronts.

Tim Holt is the editor of the quarterly Northwest Review and the author of the back-to-the-land novel "On Higher Ground," set in the Mount Shasta region.