13.50 File Under “Disaster Area, Incredible Ruins”: Landscape as Heritage in Thetford Mines, Québec
Thetford Mines is a town build upon the shoulders of generations of men, women, and families, interwoven by asbestos, at varying intervals between 1876 and 2011. For a town of 25,700, the legacy of asbestos exists in its sense of pride, a communal sentiment that helped found and support a regional museum, archive, and future interpretation site. Together, these heritage centres hold the former working-class community together as the town takes steps to diversify its economy and move away from the single industry that bound them for over a century. Artifacts in these holdings—deriving from and relating largely to activities carried out below the earth’s surface—collect, protect, and recollect the industry’s innovative technological contributions, vernacular building styles, and social history. Whereas the community proudly displays its rich industrial heritage indoors, visitors often react firstly to the powerful outdoor scenery that brings about mixed feeling of awe, intrigue, incomprehension, and aversion.
Thetford’s post-industrial landscape is marked by an abandoned open-pit mine and blue-grey rolling hills that mimic the region’s natural mountains. The above-ground features, known as tailings hills or waste rock piles, are debatably, yet scientifically, classified as hazardous. Covered by a peculiar and impenetrable crust, the hills radiate a lightness, thereby exaggerating the stillness brought about by the banished asbestos industry. Online travel guides, like Atlas Obscura, promote the “impressively deep” pit as a point of cultural interest, tagging it on the Web as “disaster area, incredible ruins.” Indeed, the view over the pit’s massive terraced landscape and teal blue lake are prime examples of the industrial sublime. Yet, the community sees their landscape as anything but “ruin porn” and discourages “toxic tourism” by openly celebrating their industrial past. With these competing views in mind, this paper explores how Thetford Mines’ manufactured landscapes have been represented, since their humble beginnings.
Drawing on cultural landscape, heritage, and iconography studies, with a focus on views “from the inside,” this paper will investigate the aesthetic relationship residents have had with their landscape through art and the role it plays in challenging contemporary views formed by “outsiders.” Stepping away from the category of sublime, the research will begin by extracting impressions of life above ground, from the miners themselves—held in series of oral histories, recorded at the time of the mine’s closure by the Musée minéralogique et minier de Thetford Mines. Next, we will search for traces of life in the town, captured in traditional and popular music, literature, and poetry at the public archives. Finally, we will expose visual art inspired by the region’s unique mineral composition and the distinctive setting the landscape offers for display. Arguing that landscape heritage—or a heritage closely related to the physical construction of a landscape—illuminates one community’s resilience and vibrantly creative nature, producing a binding cultural heritage, as profound as the industry itself.