Looking for Melco

melcophotoCue “Twilight Zone” theme music.

Imagine, if you will, a sleepy little village named Lucas, Ohio. A stranger comes into town, looking not for Lucas but a place called Melco. But Melco doesn’t exist. Except in the twilight zone.

Nee nee nee nee nee nee nee nee …

Weirder still, two strangers had stopped by a junk shop on the edge of Lucas earlier in the day — asking for directions to Melco. They haven’t been heard from since. At least not in Lucas.

Melco is a ghost town. The coal-burning power plant that gave rise to the company town east of Lucas became obsolete in the mid 1950s, except to scavengers and vandals. And apparently strangers who straggle into Lucas looking for it from time to time.

All but a few traces of the 70-acre town were obliterated in the 1960s. A sign posted on a closed road leading into Melco warns intruders that their every move is being recorded on camera. Even if they were to ignore the warning and proceed to the site, they wouldn’t find much.

At one time, imposing smoke stacks rose from the power plant. The company built 10 houses to accommodate workers — along with tennis courts and a swimming pool to occupy them and their families. By some accounts, there also was a hotel, stores and an office complex.

Melco wasn’t exactly a resort town — being in the shadow of belching smokestacks. It wasn’t a particularly safe place to work either. Newspapers routinely published accounts of deaths and injuries at the plant. But, in its heyday, Melco produced electricity for Mansfield, Ashland and Loudonville.

Melco was built in 1917 by New York business magnate Henry L. Doherty, who combined electric streetcar systems, gas light and electrical power generating companies to capitalize on demands created by the quickly evolving industrial revolution. Quickly evolving by those day’s standards.

Doherty built the plant at the confluence of Black Fork and Rocky Fork of the Mohican River because of the availability of water. (Not at Black Fork and Clear Fork, as one historian wrote. She might have been confused by a 1950 Mansfield News Journal article that misidentified Rocky Fork.)

In no time at all, the plant was operating at full capacity, but the rivers weren’t. A few years later, after Charles Mill Dam was built in the mid 1930s, the company requested that flow be adjusted to provide more water for the steam turbines. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose mission was to prevent flooding downstream, accommodated Melco by letting more water out of Charles Mill Lake on an experimental basis.

It seemed to be working out. But, when the Corps of Engineers asked the company to help pay for the extra service, Melco officials balked. Melco built a small dam downstream of Charles Mill Dam. The company also persuaded government officials to deepen and straighten the Black Fork channel all the way to Loudonville.

In a clear example of creeping corporate socialism, the government appropriated gobs of taxpayers’ money to accommodate private enterprise. Channelization work continued until after World War II. The down side, other than sticking taxpayers with the bill to grease the skids for a powerful utility, was that the natural flow of Black Fork was negatively affected.

Fortunately, the project fell from favor and was officially abandoned in the 1960s — before Black Fork was completely turned into an open sewer between Charles Mill Lake and Loudonville.

Equally as fortunate was a development in 1961. Richard Frye opened Ohio’s first canoe livery at the confluence of Clear Fork and Black Fork near Loudonville. (Not to be confused with the confluence of Rocky and Black forks near Lucas.) Without imposing a burden on taxpayers or the environment, Frye’s enterprise launched a sustainable industry that brought tourism to the Loudonville/Mohican area.

Frye’s venture ultimately brought thousands of strangers into town looking not for Melco, but for an inexpensive place to camp, canoe, hike and otherwise enjoy nature.

On that note, we’re not out of the twilight zone by any means. Other strangers wander into town from time to time with big ideas for re-industrializing the Mohican River Valley — often walking arm-in-arm with our elected officials. And you can bet they all have their hand in your back pocket.

Note — This account is part of a work in progress on ghost towns of the Mohican River.

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