A once-bustling Jamaican town waits for tomorrow

Amid the towering palms and spreading banyan trees of this sleepy port on Jamaica's south coast, where sugar and timber once reigned, there lingers little more than an aura of the past.

The sugar and timber industries are long gone. So are most of the townspeople. Often an occasional bicycle is the only traffic in sight on the crumbling waterfront drive.

Black River isn't quite a ghost town, but it appears well on the way to becoming one.

In its heyday at the end of the 19th century, when dignified, wooden Victorian mansions with gingerbread adornments were erected along the waterfront , Black River had Jamaica's first phones. Telephones were installed here six years before they arrived in Kingston, the capital city, which then, as now, was the dominant commercial center of the island.

Black River is one of a dozen or so once-flourishing ports on Jamaica's coasts that now are slumbering away the years.

The sleep began after World War I when Jamaica's sugar industry became less and less competitive with sugar on other Caribbean islands and when the best wood had been harvested. In subsequent years, many residents moved away.

Yet the potential of places like Black River remains.

''We are a spot on the map that needs a finder,'' says Ashley Duncan, whose toothy smile encompasses everyone he sees.

''Black River is waiting for tomorrow,'' he says. ''Just get them boys in Kingston to realize what they are missing and we'll be ready for a new future.''

Those boys in Kingston, led by Prime Minister Edward Seaga, are looking at places like Black River as they map Jamaica's future. Mr. Seaga, elected two years ago, is charting a capitalist course for Jamaica in marked contrast to the socialist path of his predecessor, Michael Manley.

He and his associates would like to bring Black River and Bluefields, Milk River Bath and dozens of other places into the economic mainstream of Jamaica.

Toward this end, the island is awash with blueprints and programs, some under way, some still on the drafting boards. All are aimed at lifting Jamaica out of backwardness, putting Jamaicans to work, ending the island's long economic stagnation.

For Black River that awakening certainly won't involve sugar and probably not timber. But fishing is a good possibility.

''Our waters are full of fish,'' notes Trevor Charles, a local man whose family traces back to the arrival of the English here in the 1600s. He runs a small grocery store, earning a small, but comfortable livelihood for himself, his wife of 45 years, and their numerous children and grandchildren. ''I'd like to see Black River become important again,'' he says.

The smooth, tranquil waters of Black River Bay, into which the Black River flows, seldom are ruffled by the wake of even a rowboat or canoe. For as far as the eye can see, the only movement in the water comes from the abundant fish frolicking about.

''My father used to fish in the bay,'' Elzina Wood says. Her stately manner mirrors the stately grace of her 18-room Victorian-style home on the waterfront where she has lived alone for the past 30 years. ''He would take me with him and we wouldn't see anything but fish - and, oh yes, the sun, the sky, and the emerald waters.''

Fishing isn't the only possibility. A Jamaica tourist official in Kingston suggests that places like Black River could become tourist havens - as Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, and Port Antonio on the north coast have long been. But something would have to be done about the black flies that invade this area in the spring.

The plains beyond the swamps around the Black River are good for cattle raising, and some of the rolling land beyond might well be used for winter vegetables - something that Jamaicans in other parts of the island are beginning to produce for the United States market.

''We don't want to be overlooked,'' Ashley Duncan says. ''We want to be part of the changes taking place.''

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