Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Power Station, PA

On Saturday, I got up at 3:00am to make a trip with friends to Pennsylvania to visit an abandoned power station. We met at 5:00am and drove up stopping for breakfast at Pat's in Philladelphia, famous for Philly Cheesesteak sandwiches. We headed for the power station and entered with me hoping that there wouldn't be too much climbing on such a full stomach.

My fears were justified, there was some climbing through broken doors, up ladders and up the coal chute below to access the main building, but my adrenaline was running high and I was eager to get moving.

We ended up on the roof and had fabulous views of the Delaware River. The building itself was built in 1917 and has a lot of art deco aspects. Many want to see it saved as it is one of the last of its kind, representative of that vanished era when Philadelphia was called the Workshop of the World.

As we stepped into the giant turbine hall, the magnitude of the place took our breath away and rendered us speechless. Silently, we looked at each other and smiling, walked up and down the balconies, leaning over and quietly taking photo after photo. These turbines are giant versions of the engines that were used in steamships and at its peak, the boilers that powered these turbines by steam burned 325 tons of coal an hour. The turbines generated enough power to light up most of northeastern Philadelphia.

As we walked around the balcony we came to the control room where the massive control desk sat, hardly damaged despite years of neglect. I couldn't see that any buttons were missing and it seemed that if I gave the area a quick dusting, I'd be able to throw some switches and start up the power. Wish!

On top of the green desk were some blueprints, one of which was dated 1924.

As we walked round, we came to some better lit empty rooms and corridors which had beautiful old doors hanging open. The letters on the wall at the end of the corridor say, 'Psychotherapy', but we never found any evidence in the rooms of this practice.

This room had some smaller generators with many light bulbs thrown around the floor and a wall of heavy duty switches. These weird cone things had me fascinated but other than them being something to do with electricity, I had no idea what they were for.

Down on ground level with the turbines in the main hall, there was a vast boiler room which was exceedingly damp, dark and cold. It was a little scary walking around and even our flashlights seemed to have difficulty penetrating the silent gloom. The icicles hanging from the broken dial above show how cold it was. There were patches of ice on the floor and my frozen fingers were slow to operate my camera.

Despite the cold and damp, it was easy to find beauty in this amazing architectural giant. The nuts and bolts on the turbines above created interesting patterns and the intricate ceiling was fabulous despite missing large pieces. The plant was recently nominated for the historic properties register maintained by the city’s Historical Commission but the nomination failed. It is being left to slowly fall apart under the constant attack of the elements, but we hope that since it has survived since being shut down in 1984, it can stand proud a little longer until someone can save it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

St Nicholas, PA

Just after 3pm, we were back up north and arrived at the old St. Nicholas coal breaker which was constructed in 1930. It closed in 1963 but the building is still in wonderful condition with no signs of childish vandalism or graffiti. The new St. Nicholas breaker is just down the road. Half a village was moved to make way for this breaker and it was, and maybe still is, the largest breaker in the world. This behemoth of a building was incredible and knowing we only had a couple of hours of daylight, we set off immediately.

This view was taken from the top of the building and made me feel dizzy. In the first photo, you can see the small platform jutting out at the top of the building from where this shot was taken.

The workers had a room comprising only of benches and hooks on the walls to get changed in, and this pair of boots had been left behind with a few others. It seemed as if the place closed down only a few years ago instead of 45 years as around the building were scattered boots, jackets over railings, along with bottles and cans of products they used.

I loved the light in this accounts room and there were plenty of records still left strewn around the floor.

A rusty can of hand soap, tools and other artifacts stood and collected dust.

We were certainly careful as we made our way along endless broken platforms, bridges and stairs, crawling under and over the machinery to find a way through.

It took me a few minutes to realize that these old sacks were cushions on seats for workers sorting the coal pieces as they passed through. I was so busy looking at them up close, it wasn't until I stood back that I saw the full picture.

All the machinery here was huge and crawling amongst it, I occasionally felt a fear of it suddenly coming back to life. The noise must have been ear splitting.

Nearly all of the walkways on all the floors looked like this. I often suffered vertigo as I walked across them and looked down to the many floors visible below. I actually made my way across this, you can see where my feet scuffed the dust away on the left, and I had to photograph it as proof!

This must have controlled much of the machinery and I was amazed at how well preserved it was.

Some facts: 20 miles of railroad track were laid, 3,800 tons of steel and more than 10,000 cubic yards of concrete were used. A mile and a half of conveyor lines, 25 miles of conduit,26,241 26,241 square feet of rubber belting, 118 miles of wire and cable and 20 miles of pipe were installed. When the breaker was constructed it was divided into two sides. Each side could be operated independently, producing 12,500 tons of coal a day. Once the raw coal entered the production process within the breaker it took just 12 minutes to pass through the entire breaker.
We had explored in two pairs and gone in different directions and the building was so large that even though it was empty and silent, we could not hear the others when we yelled out to them, we had to phone them. This was the electrical room at the bottom of the building.

I found these manuals and parts records, the list on the right is dated 1961. We had made our way to the bottom of the building as it became dusk. Even though we had flashlights, the floors above were losing light rapidly and we weren't keen on having to negotiate the broken flooring and steps in the dark.

This was one of the offices downstairs, obviously a favorite haunt of the pigeons. We regretfully left the breaker as it was getting dark and got back to D.C. at midnight. A packed and successful weekend of exploring with hundreds of photos to sort and edit!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Reading Railroad Heritage Museum, Hamburg, PA

We drove to a small town, Mt Carmel, just west of Centralia, where we stayed the night. An evening of drinks for four of us came to $15.50! This small town is dying as the two clothing factories which employed much of the population closed down and also many small shops have shut due to a Walmart opening up nearby. At times, I hate progress. The people were very friendly and told us that Centralia used to looked like Mt Carmel. Once we'd filled our bellies on a fabulous breakfast in the town's diner, we headed south for an abandoned hospital near Philadelphia.

About an hour or so into our drive, we spotted some derelict railway cars near the side of the road. Immediate investigation was given a thumbs-up by all and we excitedly hopped out of the car to explore. We were able to climb inside the cars and for a while there was silence except for the constant click of camera shutters.

As I was hopping from car to car, the others engaged in conversation with another urban explorer who'd just been exploring north at a coal breaker site. I used the moment to capture this image while they were oblivious of my attention.

This one was locked up but looked in perfect condition inside according to Bill who was about 6" taller than any of us and could peer in in through the windows.

The inside image above was from this car which looked like it was built in the 50's. Next door to this railway scrapyard was the Reading Railroad Heritage Museum, so we decided to visit this too, and were told that the trains we'd been investigating would become their property soon and would hopefully be restored.

I fell in love with this beautiful 1500hp FP7 locomotive built in 1950, and took a stack of photos. The size of it was intimidating yet awe inspiring. I did some research and found another photo of it from 1975. It was a dual-service passenger and freight-hauling diesel locomotive and is line for restoration work.

These huge engine wheels made Bill look like someone from the TV show, The Land of the Giants.

I saw a lovely old Mack truck and had to take some photos. I've posted images in a previous blog of a Mack fire truck and adore the bulldog hood ornament and the chunky design of the vehicle. Our guide was amazed that I was so enamored with the vehicle and said I could have it!

These signs had been tossed near some other junk, and if I'd had a tow truck to haul the Mack, I would have grabbed these too.

The GP30, #5513 to the left was the first locomotive to be purchased by the Reading Company Technical & Historical Society and was built in 1962. It was primarily a freight locomotive and was restored to its original appearance in 1985. The GP7, #621 to the right has arrived back home after running on the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad, (Ma & Pa), as #1506. It was built in 1953 and has not operated since 1997 but will be fully restored.

As we were preparing to leave, we looked inside a large derelict building which is going to be restored for working on the trains. The museum already has the money for rebuilding the roof and as we looked around, I found this door irresistible. We walked back to the car and although we were halfway through the afternoon, we decided to head back towards the north for our next adventure.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Centralia, PA

On Saturday, I drove with 3 other urban explorer friends up to Centralia, PA for a weekend of exploring. Centralia was a coal mining town now razed to the ground due to a fire starting underground in 1962 which has never been extinguished. PA 61 above was warped and split open by the intense heat from below and had to be closed. It is now only accessible by foot. It was a chilly 40 plus degrees when we were there and the heat thrown up through the cracks was welcome but we had to be careful not to breathe in the fumes. I had visited Centralia 5 years previously and suffered intense headaches by evening so this time, we were more careful and even had respirators if needed.

Climbing up the bank, we could see the valley dug by the government in a futile attempt to extinguish the fire. It's suspected that a trash dump over an open seam of coal caught alight and started the whole process.
We headed to the side of the valley and parked Colin amongst the smoke and looked down onto what was left of the town. The hill was covered with plumes of smoke venting from holes in the ground. The heat was quite intense and I could not warm my hands over the holes for very long.

The government evacuated 3 homes in 1969 but nobody else was forced to move until an accident in 1981 when the ground opened up to a gaping 150ft under a young lad and he was saved from certain death by his cousin who pulled him to safety.

In 1983, the government started buying out the homes and evacuating the town as the fire had spread under 350 acres. By 1991, this had increased by three quarters.

The worst case scenario was predicted at 3700 acres and in 1991 61 homes along Rte 61 were bought with no further plans to fight the fire. From 1962 - 1984 seven million had been spent. A government buyout was proposed and accepted by the homeowners' vote by 345/200.

The side of the valley is rife with evidence of demolished homes, burnt timbers, flooring overgrown with mosses and broken household objects.

The steam venting into the air seems to encourage a lot of moss and lichens which hold thousands of water droplets on the tips of their fronds, like jewels set in crowns. There was also a beautiful little red flower which seemed to like growing in the humid atmosphere.

This is the last remaining street sign left in Centralia, and the town no longer has a zip code.

All of the town's once busy streets have now been reduced to a grid pattern of neglected roads that used to lead to homes. The occasional set of steps that once marked a path to a front door and a railing that once helped a homeowner to the street can be seen.

There are only a few scattered homes in the town and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania now owns these, yet the residents still pay property tax.

We found an abandoned house and quietly walked the rooms, respecting the fact that we would be some of the last people to walk on floorboards in Centralia. At the last census in 2007, there were only 7 people remaining in the town; in 1997, there had been 44. Until these last people leave, the future of Centralia is uncertain and the state is showing compassion for these final tenants.