Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Ne’r do-wells at the Fan House Graves

To recount last week’s blog, “Fan House Graves,” I discovered (with the help of some friends) an abandoned wreck of a mining operation’s fan house during a routine cemetery run in northeast Pennsylvania. The complex, which had been built in compliance with the Mine Ventilation Law of 1870, housed enormous fans that pulled explosive gases out of the mine and brought fresh air in. The structure, along with the rest of the Dorrance Colliery, was abandoned in 1959.

1796 gravesto
A month or so after my initial trip to Wilkes-Barre City Cemetery and my sighting of the fan house hovering over it (which you can see in the photo above and read about in my blog posting, Fan House Graves), I made the trip back to further explore the fan complex as well as roam around this quaint old graveyard.

I arrived in Wilkes-Barre City Cemetery (est. 1871) around 9:30 on a sunny August Friday morning (this is 120 miles north of Philadelphia where I live, so its no small jaunt). The entrance gate was open and no one was around. I figured that this would be perfect for a little abandoned building exploration. Who would be around? There’s not even a staffed cemetery office. Afterwords, I would roam around the graveyard at my leisure. The cemetery is quite large, and the crumbling brick fan complex is on the downside of a hill, out of view of the traffic on River Street.  

Lower building in the fan house complex, Wilkes-Barre, PA

My car in front of fan house
I drove my car quickly through the grounds, down the washed out road toward the river to the monstrous tree-shrouded old cluster of buildings. Headstones are scattered around the area, some ominously placed right next to the enormous mining structure. Sparsely spaced, some stones may have been washed away in the flood of 1972, when Hurricane Agnes hit the area. The coal breaker associated with the Dorrance Colliery (of which the fan house was a part), used to be upriver about a quarter mile. There’s a MacDonalds there now, but I remember seeing the giant black mining structure from across the Susquehanna River when I was a kid. My grandmother lived in a house at the foot of the river dike in Kingston. Her house, incidentally, was one of the first to be flooded when the swollen river crashed through the dike during that flood.

Upper floor with graffiti and old machinery
My mom tells me that my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all worked at the Dorrance at some point in their mining lives. There were many coal mining companies in NEPA (Northeast Pennsylvania), but as she says, Dorrance was “the big one.” So the Hillman Fan House, as it is properly titled, has some personal meaning for me. 

Sort of a courtyard in the center of the fan complex

I parked the car near the bottom of the hill where the old graffiti-covered brick complex raises itself slowly out of the woods next to the graveyard. I grabbed my cameras, pushed through the weeds, and stepped into the ruins of the past. Red brick walls and dark doorways were everywhere. Stairs led to upper levels, lower levels, or to nowhere at all – their adjoining walls having collapsed beneath the weight of ancient rusting machinery. I walked through a sort of courtyard covered with weeds, at its center a pile of jagged metal, bricks, and old voltage. Trees cloaked the ruins in a dark shade. I snapped some photos here and there, glancing through the broken walls into upper rooms, in which were mounted motors of various types, their shafts no longer connected to belts or gears.

c. 1980s look at the inside of one of the motor rooms (ref.)

Creepy, is what this place is. On the opposite end of the courtyard, a doorway was visible. Hearts and names were painted in red around it. I made my way closer to the artwork, surprised at how all the vacuous entrance ways around me were just black; no doors, just black void. You couldn’t see beyond any transom, as if the place had secrets it was unwilling to share. I approached the hearts, and began taking some close-up photographs. I read the names, wondering about the young kids who dared bring themselves to such a place – the abandoned fan house behind the old cemetery – to declare their lust for each other.

I clicked away for about five minutes, rooted to the spot. Everything was silent. Satisfied with the capture as I reviewed the images on my camera’s digital display, I looked up to take my next step and … there was a man standing above me on a landing about six steps up! He was no more than twenty feet away, silently watching me, who knows for how long.

In his late twenties, long blonde hair, casually dressed, he did not appear to have slept here the night before. I was stunned and in an attempt to keep my fight-or-flight response under control, I stammered, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you.” He responded, “I’m just doing the same thing you are.” (For the record, I saw no camera around his neck.)

That’s when it hit me: − I broke my own basic rules for exploring abandoned buildings:  1) Don’t go alone; and 2) arm yourself. When going solo, I’ll at least carry a baseball bat. But here I was, in the middle of this old castle of a mining complex, behind the graveyard, well out of earshot of any other people on the road at the top of the hill. What was I thinking, that the ghosts of the Molly Maquires were going to guard me?

Visions of the movie Deliverance swam through my head as I nonchalantly turned away and casually yet determinedly made my way toward the light of the graveyard. Was he alone? Who could tell? Was he just exploring the ruins, as I was? At ten o'clock on a Friday morning? He said nothing and I did not look back. I had no desire to be made to squeal like a pig.

My car was parked nearby, which gave me some comfort, so I spent another ten minutes trying to photograph the outside of the fan house through the trees. I couldn’t really do it justice. I studied the ruins for my little buddy, but he did not show himself again. The take-home message here is that I did something really stupid, and suggest that you not do the same.

Feeling a bit safer, I parked the car on the ridge overlooking the fan house graves and began to wander around looking for interesting tombstones. Some of the photos you see here were taken in this area. About five minutes later, slipping into the historical present, I hear music. Guitar strumming, and then a voice. I hoped it was a radio, but then, I was pretty far away from the public road. Workmen, perhaps? As the breeze changed directions it carried the sound a bit clearer, so I turned toward it. I was startled to see a man sitting on a tombstone, singing, and playing a guitar! Not the fan house guy, another fellow. Staring at him, I involuntarily gave a small wave when he caught my eye; he nodded to me.

The scene reminded me of the rockabilly guitar playing zombie in the 2008 zombie/slasher movie, Trailer Park of Terror (you can click on the link at the end of this blog to view part of the scene, but its not for the squeamish). There’s a tense build-up scene where you hear the guitar first, then as the camera pans back to show the trailer park at night, the vocal kicks in and its actually a zombie with an electric guitar singing on the roof of one of the trailers! (I know what you're thinking - "He watches too many movies." In actuality, I don't see nearly as many as I'd like. However, the few I do watch seem to have a profound affect on me!)

I guess I shouldn’t have been so weirded out by someone playing guitar in a cemetery, as I’ve done the same thing. I was inclined to walk the forty paces in his direction and talk to the gent, but I felt that maybe he was doing something very personal, like singing at his dead momma’s grave. Of course, there was always the possibility that he could be dangerous − or worse yet, not really there. So I skirted his perch while taking tombstone photos in the general vicinity. He never stopped playing for the additional half hour I was there.

All in all, a strange cemetery visit, complete with appearances by knaves and rascals, pochards and indiscrets, as the author James Thurber might say. Scary, yes, but really nothing compared to the horrors this chunk of land wrought on people’s lives in the past. As I was contemplating the mining disaster that shut down the fan house and entire Dorrance Colliery, I pictured all the tunnels under the cemetery filled with water. Ten men died in 1959 when the Susquehanna River broke through the Knox Mine upriver. My Mom tells me that my grandmother’s brother Andy “was one of the last men out" before the river broke through. How horrifying is that? Look at this photo of the giant whirlpool in the river caused by the void of the mines below.

Susquehanna River whirlpool, caused by Knox mine cave-in

Reminder of when coal was king
I looked down at the grass absentmindedly as a glint of something shiny caught my eye. I kicked at a chunk of black anthracite coal sticking out of the ground. Not unusual in this area, I used to see coal all over when I was a kid. Picking it out and pocketing the chunk, I viewed it as a lovely parting gift from the ghost of Asa Packer, the founder of the Dorrance Colliery.

Further Reading and References:

Fan House Graves,” Cemeterry Traveler blog posting from September 4, 2012
For something even scarier than a zombie movie, check out this account of the 1959  Knox Mine disaster
Trailer Park of Terror zombie guitar scene

Thanks to photographer Patricia Kinsman for telling me about the Hillman Fan House!