In rural eastern Pennsylvania, the coal-rich soil blackens boots, pantlegs, elbows, and faces, covering the densely packed row houses of Mahanoy City with a dingy gray patina. Coal production is still plugging along here, but the lifeblood of this industry town has slowed to a trickle since the 1920s, and the population has followed suit, thinning out to a quarter of its peak residency, back when a few belts of precious anthracite coal 400 million years in the making transformed this backwoods region into a flourishing center of industry. Around a bend on a back road, thousands of shattered window panes gape like jack o’ lantern teeth from the old St. Nicholas Coal Breaker, which has stood for 50 years as a haunting reminder of the town’s better days.
The region’s coal deposits were first discovered in the late 1700s and the mining industry quickly grew to dominate the area. Soon, the onset of the industrial revolution spurred the region into a mining frenzy, fueled by an influx of European immigrants who settled in the years following the Civil War. The coal found in this corner of Pennsylvania was of the rare “anthracite” variety, which was prized for its purity, burning longer than other types. It’s no wonder they call it “black diamond.” On the grounds of St. Nicholas, where surface mining still goes on, the coal underfoot gives off an iridescent gleam.
The St. Nicholas Breaker was constructed in 1930 on the site of the St. Nicholas Colliery, which earned its name when it first opened on Christmas Day in 1861. That structure was torn down to make way for the new St. Nick, which was the largest coal breaker in the world at the time. With 3,800 tons of steel and a mile and a half of conveyer lines, the monumental machine was capable of churning out 12,500 tons of coal in a single workday.
Raw coal was imported from a number of local mines, where the material was cleaned and crushed before being shipped to St. Nicholas’ storage yards. Here, it awaited an eight story journey up a vertiginous conveyor belt, where it would commence its wild ride through the breaker. It took 12 minutes for the material to pass through the many industrial processes housed inside the plant to prepare the coal for consumption. Demand steadily decreased though the 1950s as alternative energy sources grew in popularity, and the breaker closed down in 1963 after thirty years of production. Ten years later, it was replaced by a modern facility located a half-mile away.
Fifty years on, the interior is surprisingly untouched and structurally sound, with very little graffiti to speak of. Its construction is dizzyingly complex, leaving the untrained eye to marvel at its design without fully comprehending the vast labyrinth of tightly packed machinery. Sadly, this awe-inspiring piece of history may not be long for this world. Partial demolition has already claimed a hefty wing of the structure, and it’s unclear how long the rest of the breaker will remain standing.
When the wind bellows through the St. Nicholas Breaker, ancient drifts of airborne coal dust sting the eyes, clog the throat, and powder the hair, catching the light to lovely effect, if you can stomach the black lung… Back home in Brooklyn I wasted no time getting into the shower to scrub off the day’s dirt, pondering the depth of history in all things. Fossilized remains of Paleozoic plant life pooled at my feet in black clouds, wrenched from the bowels of the earth only to languish in an abandoned factory for half a century and wind up here, spiralling down my bathtub drain to new frontiers. Later that night, I reached for a tissue and winced as a fresh deposit of grade-A anthracite coal expelled from my nose in a thick black mucus. It seemed that a part of St. Nicholas would stay with me forever.
At the easternmost tip of Staten Island, a natural promontory thrusts over the seething Narrows of the New York Harbor, formed by glaciers thousands of years ago. The site’s geography most recently made it a prime location for the Verrazano Bridge, but its history as a popular scenic overlook and strategic defense post dates back to the birth of the nation. The British had occupied the area during the Revolutionary War, and its first permanent structures were built by the state of New York in the early 1800s. These fortifications safeguarded the New York Harbor during the War of 1812, but were abandoned shortly thereafter. So began the familiar cycle of ruin and rebirth that characterizes the history of Fort Wadsworth.
By the mid-19th century, these early structures had fallen into an attractive state of decay. In a time when all of Staten Island held a romantic appeal as an escape from the burgeoning industrialism of New York City, Fort Wadsworth in particular was known for its dramatic terrain, sweeping views of the harbor, and evocative old buildings. Herman Melville described the scene in 1839:
“…on the right hand side of the Narrows as you go out, the land is quite high; and on top of a fine cliff is a great castle or fort, all in ruins, and with trees growing round it… It was a beautiful place, as I remembered it, and very wonderful and romantic, too…On the side away from the water was a green grove of trees, very thick and shady and through this grove, in a sort of twilight you came to an arch in the wall of the fort…and all at once you came out into an open space in the middle of the castle. And there you would see cows grazing…and sheep clambering among the mossy ruins…Yes, the fort was a beautiful, quiet, and charming spot. I should like to build a little cottage in the middle of it, and live there all my life.”
The “castle” was demolished to make way for new fortifications constructed as part of the Third System of American coastal defense, known as Battery Weed and Fort Thompkins today. The batteries remain the fort’s most impressive and unifying structures, but they too were deemed obsolete as early as the 1870s due to advances in weaponry, and were used for little more than storage by the 1890s. At the turn of the 20th century, Fort Wadsworth entered yet another phase of military construction under the Endicott Board, when the United States made a nationwide effort to rethink and rebuild its antiquated coastal defenses. Like its predecessors, the Endicott batteries never saw combat, and were essentially abandoned after World War I.
Though Fort Wadsworth was occupied by the military in various capacities until 1995, its defense structures went unused for most of the 20th century. By the 1980s, woods and invasive vines had covered areas that were once open fields, and Battery Weed was living up to its name, overtaken by mature trees and overgrowth. Since Fort Wadsworth was incorporated into the Gateway National Recreation Area in 1995, its major Third System forts (Battery Weed and Fort Thompkins) have been well maintained and properly secured, and upland housing and support buildings have been occupied by the Coast Guard, Army Reserve, and Park Police. But the headlands still retain an air of abandonment, due in large part to the condition of the Endicott Batteries, which remain off-limits to the public.
Layers of history peel back like an onion at Fort Wadsworth, as evidenced by a new discovery just unearthed by Hurricane Sandy. The storm caused a section of a cliff to collapse, downing several large trees and exposing the entrance to a previously unknown battery. Its vaulted granite construction places it firmly in the Third System, which means it was built around the time of the Civil War. Very little is known about the structure, except that it’s the only one of its kind at Fort Wadsworth. My best guess traces its partial construction to the 1870s, when Congress left many casemated fortifications unfinished by refusing to grant additional funding.
To my disappointment, the next room came to a dead end, and to my horror, it was crawling with hundreds of cave crickets. These blind half spider/half cricket monstrosities pass their time in the darkest, dampest, most inhospitable environments, and are known for devouring their own legs when they’re hungry. They give perspective to the level of isolation of this chamber, which likely stood underground for over a century.
What other mysteries still lie buried in the lunging cliffs of Fort Wadsworth, or the depths of this forgotten battery? The dirt may well conceal deeper rooms and darker discoveries…
Special thanks to Johnnie for the tip! Get in touch if you know of a historic, abandoned, or mysterious location in the five boroughs that’s worth exploring.
For more of New York’s neglected military sites, check out Fort Totten:
Letchworth Village rests on a placid corner of rural Thiells, a hamlet west of Haverstraw set amid the gentle hills and vales of the surrounding Ramapos. A short stretch of modest farmhouses separates this former home for the mentally disabled from the serene Harriman State Park, New York’s second largest. Nature has been quick to reclaim its dominion over these unhallowed grounds, shrouding an unpleasant memory in a thick green veil. Abandonment becomes this “village of secrets,” intended from its inception to be unseen, forgotten, and silent as the tomb.
Owing to its reputed paranormal eccentricities, Letchworth Village has become a well-known subject of local legend. These strange tales had me spooked as I turned the corner onto Letchworth Village Road after a suspenseful two-hour drive from Brooklyn. Rounding a declining bend, I caught my first glimpse of Letchworth’s sprawling decay—some vine-encumbered ruin made momentarily visible through a stand of oak. Down the hazy horseshoe lanes of the boy’s ward, one by one, the ghosts came out.
By the end of 1911, the first phase of construction had completed on this 2,362 acre “state institution for the segregation of the epileptic and feeble-minded.” With architecture modeled after Monticello, the picturesque community was lauded as a model institution for the treatment of the developmentally disabled, a humane alternative to high-rise asylums, having been founded on several guiding principles that were revolutionary at the time.
The Minnisceongo Creek cuts the grounds in two, delineating areas for the two sexes which were meant never to mingle. Separate living and training facilities for children, able-bodied adults, and the infirm were not to exceed two stories or house over 70 inmates. Until the 1960s, the able-bodied labored on communal farms, raising enough food and livestock to feed the entire population.
Sinister by today’s standards, the “laboratory purpose” was another essential tenet of the Letchworth plan. Unable to give or deny consent, many children became unwitting test subjects—in 1950, the institution gained notoriety as the site of one of the first human trials of a still-experimental polio vaccine. Brain specimens were harvested from deceased residents and stored in jars of formaldehyde, put on display in the hospital lab. This horrific practice has become a favorite anecdote of ghost-hunters and adolescent explorers.
The well-intentioned plans for Letchworth Village didn’t hold up in practice, and by 1942, the population had swelled to twice its intended occupancy. From here, the severely underfunded facility fell into a lengthy decline. Many of the residents, whose condition necessitated ample time and attention for feeding, became seriously ill or malnourished as a result of overcrowding. At one point, over 500 patients slept on mattresses in hallways and dayrooms of the facility, meagerly attended by a completely overwhelmed staff tasked with the impossible.
Having discontinued the use of the majority of its structures, and relocated most of its charges into group homes, the institution closed down in 1996 as old methods of segregating the developmentally disabled were replaced with a trend toward normalization and inclusion into society. The state has made efforts to sell the property, with mixed results. Most of the dilapidated structures were slated for demolition in 2004 to make way for a 450-unit condo development, but the plan has evidently been put on hold. Ringed with ballfields and parking lots, shiny Fieldstone Middle School makes use of nine buildings of the former girl’s group, an island of promise in a landscape of failure.
Today, the rest of the neglected campus retains a kind of elegiac beauty. With its meandering walkways, pleasant natural setting, and evocative decay, it’s a peaceful spot for small town dog owners and amateur photographers alike, but by night a new breed of visitors descends upon these grounds.
Embarked on by the young and curious, a moonlit pilgrimage to a haunted location promises a brush with the unknown and an affirmation of courage—it’s a ritual that’s become commonplace at Letchworth Village. Pervasive graffiti and piles of beer cans and snack packaging mark the most popular hangouts. Much of the writing alludes to the institution’s allegedly horrific past, or warns of its vengeful spirits. Is it all just for teenage kicks, or are these acts of remembrance?
Within a crumbling fieldstone facade, one of Letchworth’s most impressive structures has been reduced to an ugly black skeleton. It’s the most evident of an outbreak of arson attempts that plagues the property, but not the most successful—some blazes don’t leave a trace. Perhaps without knowing it, these amateur arsonists, vandals, and spiritualists are quickly scouring away a shameful memory, absolving a collective guilt with paintballs, matchbooks, and pentagrams.
In a little-known and easy-to-miss cemetery about a mile from the facility, amends are being made more constructively.
Off Call Hollow Road, a new sign has been erected pointing out the “Old Letchworth Village Cemetery.” Down a seldom-traveled path, an unusual crop of T-shaped markers congregate on a dappled clearing. They’re graves, but they bear no names.
Few wished to remember their “defective” relatives, or have their family names inscribed in such a dishonorable cemetery—many family secrets are buried among these 900 deceased. Here, in the presence of so many human lives devalued, displaced, and forgotten, the sorrow of Letchworth Village is keenly felt.
As part of a movement taking place across the country, state agencies and advocates funded the installation of a permanent plaque inscribed with the names of these silent dead, and a fitting epitaph: “To Those Who Shall Not Be Forgotten.”
More than ghost stories, bursts of cool air, shadows and slamming doors, we fear our capacity for cruelty and our willingness to overlook those who most needed our care and understanding. Letchworth Village isn’t a house of horrors, but it has become a thing of the past, and a symbol of these failings. Now, its ruins are vanishing—any moment, they’ll powder to dust, dirt, and ash. Who will mourn when the village crumbles, and what will remain? Soot-black foundations, half-remembered histories, and nine hundred numbered graves, poignant reminders of an all-too-recent injustice.
School’s out forever; at least at P.S. 186. This aging beauty has loomed over West Harlem’s 145th Street for 111 years—but it’s been vacant exactly a third of that time. The Italian Renaissance structure was considered dilapidated when it shuttered 37 years ago, and today its interiors feel more sepulchral than scholastic.
Windows gape on four of its five stories, exposing classrooms to a barrage of elements. Spongy wood flooring, wafer-thin in spots, supports a profusion of weeds. Adolescent saplings reach upward through skylights and arch through windows. They’re stripped of their foliage on this unseasonably warm February morning, lending an atmosphere of melancholy to an already gloomy interior. Infused with an odor not unlike an antiquarian book collection, upper floors harbor a population of hundreds of mummified pigeon carcasses—the overall effect is grim. You’d never guess this building had an owner, but sure enough…
The site was purchased in 1986 by the nonprofit Boys and Girls Club of Harlem for $215,000 under the condition that new development would be completed within three years. After several decades of inactivity, the group introduced a redevelopment plan that called for the demolition of P.S. 186 and the construction of a 200,000 sq. ft. mixed-use facility with affordable housing, commercial and community space, and a new public school.
News of the school’s demolition mobilized area residents to save the structure. A series of local petitions and letter-writing campaigns championed the preservation of P.S. 186, and gained the support of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, though a landmark bid was blocked at a 2010 community board meeting. At the time, owners insisted that rehabilitating the decrepit building was a financial impossibility.
In a surprising turn of events, the BGCH recently downsized the plan in favor of preservation. The school will be renovated into 90 units of affordable housing and a new Boys and Girls Club.
It’s a rare victory for preservationists, and an unlikely one given the school’s history—when the building was last in use, community members wanted nothing more than to see the place razed.
In addition to generally run-down conditions, safety became a major concern at P.S. 186 in its final years. The H-shaped design allegedly had the potential to trap “hundreds of children and teachers” in the event of a fire. Doors on the bottom floor were to remain open at all times to keep the outdated floor plan up to code, leaving the building completely vulnerable to neighborhood crime.
According to the school’s principal at the time, “parents have been robbed in here at knife point, and people…use this building as a through-way.” In a 1972 incident, two youths, including the 17-year-old brother of a 5-year-old P.S. 186 student, broke into room 407 and raped a teacher’s aide at gunpoint.
Increasing community concern reached a boiling point earlier that year when 60 members of the African American empowerment group NEGRO (National Economic Growth and Reconstruction Organization) moved into the school to call for an evacuation of 600 students on the top three floors.
The stunt caught the attention of the Fire Department, who toured the school later that week. A deputy chief “didn’t see any real hazardous problem,” but was forced to evacuate the remaining 900 students when he was unable to activate the fire alarm. Inspectors discovered that wires leading out of the alarm system had been cut, although a school custodian claimed that the alarm system had worked during a routine test at 7:30 that morning.
By 1975, funding was at last approved for a replacement school, and much to the relief of parents, plans were put in place for the immediate demolition of the aging fire trap. Who could predict that thirty-seven years later P.S. 186 would be getting a second chance?
A few decades ago, this school was described as “antiquated,” “unsafe,” and “plain,” but today, it’s called “historic,” “magnificent,” and “beautifully designed.” This reversal illustrates the complex relationship we New Yorkers have with our buildings, and begs the question: what might the the thousands of old structures we see torn down every year have meant to us in a century?
It’s been a few months since I’ve set foot in the building, and today the visit feels like a half-remembered dream.
To keep vagrants out, cinderblocks had been installed in almost every window and door of the bottom floor. It looked too dark to shoot—but as my eyes started to adjust, I saw that light was finding its way in. Through every masonry crack and plaster aperture, bands of color projected onto decaying classrooms, vibrant variations on a pinhole camera effect. Past a vault inexplicably filled with tree limbs, a hall of camera obscuras each hosting an optical phenomenon more bewitching than the last. P.S. 186 is largely considered an eyesore in its current state, but who could deny that its interior is a thing of beauty?
However photogenic, this decay does little good for its underserved community—it’s the sort of oddity this city doesn’t have room for. Here’s a look inside, before we turn the page on what’s destined to be the most colorful chapter in the controversial, and continuing, history of this unofficial Harlem landmark.
Two stark, imposing sister buildings at 160 and 62 Imlay St. tower over the industrial wastes of Red Hook, Brooklyn. One recently renovated into a high-tech Christie’s storage facility for multi-million dollar works of art, the other a hulking, empty shell, waiting for a second life.
Constructed in 1911-13, the identical twin loft buildings on 160 and 62 Imlay St. began their lives as storehouses for the New York Dock Company. They made up a small part of a “globe-encircling commercial undertaking,” which included a sprawling network of 200 warehouses, 39 piers, and three ship-to-rail freight terminals extending over three miles of the Brooklyn Waterfront.
Rapidly declining profits and outdated infrastructure resulted in a cessation of operations in 1983. The buildings were purchased by a developer in 2000 and 2002 for a combined 22 million. In 2003, plans for a residential overhaul of 160 Imlay fell through as a result of a lawsuit from the local Chamber of Commerce, which sought to retain an industrial use for the property.
Now at 62 Imlay St, floors once flooded with tobacco and cotton are welcoming a new set of residents—multimillion dollar works of art by the likes of Van Gogh, Brancusi, and Pollack. The facility is leased by the high-profile auction house Christie’s and is equipped with “infrared video cameras, biometric readers and motion-activated monitors, as well as smoke-, heat- and water-detection systems.”
Adjacent sits the other sister with an uncertain future, its broad, vacant interiors shielded with plastic and shrouded in black netted scaffolding, gutted in preparation for a rumored second attempt at a residential conversion.