There’s a stretch of the Arthur Kill between Rossville, Staten Island and Port Reading, New Jersey that’s something of an abandoned wonderland. From the New Jersey side, the horizon is dominated by the twin natural gas tanks of Chemical Lane, and the famous Staten Island Boat Graveyard is plainly visible just across the water. But towering over the scene is a structure that rivals both with its staggering beauty and power—the McMyler Coal Dumper.
Actually, it would be more accurate to call it a McMyler Coal Dumper. It was one of many nearly identical structures built on the shores of the New York Harbor in the early-to-mid 20th century, including two on Pier 18 in Jersey City. But the Port Reading site is notable for being the last one standing in the New York area. It was constructed in 1917, making it 99 years old at the time of this post.
In a vast regional network of coal mines, breakers, railroads, and manufacturing hubs, these machines provided a vital link that helped fuel New York’s industrial age, transferring massive amounts of coal brought by rail from Pennsylvania and the Alleghenies into ships entering the harbor. A McMyler Dumper could unload a 72-ton car of coal every two and a half minutes, operating on a continuous loop for maximum efficiency.
Upon entering the pier, railroad “hoppers” carrying a full load of coal would be pushed up a ramp with a mechanism called a barney. Once in position at the base of the tower, the entire car and its contents would be lifted up on an unloading platform and tilted at 120 degrees, spilling the coal into an enormous “pan,” which funneled the material through an unloader chute and into the holds of outgoing barges. Once empty, the car would be lowered and pushed onto a kickback trestle by the next car in the line-up. These rails looked very much like a roller coaster, and they worked in a similar fashion, using the power of gravity to propel empty cars off of the pier and into the rail yards beyond. The contraption required twelve men to operate, and the work was risky. The brute force of the machine claimed many lives and limbs over the years.
The design stood the test of time, and the pier operated for over 60 years with nearly uninterrupted use (a fire caused considerable damage in 1951, but the unloader was quickly rebuilt.) With demand for coal declining, the machine dumped its last load in the early 80s, and has been steadily deteriorating ever since. Though there has been interest in designating the structure an historic site, its location on private property in an active industrial area has made it an unlikely candidate, and the cost of restoring or moving the structure would be prohibitive, to put it mildly. Unless new industrial development threatens the site, it will likely remain a picturesque ruin for another century before eventually collapsing into the Kill and vanishing into the muck.
That is lucky for the throng of Canada Geese who’ve made a surreal home out of the hulking relic. Though they’re nice to look at, I’ve never had a pleasant encounter with these creatures, and have been charged at by enough of them on the remote shores of the outer boroughs to know they mean business. This time around they were content to squawk and hiss their disapproval from a distance, but I would advise everyone to stay far away during nesting season, which is right around the corner.
You can see (a model of) a McMyler Coal Dumper in action in the following video:
Many of the most remarkable abandoned buildings loom over their surroundings and dominate the landscape, but Newark’s Old Essex County Jail is barely there. Much of the structure is walled off behind a twelve foot barrier, and all that rises above it is difficult to discern through the overgrowth. On the grounds, the building remains obfuscated, half in ruins and only visible in parts, with an absence of any unifying architectural feature. Inside, its footprint is no less disorienting, resulting from a series of haphazard additions made at the turn of the 20th century as the jail’s population increased. Unlike the comforting symmetry of asylum wards, the whole disordered mass seems to be governed by a bizarre dream logic, made all the more sinister by the fact that you can’t look the building in the face.
The jail is known as a haven for “crackheads,” and it’s absolutely filled with garbage and drug paraphernalia, some old, some new. When I first visited a couple of years ago, we had only been inside for a few minutes when the place started coming to life around us, first clanks and creaks, then voices and shadowy figures walking by in the hallways. It wasn’t my decision to leave that day before we came face to face with anyone, but I didn’t put up much of a fight. As sympathetic as I felt toward these unfortunates, I figured that anyone voluntarily residing in an abandoned prison cell was in a desperate situation with very little to lose.
The original building was constructed in 1837 and planned according to the “Pennsylvania system” of incarceration, which was characterized by solitary confinement and an emphasis on rehabilitation over manual labor and corporal punishment. It’s one of the lesser works of the distinguished British architect John Haviland, who is better known for the revolutionary design of Eastern State Penitentiary. Through the early 1900s the Essex County Jail expanded to a capacity of 300. It was replaced by a new facility in 1970 and subsequently occupied by the county’s Bureau of Narcotics until 1989, when the building was deemed unsafe. In 2001, a catastrophic fire destroyed much of the structure. Reports of the place being inhabited by the homeless go back to the 1990s.
Two years after my first trip to the Essex County Jail, I came back with the resolve to see things through and a new exploring buddy. It had rained overnight and the constant dripping sounded just like footsteps, but otherwise the place seemed deserted. Objects left behind by recent inhabitants overshadowed any artifacts from the building’s early history, with garbage middens clustered in almost every cell. An hour or so in, I had my first anticlimactic encounter with a squatter, who greeted me politely and went about his business. Over the course of the morning, two others walked past me without saying a word. As scary as the place was, there were no monsters or maniacs living here, just a few people looking for a place to be left alone, finding a bleak kind of freedom in the most unlikely of places.
I outlined New Jersey’s Essex County Hospital in a previous post, but a few months back I made it out a second time to explore a little further. I ended up in the tunnels underneath the wards, where I found a file room stuffed with material dating from the 1930s to the 1980s, near the last years of Essex County Hospital’s operation. The records are scattered in cardboard boxes with no apparent system of organization, many of them overtaken with mold and rot.
Much of what’s been left here is mundane, day-to-day operational notes on staff, time sheets, and maintenance, but some of it is rather enlightening. There are decades’ worth of doctor’s notes, admission records, and log books detailing the daily activities of individual residents, some describe a patient’s entire life story in a single paragraph. The scale of it is truly overwhelming when you start flipping through the files page by page.
As I’ve mentioned before, many of the patterns of neglect well-documented in the age of institutions have shifted to the criminal justice system today. In New York City, the mentally ill now account for 40% of the prison population. To make matters worse, an epidemic of violence against mentally ill inmates at Rikers Island came to light this summer, causing an uproar. Now, the de Blasio administration is pushing for a major $130 million initiative that strikes at the heart of the problem, aiming to keep repeat low-level offenders out of prison and get them into treatment programs. From the Times article: “The changes include tripling the size of both pretrial diversion programs and the amount of resources devoted to easing the transition from jail back into society. This would represent a significantly different approach to criminal justice in the city, experts said. But they cautioned that nothing of such scale had been tried by a municipality before, and that putting the plan into effect would be difficult.”
As we look forward, it’s worth taking a moment to look back. What follows is a tiny sampling of the massive amount of records, artifacts, and ephemera left behind in the wards of Essex County Hospital and that moldy file room in the basement. You can read for yourself, just click to enlarge.
Most graffiti you find in abandoned buildings is typical teenage nonsense rooted in age-appropriate angst, but there’s something darker and more menacing afoot in the ruins of the abandoned Rutherford Stuyvesant Estate in Allumuchy, NJ. Here, the writing on the wall (and the floorboards, carpets, doors, drawers, siding, and ceilings) reads like the raving of a madman—a troubled soul racked with such incalculable rage he created a monument to his own foul-mouthed fury. This is not your run-of-the-mill teenage rebellion. This is the Profanity House…
To find it, take a dirt lane off a country road til you reach the remnants of a regal old gate, recently stripped of its intricate wrought-iron bars. From there, it’s a short walk to the base of a hill where you’ll catch your first glimpse of the house, which proves to be not a single structure, but a collection of several residences, barns, and farm houses that once made up a working component of the sprawling Stuyvesant Estate.
The name will ring a bell for most New Yorkers, and anyone familiar with Bed-Stuy, Stuy Town, or Stuyvesant High School. The Stuyvesants were, in fact, the ancestors of Peter Stuyvesant, the last Director General of New Netherland before it was ceded to the English in 1664 and renamed New York. At the turn of the twentieth century, Rutherford Stuyvesant expanded the family’s New Jersey estate, called Tranquility Farms, to include 5,000 acres of land, including a 1,000 acre private game preserve. At the center of the operation was a 65-room mansion, which burned to the ground in 1959. In the 60s land was purchased by the state for highway construction, and later the expansion of Allamuchy State Park. Tranquility Farm’s remaining structures have been slowly settling into the wilderness ever since. Just a few are still standing, and many collapsed into their foundations long ago.
Be advised: if you’re sensitive to foul language, you might want to skip the rest of this article.
Inside, the Profanity House lives up to its name. On every accessible surface, an unknown penman commands a rotating list of men to commit unspeakable acts to each other, themselves, and their mothers. Harper, Larry, Nate, Elvin, Jack Palmer, Billy Hatley, and the rapper Eminem, for good measure, are invited to drink, eat, lick, cram, f***, and suck just about every appendage, orifice, and human waste product known to man and beast. The most common target is Mark, aka “Miss Mark,” who’s clearly the most detested of the bunch. The obsenities range from the awkward and amateurish “LICK MY ASS HOLE YOU ASS HOLE,” “GO F*** YOURSELVES YOU F***ING SHIT ASSES,” to the inventive and virtuosic “YOU DRINK PANTHER PISS,” “EMINEM GETS F***ED UP HIS FILTHY DISEASED C**T BY QUEER BILLY GOATS WITH RABIES YOU MOTHER F***ING WORTHLESS C*** SUCKING PIECE OF C*** SUCKING SHIT.” Well then.
Inside the largest house, the author rhapsodizes on the myriad surfaces of a kitchen cabinet, leading to a thrilling, and mystifying conclusion: “AND FINALLY YOU LICK THE SHIT AS IT SLIDES OUT OF A ZYZZYVA’S ASS HOLE, YOU STUPID C***SUCKER” (For those that don’t know, the zyzzyva is an African species of weevil, but the word is better known as the last entry in most dictionaries.) This line in particular gives me reason to believe there is more than meets the eye to the endless vulgarity. Is there some alphabetic code to unlock the true meaning of all this? Is this diatribe really an incantation, more cryptic than it first appears, or have I been reading too much of the Southern Reach trilogy?
The longer you analyze the words, a picture of a truly disturbed young man comes into focus. Considering how he must have done it, spending days and nights in the woods alone, brooding over some slight or betrayal, venting his anger the only way it could find expression—there’s a sadness and desperation to it all. I, for one, wish him well, and can’t help but admire his commitment and marvel at the scale of his project.
With the sun setting and the shadows deepening, I took the trail back to the gravelly old Stuyvesant Road and headed to the highway, passing three or four more tumbledown houses I hadn’t noticed on my way in. Through their boarded windows and gaping doors, I caught more words on the walls of the dark interiors, written in a familiar hand: “PALMER DRINKS WILDEBEEST WEE WEE THAT C***SUCKER.” So I’d only scratched the surface of this bizarre manifesto; the rest would have to wait for another trip.
Click to enlarge and find your favorite obscenity:
It seems that everyone in Cedar Grove, New Jersey has a spooky story or two about the Overbrook Asylum. Though it only closed down officially in 2007, the complex has long been home to abandoned buildings, and local lore has been quick to populate them with unexplained voices, vengeful spirits, and mysterious presences. Situated among public parks and residential neighborhoods, the decaying asylum known by many as “the Bin” has become a well-known hangout for teenagers, ghost hunters, scrappers, and other curious parties, much to the consternation of local law enforcement. In 2008, the local sheriff amped up police presence on the property, leading to 34 arrests over the course of 3 days, though it was rented out as a location for the tacky Travel Channel series “Ghost Adventures” the same year. Rumors of 24/7 surveillance still serve to ward off would-be trespassers, but on the gloomy Sunday morning I set out to explore the aging asylum, not a soul, living or dead, patrolled the 100-acre grounds of the old Essex County Hospital.
I won’t rehash the history here that most every American asylum shares. (For a more detailed account, read up on psychiatric treatments at Kings Park Psychiatric Center and the “farm colony” design of Letchworth Village.) Suffice it to say that the good intentions Overbrook was founded on in 1896 couldn’t hold up to the harsh realities of overcrowding and underfunding that characterized mid-20th century institutions. This dark period of neglect ended, for the most part, with the development of new “wonder drugs” for the treatment of serious mental disorders, which led to the abrupt closure of asylums across the country.
Though there’s little to differentiate the history of Overbrook Asylum from the dozens of similar institutions across the northeast, one particularly notorious episode stands out. On Dec 1st, 1917, the hospital’s heating and lighting plant broke down, sending temperatures plummeting inside the dormitories. As a cold snap hit New Jersey in the following weeks, 24 patients died as a result of or in conjunction with exposure, along with 32 cases of frostbite. In an act of desperation, the medical superintendent sent out letters to patient’s families in the hope that many would come to retrieve their relatives, who he admitted were living in “far from comfortable” conditions.
Even in the best times, “comfortable” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when describing the way of life of the thousands of mentally ill patients who called Overbrook home. An impressive amount of artifacts remain throughout the maze of interconnected dormitories, offering a look into the individual lives that make up its collectively tragic history. At every turn, large-scale photo murals of nature scenes and wildlife adorn the beige and sea foam walls of the wards. Elsewhere, holiday decorations clutter the floor. Stockpiled in cabinets are jolly snowmen, grinning halloween skulls, festive scarecrows, and gleaming easter bunnies, anything to distract from the clinical gloom of the wards. Out of the clustered piles of clothing, medical supplies, and craft projects, the terse, impersonal lines of a handwritten card speak volumes on the isolation of the unfortunate men and women who spent their lives forgotten behind asylum walls: “Dear John, I hope you are well and happy. I’m feeling okay. Miss you. Love, Mom.”
The decrepit hospital closed down in 2007 when a new state of the art facility opened up nearby, which still operates today. By that time much of the property had already been long abandoned, with a dwindling patient population due in large part to the effective treatments developed in the 60s and 70s, as well as the pressure to discharge anyone who wasn’t a threat to themselves or others, no matter how unprepared they were to get by on their own in the outside world. Contrary to a few adamant commenters in online forums, most of the Overbrook campus is still standing on the east side of Fairview Avenue. A development plan to demolish the complex soon after it closed in 2007 would have brought 78 luxury single family homes to the area, but it never panned out. Today, the property is county-owned. Though plans were put in place to convert the land to a public park in 2008, little progress has been made in that regard.
As Overbrook continues to crumble, the treatment of the mentally ill has been making headlines in recent months, and it’s troubling to see the same familiar patterns play out in an even more brutal setting—the prisons cells and solitary confinement units where many of today’s mentally ill end up. A recent article in the New York Times outlines a harrowing study of an epidemic of violence toward mentally ill inmates at Rikers Island which rivals the worst cases of abuse in the age of institutions. Earlier this week, a positive step was made on the West Coast, where the California Department of Corrections has introduced new standards for the treatment of the mentally ill living in the prison system. Here’s hoping this results in legitimate changes that can be instituted across the country.