I spent the better part of June in St. Louis, Missouri, for my father’s memorial service and family and friend reunions. In between all the events, I braved the intense high heat and humidity, and went out to shoot as many abandoned and historic places as I could safely find and access. Growing up in southern Illinois across the Mississippi River from St. Louis (the so-called Riverbend region), I have fond memories of the once-humming factories and rich architectural gems that defined St. Louis. Sadly, most of the factories that sustained the working class community have long been shuttered, yet their beautiful decaying shells remain.
Abandoned buildings and the discarded objects left behind, to me, make the most compelling, atmospheric and emotionally moving photographic subjects. Derelict buildings intrigue me as they are tossed to the wind, ghosts, and the brutal forces of nature. Upon entering these abandoned places, there seems to be a feeling or resonant imprint of lives left behind with the passage of time. My images attempt to convey stories of time and place filled with emotion and historic significance.
When entering derelict structures, I imagine myself amidst the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in the future – a post-apocalyptic vision. In my photographs, I attempt to capture a sense of lives that once existed. Photography is a vehicle that allows me to hold on to some of this ephemeral state. My urban decay photographic art is an attempt to explore the impermanence of life through detritus. The narrative within an image is more powerful than the written word and is how I convey emotions.
The above shot is of an abandoned factory in a historic St. Louis Italian neighborhood affectionately known as “The Hill.” The Hill still maintains the look and feel of old St. Louis, and is filled with wonderful restaurants, bars, beautiful architecture and abandoned factories in days of yore.
The above image is of the famous Old Chain of Rocks Bridge that connects St. Louis, Missouri, to Madison County, Illinois, over the Mississippi River. Although it can no longer be driven on, you can hike across the bridge between the two states. This bridge used to be part of the original historic Route 66 as you can see from the signage. I grew up near here and have fond memories of driving across the river on the old bridge. A word of caution though to potential visitors: do not walk on the bridge alone at any time, and do so in daylight only. Sadly, several assaults have been perpetrated on unsuspecting visitors.
The photograph above was taken in the charming, historic Mississippi River town of Kimmswick, Missouri, just south of St. Louis. In Kimmswick you step back in time as you wander about the small village chock full of antique shops, historic estates, the Anheuser Museum and Estate, quaint shops and restaurants, old log cabin homes, and much more. I received a tip from the very nice owner of the local Blue Owl Restaurant, who told me to head out on a remote road where I would find a crumbling old stone wall and archway surrounding what once was an estate in the forest. The creepy faces embedded in the crumbling stone are striking.
The above image was taken at an old abandoned cement factory near the Mississippi River in North St. Louis. The two trucks in the image are owned by a local company that has operations nearby, and uses the abandoned property for storing vehicles. I titled the image “Waiting for Godot” even though the Beckett play title is open to interpretation. Is it hope or despair? Whatever one thinks, the meaning of time and waiting for something, being saved or resurrected, conveys the melancholy of abandoned and derelict places.
The photograph above was taken at an old flour mill still in operation in Alton, Illinois, located on the banks of the Mississippi River in Madison County, not far from where I grew up. The mill is owned by ConAgra Foods. Alton is a very historic town with beautiful residential and commercial architecture and old factories, famous for its limestone bluffs along the Great River Road just north of the city. The town is considered part of the St. Louis Metro area. Founded in 1837, Alton was the site of the final debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Alton is considered one of the most haunted cities in America and is home to the creepy McPike Mansion.
The final photograph above was another taken in Kimmswick, Missouri, just 25 miles south of St. Louis. Kimmswick has Missouri’s highest number of locations listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This shot was taken inside the Burgess-How House and Museum, a log home built in the 1840s. It has been beautifully restored and tours are given by the wonderful people of the Kimmswick Historical Society.
I will post more images as I get them processed, along with the ton of images I still have to work up from my May Death Valley excursion. If you are interested in urban exploration (urbex) photography, I highly recommend a new book (2015) by well-known San Francisco Bay area photographer and UE Todd Sipes, Urban Exploration Photography: A Guide to Creating and Editing Images of Abandoned Places. This superb book not only offers great tips on how to photograph abandoned locations, but has excellent post-processing tutorials.
Those of you who’ve traveled Highway 101 along the northern Santa Barbara coast perhaps may recognize these photographs of two vintage streetcars, formerly attached to the old abandoned Mullen’s Dining Car Cafe in Buellton, California. For many years this historic roadside dining car complex (the cars were attached to the original cafe/diner) sat for sale while being slated for demolition. The new property owners tried everything to sell these vintage dining cars, but to no avail. All seemed lost. But first, a bit of history.
Originally opened as Mullen’s Dining Car Cafe in 1946, this novelty restaurant operated during the heyday of American roadside services. The owner, Ed Mullen, had been a veteran steward on real rail dining cars and had managed to transport extra Los Angeles Railway Standard cars from the L.A. Electric Railway Co. to the rural Central California coastal town of Buellton, still famous for Andersen’s Pea Soup restaurant. The rail cars, which were built in 1911, were operated by the Los Angeles Electric Railway Company until 1944. Located strategically on busy Highway 101, Mullen’s Cafe drew many patrons that were traveling the coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The owner later added gas service pumps to draw in more visitors.
These twin railway streetcars once lined the sides of this abandoned roadside diner. However, in 1955, the California State Highways Department realigned and expanded Highway 101 to serve the increasing traffic. The cafe, which stood on the original highway, became severely impacted when 101 was moved. Since 1958 the site remained abandoned and dilapidated, bearing battle scars of time, after being in business for only 12 years. For decades this classic cafe sat decaying as the forces of nature took over, still a site of interest for lovers of vintage streetcars and retro American diners.
In 2012, a retired contractor from Cayucos, California, Tom Pierze, purchased the dining cars and had them transported up the coast to Morro Bay at great cost. For a time they sat in silence, awaiting restoration in a weed-covered, abandoned parking lot next to a gas station. Word had it that the new owner wrangled with the city of Morro Bay to obtain the necessary permits to restore them to their former all-American glory and open a new diner. Unfortunately, permit and financial issues resulted in these vintage beauties being removed from their resting place at the intersection of Highways 1 and 41 in Morro Bay. I am still attempting to investigate their ultimate fate (see update below).
The three photographs above are HDR (high dynamic range ) images comprised of bracketed RAW shots processed in Photomatix Pro, Lightroom, Photoshop, and with onOne Software’s Perfect Photo Suite. They were taken with a Nikon D800 at the intersection of Highways 41 and 1 in Morro Bay while the dining cars awaited a new life. Due to the fact that the interiors of the dining cars had already been significantly gutted – containing mostly construction materials – I did not take any interior shots. In addition, the cars were tightly locked and secured.
September 2013 Update – Mystery Location Revealed: A huge thanks to Joe Myers, who informed me that these classic dining cars have been bought by and moved to the Bitter Creek Western Railroad near Arroyo Grande, California. Joe was kind enough to leave a couple comments on this post, and provided this vital information. Click here to read the story of how the cars came to rest at the Bitter Creek Western Railroad.
For more historic details, please visit the following websites: