Category Archives: Urbex

The LA Subway that Used to Be

Fun fact: even though the place is ruled by cars (and if my recent trip is any indication, parts of it are ruled by ludicrously expensive ones at that), Los Angeles has a subway system.  I know, I was shocked the first time someone told me, too.

Another fun fact: the LA subway used to be more extensive (and way cooler).

They even ran PCC cars. [Via flickr]

It’s true.  If you know where to look, you can even find remnants of it today.  You can even go on a tour of part of it if you’re lucky.

The Pacific Electric Railway was, at its height, the largest electric railway in the world (this was around 1925), and connected a number of cities in what would now be considered the greater metropolitan Los Angeles area.  The extent of the Red Cars, as they were known, can be viewed on this fine interactive map.

Of course, most of what remains of that system is some sections of tunnel and a few building names.  Not to say those aren’t cool in their own right, because they are, but it’s just not the same.

Still pretty awesome [via flickr]

What I find saddest about the fate of LA’s original subway/streetcar system is that it was integral to the development of the area.  Many parts of the greater LA area were once “streetcar suburbs,” populated by families who earned their bread in downtown LA but wanted to live apart from the hustle and bustle of the city.

I feel a particular bond to the Pacific Electric Railway in that regard because my own childhood neighborhood in West Philadelphia began as a streetcar suburb around the turn of the 20th Century, and my childhood home was likely built around 1910 by one of the principal real-estate developers in the area.  Of course, as was the case in many other parts of the country, transit in LA saw a decline in post-war years, especially after all the land that could be developed had been, and in the 1950’s, the local government saw a network of freeways as a better investment of infrastructure dollars than an overhaul of the transit system, though destruction of the streetcar lines in favor of more roads for cars had already begun decades earlier.

A nice little photoset and writeup of the present state of LA’s historical subway can be found at Gelatobaby’s blog, and a more in-depth history of the Pacific Electric Railway can be found (where else?) over on Wikipedia.


Coming to an Unusual Location Near You

Obscura Day is a holiday that never occurred to me, but it absolutely perfect. From their website:

Obscura Day is an international celebration of unusual places. It is a day of expeditions, back room tours, & exploring hidden wonders in your own hometown.

On Obscura Day thousands of people, all over the world, go out and explore interesting and unusual places. Sometimes we organize the event, sometimes folks organize it themselves! Over the past two years nearly 10,000 people have attend over 200 different events on Obscura Day.

Obscura Day is on Saturday, the 28th of April, just two weeks from now.  There are four official events being held in Philadelphia, at Eastern State, the Art Museum, Mount Pleasant Mansion, and Laurel Hill Cemetery.  All of these events will cost you something, but there are loads of free things you can do that hold to the spirit of the day.  In some ways, I would actually say that the things you can do by yourself hold more to the spirit of the day, since they’re more likely to be off the beaten path than, say, Eastern State, which pretty much everyone in Philadelphia has at least seen from the outside.

That said, I would rather fancy having a tour around Chislehurst Caves, southeast of London.

Image via Boing Boing.

Who knows, maybe I’ll have an Obscura Day adventure myself and post pictures here.  If you know a site that you’ve always meant to explore but could never quite make the time, take the upcoming holiday to have that adventure, and please, take some pictures so you can share your adventure with others.


The Emlen Street Ruin: History

Ferreting out the history of the Emlen Street ruin from my last post took a little bit of work, but what really ended up breaking it for me was a bit of luck brought on by this week’s warm weather.

The City of Philadelphia has its own online map site, which has filters for park trails, among other things.  While looking for a suitably nearby trail to enjoy on a warm spring afternoon, I noticed that the trail passing by the Emlen Street Ruin was marked.  While Google Maps doesn’t have a good overhead picture of the ruin–theirs was taken after the trees had started leafing–the city site showed a nice overhead view of the ruin.

When I switched the view from Aerial Photo to Road map, a name was suddenly revealed:

The Ruin has a name–a real name you can plug in to Google and get decent search results for.

While I still haven’t found any information about when the Barn burned down, I did discover that the original barn building dates to around 1812–the modern bathroom facilities were a more recent addition.  The cottage which the barn belonged to began as a six-room farmhouse, but around 1890, Henry Houston had it expanded to a 25-room summer retreat for working girls from the city (at that point, West Mount Airy was still quite suburban, and it had been positively rural when the cottage was first built).

Information on the barn is still scarce, and I haven’t yet been able to find out when it burned, though some evidence suggests that the destruction of the bathrooms may have come some time after the main building burned.  At least as recently as the 1970’s, there was a swimming club called the Devil’s Pool nearby for which Buttercup Cottage served as a sort of gateway entrance, and according to the few forum posts I found on the topic, the barn ruins already existed then (and were used as a party spot for the local teens).  That, unfortunately, is where my trail went cold.  I’m glad to have discovered some of the history of this place, but there’s still more to know.  If you have any leads, let me know in the comments, and for my part, I will be sure to post any more information I can find.


The Emlen Street Ruin

There’s a building on Emlen Street, in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia, which I’ve driven past a hundred times, and every time, I’ve said to myself, “I should check that out sometime.”

When I say building, really I mean the bones of a building.  Tall stone walls and a chimney, slowly being reclaimed by the land, set back twenty feet from the curving road behind a rusting crash-barrier.

Then, one day, my friend says to me, why don’t we go check it out finally?  We’ve discussed it before.  There’s a little parking lot nearby at a little trailhead.  It’s spring, so the undergrowth shouldn’t be so thick we can’t easily leave the path.  It’s just a short walk, and it’s warm enough outside, up from the gray misery of the morning.

The path is easy going, and wide enough for two people in some places, even if they’re not feeling cozy.  We round a bend, and there it is, stark stonework jutting up behind a low thicket of brambles.

From the road, it’s difficult to tell, but from here, when you’re not being tailgated, it’s plain as daylight that what was once a large building is now two disconnected pieces.  It also becomes clear why only the stone walls remain; the ground it littered with bits of charred wood, the only remains following a long-ago fire.

This isn’t some secret, inaccessible ruin visited only by those in the know–you can see this thing from a well-used road.  We’re far from the first people to have been here.  There’s graffiti, there’s litter.  This has been a party spot and more.  Many of the bottles and can strew about the inside of the main space are riddled with small-caliber holes.

A quick look around tells us that whoever was having their target practice here was only using a BB gun, though.

There have been artists, here, too.  One, at least.  While other parts of the building are covered with ugly sprayed tags and splashes of yellow paint, one wall is adorned with an idyllic, impressionistic scene.

So far, out exploration has raised more questions than it’s answered.  The building’s original purpose is opaque to us, more so as we explore further and make another discovery.  In one wall, there is a low doorway, more like a hatch, which opens into a narrow brick passageway containing the remains of some plumbing.

The wall around it is low, broken, and easily climbed, but getting down on the other side is another matter, and I’m unwilling to squeeze through the hatch.  From the top of the wall, two entrances are visible, and the dirty, cracked tile work in this little connected-yet-disconnected shed reveals it to be a pair of bathrooms.  The wall that used to separate the sides has been partially knocked down, so either entrance will work, though one is blocked by thin, tall, spiny plants.

The trash and graffiti are thicker here.  Clearly, this is not where the party’s at.

All around, there are clues as to what the building might have looked like.  Lines on the wall and chimney describe the height and slope of the roof.  Rusting hinges give evidence of the large double doors that once stood at either end of the building, but still the building’s purpose is a mystery.  The area is full of old mills, but this building is too far from the stream, and there’s no evidence of millstones or the machinery to drive them.  The bathrooms just complicate the matter.

On the far side of the building, there’s a set of stairs leading up to a narrow stone balcony that overlooks the road and now the ruined bathrooms.  A difference in stonework also indicates that there was once a door leading inside from this level, and the charred ends of beams inside support the idea of a second floor of some sort, just as they once supported the floorboards.

From the balcony, we can also see a rusting metal flower high up on the outside of the chimney: one more piece of an incomplete puzzle.

My camera’s tiny memory card is full, and while there’s plenty of speculating left to do, there’s not much building left to explore.  Satisfied for now, we turn back, hoping Google will hold the secrets we’re looking for.


Crack the Surface – A Brief Review

Following on yesterday’s post about the possible consequences of urban exploration is a brief review of a beautiful documentary series on the subject.  Crack the Surface, from the people behind the urbex blog Silent UK, is a documentary series that, in part, answers the essential question of why people would risk their safety, and the possibility of serious legal trouble in some situations, in order to take a look at what’s behind the scenes in cities all over the world (though Silent UK focuses primarily on the UK and Europe).  The two episodes out so far intersperse interviews with footage from the exploration of various sites in the UK, France, The US, and Canada.

While the interviews with various explorers were interesting and provided some perspective on why someone would get involved in such a hobby, it was the footage of actual exploration that struck me and kept me watching.  Although I’m not bold enough to actually participate in any serious urbex, I find the pastime fascinating, and I was mesmerized by the footage of subway tunnels, sewers, and other unseen parts of our world.  These scenes are backed up by a dubstep soundtrack that never felt obnoxious or intrusive.

One theme which cropped up again and again in both episodes was that of personal responsibility.  You shouldn’t be surprised to know that opinions on this subject vary from those who feel that if you get hurt because you don’t know what you’re doing then it’s your own damn fault to those who say that they would feel awful if they knew that someone else had gotten hurt trying to explore a location they had posted pictures from.  In the end, the subjects all agree that common sense reigns, which I was glad to hear.

If you’re willing to invest forty minutes into watching these two videos, you will not find their time wasted, and if you’re like me, you’ll eagerly await any news of an Episode III.


A Cautionary Tale

I have written about urban exploration several times before here, and at least once, I’ve said that if you get caught, it’s all on you.  Today’s tidbit comes by way of Slashdot and is a reminder that you should really plan very carefully before you have a questionably-legal adventure.  (You should plan well before any adventure, actually, and always remember a clean pocket-handkerchief, but especially so if you’re going to do anything dangerous or illegal.)  These four got themselves 10-year ASBOs for doing a spot of urban exploration shortly before the royal wedding last spring, and while I’m not going to say they really did anything bad or that their ASBOs are entirely their fault, they could well have had the sense not to go exploring abandoned bits of the Tube shortly before a major public event when the police were on very high alert.

While you could just skim this article and forget about it, one link does point to a larger time-sink of which I had hitherto been unaware: Silent UK.  I’m way too chicken to engage in any serious urban exploration myself, but I love a good story, especially if there are a lot of pictures to go along with it.

If you’re interested in even more stories of urban exploration from halfway around the world, you would be wise to check out Gakuranman’s Haikyo photoessays, which take readers on tours through the ruins of forgotten and forbidden places in Japan (and elsewhere).  Just make sure you have a lot of time on your hands, because if you’re anything like me, you won’t be going anywhere for a while after clicking over there.


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