Day two of the 2010 Urban Exploration Expedition: The Scranton Lace Company in Scranton Pennsylvania.
The Scranton Lace Company’s operations spanned two centuries of American history, ending production in 2002.
During its heyday in the early 20th century, Scranton Lace employed over 1,400 people and was the world’s largest producer of Nottingham lace. It had bowling alleys, a gymnasium, a barber, a fully staffed infirmary, and owned its own coal mine and cotton field.
Founded in 1897 in Scranton, PA, the company used looms that were made in Nottingham, England, stood nearly three stories tall and 50 feet long, weighing over 20 tons. During World War II, the company expanded its production line to include mosquito and camouflage netting, bomb parachutes, and tarpaulins. After the war, the company returned to producing cotton yarn, vinyl shower curtains, and textile laminates for umbrellas, patio furniture, and pool liners.
In recent years, the number of employees dwindled to around 50, with annual sales averaging $6 million. As mechanized looms replace manual, Scranton Lace joined the ranks of craft-style textile manufacturers in shutting their doors. – From: http://www.scripophily.net/sclacucope.html
We woke up the day after exploring the St. Nicholas coal breaker, still sore, tired and picking coal dust from between our toes. Will, Andy and myself hopped in the SUV, and headed down to Scranton, PA.
Andy had done a drive-by of a few weeks back and noticed video cameras around the building and a few posted warning signs, so we weren’t entirely sure of what to expect. A fellow photographer had given us some access tips so we were relying on that information.
The neighborhoods surrounding the Lace Company buildings didn’t seem too bad. We circled the massive buildings twice before parking on the street. Gear in hand, we trekked along the side of a large building that spanned at least two city blocks. We followed our access instructions and slipped into the complex undetected (or so we thought).
The complex consists primarily of two massive buildings, side by side, with a long ‘courtyard’ running between them. The total footprint of the buildings were over 288,000 square feet! The courtyard was quite overgrown and we waded through waist high weeds as we searched for an entry point into the buildings. We passed old loading docks, and walked under large enclosed walkways that connected the two buildings from the second floor.
We came upon a old wooden door and found it unlocked. We entered a large room filled with the old looms we had read about. These giant, black, two story machines lined the room and were dimly lit by a bank of grime covered windows. Most of the looms still had lace threads strung and ready to run. One in particular actually had clean, white, half-woven lace still sitting in the machine! It felt like they had simply shut down one day, closed the doors, and never came back.
I climbed one of the ladders onto the second level of the looms, stood atop wooden planks and stared down the line of machinery . From there I could see thousands of threads running through the loom were organized by huge sheets of punch cards riddled with small holes for the needles to pass through. It was an amazing sight to see.
Along the side wall, thousands of sheets of card stock hung from a massive rack. It reminded me of a vintage mainframe computer, holding massive amounts of binary data. On or off… Hole or no hole… Either the needle falls through the hole or it is blocked by the card, and after hundreds of lines of ‘code’, a pattern is made. After a moment of study, I could detect patterns in the sequence and arrangement of the holes, indicating the repeating pattern of the fabric they once would have woven.
After shooting the loom room, we ventured out into the rest of the building. We made our way through a labyrinth of windowless hallways, poking our flashlights into dark rubble filled corners. We came to a massive two story warehouse. As we entered the room we heard distant echoes of murmuring voices. We froze and listened. The mumbled voices were above us! Slowly I walked out into the center of the room, my shoes crunching on the tiny shards of broken fluorescent light bulbs. Suddenly, an eruption of birds from the air ducts and rafters above us settled the mystery. The voices we heard were the muffled coos of doves that had made the old air vents their home. Our hearts slowly settled as we realized we were still alone.
The space was rich with details–wooden boxes stamped with the company emblem, old safety posters, even an R2-D2 robot-like machine! I noticed a VHS tape lying in a pile of junk. I flipped it over and found it was an instructional guide to the original Windows 3.1. The computer geek in me was greatly amused.
Finally we found a way up to the second floor. The paint on the walls and ceiling of the stairwell hung in sheeted tatters as if the walls were shedding brightly colored pages of a book.
First thing we encountered was the heat and we immediately started sweating. We came to a packing room. Conveyor lines on either side of the wall ran at least 70 yards to a stock room. At one end of the room we found a funny old sign that at one point used to light up depending on what production was traveling down the conveyor lines. We speculated as to whether the lace company actually supplied Wal-Mart with fabric or if it was a joke denoting the high quality production (black tie) versus the lower end production (Wal-Mart).
The supply room was filled with row after row of empty wooden racks. The heat in there was like a blast from a furnace compared to the rest of the second floor and was utterly unbearable.
I managed to stay in long enough to get this shot looking straight down the center of the racks. After just 2 minutes of standing there shooting this image the sweat was literally pouring out of my body as if I was in a sauna.
We continued wandering room to room shooting, all the while wondering where the famed bowling alley was located. We found one of the elevated walkways that we had walked under in the courtyard. We headed across and were faced with a choice to go up or down. We chose to go down knowing it would be cooler on the first floor.
The second building by comparison was not nearly as wide as the first but it was still a pretty big place. We explored the first floor but found no sign of the bowling alley or any other paths to take. We went back to the walkway stairs and up into the hotter second floor.
We came out in what at one time must have been an employee recreation area. A wide hallway filled with stacks of the coded punch cards presented itself to us.
With a touch of irony, the walls were covered with photographic wallpaper depicting a lush forest scene.
Directly off the hallway we discovered the gym/theater. A basketball court was filled with old personal-sized sewing machines and fabric. One end of the court had a large theater style curtain drawn across a small stage. Up and above the court on one side, were rows of movie theater style seating.
I walked down a small hallway behind the stage and discovered a kitchen. Large stoves, ovens, ranges, and pots and pans filled the room.
As I was shooting the kitchen I turned and noticed a beautiful scene that was picture perfect before me. The kitchen was lit by large banks of windows. Outside of the windows a flock of pigeons were roosting on the ledge. The lower windows were frosted so they could not see me. The silhouettes of the birds framed in the panes of the old windows and the warm diffuse glow from the colors outside, made for a lovely shot. I quietly called Andy and Will in to check out the scene.
As the three of us stood there shooting, a very loud, low, deep BOOM shook the building. We stared at each other, listening for follow up noises. It was hard to tell where the sound had come from but it had been very loud. We had felt it. A minute passes and we heard no other noises. We speculated that it may have been a large metal bay door slamming shot, or maybe someone lit a M80 somewhere nearby. It was the day after 4th of July after all. A little nerve wracked and startled from the explosion we continued on.
The room adjacent to the kitchen must have been the old cafeteria, but now was a repository for hundreds of waist high stacks of more of the punch cards used in the looms. It was staggering how many there were.
We found an old spider infested arm chair and had to get portraits of each of us. Notice the giddy look on my face. I’m like a kid in a candy store. A dark, dangerous, abandoned, spidery candy store.
From Top to Bottom:
We turned around after taking our portraits and…there it was… THE BOWLING ALLEY! A four lane bowling alley complete with pins and dozens of old bowling balls. Old score cards still littered the floor.
We had a blast shooting in the room, and before we left we actually each bowled a frame. I scored six, Will got seven, and Andy (the showoff…) rolled a strike! I blame my six on the fact that I was first to go and my ball cleared debris from the lane, allowing for my fellow photogs a cleaner roll!
We had been shooting for a solid 4 hours and at this point we were completely drenched in sweat. We decided to head back down and start to pack up. When we reached the old wooden door we had come in through we stopped in our tracks. It was propped wide open with a piece of wood. Our minds started racing, that boom we heard… there was definitely someone else here. We headed out into the court yard for a look but didn’t see anyone. We decided to shoot a few more shots of the outside of the building before we left.
It was at this point that our real fun started…
We exited the grounds and walked back onto the street running behind the building. We stopped on the sidewalk to take a few snapshots of the “Scranton Lace” sign on the old entrance.
As we were shooting the sign, a large black SUV cruised down the far end of the street. As it approached, it slowed to a crawl, almost stopping right next to us. Inside were two unfriendly-looking guys with shaved heads, and white tank tops on. They eyeballed us with intent. We took the hint and started walking back to where we had parked, about 150 yards away. As we walked off, they disappeared around the corner. We were about halfway to our car when they circled around the building a second time. Again they slowed down and glared at us as they passed. At this point we started getting nervous, jogged to the car. We agreed that we would just throw our gear in the trunk and high tail it out as fast a possible. No sooner had we reached the car and started pulling away, when the two thugs rounded the building a THIRD time… They fell in directly behind us and proceeded to follow us. We drove away from the building making several turns hoping to lose them. They tailed us for a few more miles until we reached the highway and then peeled off in a different direction as we got on the highway….
We all breathed a sigh of relief thinking that we had dodged a bullet (possibly literally!) It was at this point that I realized–I had lost my glasses! I knew I had them on me when I left the lace factory and now they were not in the car. They had to have fallen off during our flight from the factory. We turned around and headed back down the very road where we were just chased out of town. At our original parking spot, Will and I jumped out and began frantically searching. Andy kept the car running and drove along side us on the street. Thankfully, I spotted my glasses on the sidewalk about halfway back toward the factory. We jumped into the car and sped off! Laugh about it now, sure, but it was a pretty scary situation, and we felt very lucky to have gotten away without a confrontation.
All in all Scranton Lace was a fantastic location to shoot, and we had quite the adventure.
-Written by Walter Arnold Photography. Photos by Walter Arnold Photography unless otherwise noted.
Thanks to the fellow photographers who joined me on this trip: