I started the morning with a walk along the road from the cottage to see the cemetery that crept up the hillside at the junction with the main road. The twentieth century grave markers were still legible, and seemed to largely belong to one family, but almost all of the others were too eroded for me to even be able to begin to read them despite the fact that none could be older than 1816 as that was when the cemetery was founded. What was interesting to me, as a cemetery enthusiast, was the fact that gravestones were erected upon the steep slope as well as the top of the hill and the flatter ground near the roadside. It made me wonder if the graves were dug perpendicular to or parallel with the gradient of the slope. The village, Stoddartsville, had been founded to act as the terminal of the Lehigh Canal. Mr Stoddart apparently saw this as an opportunity to make his fortune but instead he became bankrupt when the canal was terminated a few miles away and all of his investment in grist and saw mills and the like became largely redundant. That was to set the theme for the day’s activities.
As a contrast to the previous day’s rambles in the countryside, we decided to spend the day in a town and opted for Scranton. I am afraid to say that the name Scranton made both Mr Pict and I think of the word “scrotum” which meant we did not have high hopes but were hoping and willing for the experience to exceed expectations.
Since this area was founded on coal mining, we decided to head to the Lackawanna Mining Museum. The website had stated it was open; notices on the building declared it to be open; nevertheless it was decidedly closed. According to some men working on machines in front of the Museum entrance, it was opening on Wednesday, despite the statements on the website and building. We pondered pootling around the nearby Anthracite Heritage Museum but then Mr Pict had the genius idea that we should do some obscure stuff in the area. We are rather fond of “Roadside America” so we decided we should definitely go and seek out some more offbeat sites to visit.
First, however, we decided to head into Scranton, the county town of Lackawanna County. We had read there was a second-hand book store there and I absolutely love rummaging through old books so that was the draw for me. We parked up in the town centre and had a wander around. The County Courthouse in the centre of town was actually pretty impressive and had all sorts of memorials to veterans of various wars outside, all set in a square. The main streets were, therefore, huddled around this central square. Alas, when we arrived on the street where the book store was to be found, we learned it had closed down. No rummaging through musty vintage books for me then.
Scranton, it soon emerged, was a rather sad place. Every third store was empty and there was absolutely no buzz or energy to the place, hardly anyone milling around. Largely because we were in need of a restroom visit, we wandered into the mall. It was even more moribund. Metal barriers were more common than store fronts and either end of the mall was completely barren as the remaining shops had obviously been moved into the centre. The soulless plinky-plonk piped music echoed around the empty space. It reminded Mr Pict and me of the mall in ‘Eight Legged Freaks’. Clearly what this mall needed in order to survive was an invasion of giant arachnids. I already felt like we were among the mindlessly shuffling zombies of ‘Dawn of the Dead’.
However, as we emerged from the restroom, we spotted that there was a walkway from the rear of the mall out over an old train yard. We decided to investigate. It turned out that this was the rear of Steamtown National Historic Site. We did not enter the museum but spent a diverting hour wandering among the rusted carcasses of train engines, cabooses and other rolling stock, all serried along disused railway lines. I am not especially riveted by industrial history but something about the rust and decay pleased me aesthetically so I wandered around taking photographs. I am not ashamed to admit that I have a thing for rust. It felt like the whole train yard was somewhat symbolic of Scranton: the decaying remains of industry, rusting away, going nowhere.
Before we left Scranton, we popped to a mall on the outskirts of town to lunch at a Mexican restaurant called La Tonalteca. The interior was very brightly decorated with the vivid paints of South American fiesta, the furniture all painted carved wood depicting scenes of rural Mexican life. We shared nachos to start with and then my husband had the carnitas and I had chicken enchiladas with a tomatillo sauce. The food was good but it wasn’t great. It lacked a bit of additional seasoning or some extra flavour kick to really make the tastebuds sing. Some lime zest and juice, for instance, would have improved my meal. We also took some amusement from the surliness of our waiter. He was efficient enough in his own grudging way but very gruff and his mouth never once twitched into even the beginnings of a smile. He appeared to be stunned when we left him a tip.
We decided that the theme of the day had been established: urban decay it was. So we headed south to Wilkes-Barre – which is apparently pronounced Wilkesbury – to see an abandoned railway station. The Lehigh-Susquehanna station was connected to the coal industry so when it declined and eventually died in the 1970s the station was abandoned. It had then been converted into a cocktail bar, with abutting Pullman cars providing additional space, but that venture failed and so the station had just fallen into dereliction. Boom and bust. As soon as I saw it, I loved it. It had clearly once been a splendid example of Italianate architecture, with scroll work wood supporting the hanging eaves and a decorative cupola on the roof. Now, however, it was all smashed glass and plant growth spreading tendrils across and into walls. We were able to clamber aboard the carriages but I could not find an obvious way into the station building itself. Probably that is a good thing. Exploring derelict buildings probably requires some sort of risk assessment. Nevertheless I enjoyed scurrying around to find new photographs to take of the station’s exterior.
The next stop on our itinerary was the Huber Breaker in Ashley. It had operated for eight decades, breaking coal into the right size for domestic and business use. The company then dyed this coal blue for no other reason than to identify it as their product, a bizarre coal marketing gimmick. Apparently it could process 7000 tons of coal each day. Abandoned in the mid-1970s, it was a massive industrial hulk which a group had been trying to conserve as a memorial to those who had worked in the local coal industry but ultimately the site had been sold for its scrap value and was literally being pulled down as we watched. I, therefore, had to make do with distance shots.
Our final stop on our themed tour of the day was in the town of Nanticoke, just a short trot down the road from Ashley. We were there to see Concrete City, a ghost town. Although there was a historical marker explaining the history of the site, there was no indication of where it was to be found. Then I had the idea of looking up Google Earth on my phone and the aerial shot provided an indication of where we would find it. So Mr Pict and I wandered off into the woods, along a muddy track, and soon we could see the ruined remains of houses peeking through the trees. Twenty two-storey houses stood in a square around a plot of overgrown scrub. Each house was identical, having been built as company houses for some employees of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Coal Company in 1911. It turned out that poured concrete was not the most sound choice of building material as the houses were continually damp. It must have been pretty miserable for the residents. There was also a tragic story of a boy having drowned in the wading pool. Ultimately the houses had only been occupied for just over a decade before they were abandoned. When the Glen Alden Company took over, they didn’t want to invest the money required for sewerage improvements. Attempts at demolition had failed: 100 sticks of dynamite had not even taken down a single house. And so there they remained, tucked away in the woods, while houses grew up in the land beyond the ghost town. Some were missing ceilings and floors; some had basements filled with water which, despite its murk, glinted in the sunlight pouring in through the glassless windows; all were vandalised, absolutely covered in spray paintings and graffiti and some even pock-marked by ammunition. We were amused by the fact that one vandal had corrected the grammar of another. It was a very poignant place, post-apocalyptic. We felt like we were in a scene from ‘The Walking Dead’.
On the way back to our cottage at Stoddartsville, we took one final diversion when we saw a brown sign pointing to the Francis E Walter Dam. We thought we might be able to end the day with something a bit more scenic. Unfortunately the dam was just a concrete carbuncle, doing its job perfectly satisfactorily but without providing any picturesque views of the surrounding landscape.