Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ghost Highway

From David Burke:

It must have seemed like a great idea at the time: constructing several stretches of highway, connectors and overpasses between Interstate 84 and Routes 9 and 72 in West Hartford and New Britain, CT. However, after several million dollars were spent, many of these roads have remained closed since their completion some 30 years ago. Eerie, quiet and strangely serene, they will probably still be there for another 30 years...ready for another generation of Backside fans to enjoy!

West Hartford, CT

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Dead End Tracks, Part II

Old railroad tracks, Newton, MA

From Dave Brigham:

I've driven over these tracks numerous times in the last decade or so, but as with so many old train tracks, abandoned buildings and rusting old vehicles, I had no idea what the story was. That's a big reason I started this site. The Internet makes it so easy to plug an address or company name into a search engine and discover history.

These tracks cross Christina Street in the Newton Highlands section of Newton, MA, and the adjacent Charles River, on their way into Needham. By plugging "Christina Street Newton Mass. Railroad Tracks" into Google, I found just what I needed from a discussion thread on

"The tracks that cross Christina is the lead into the old Needham Industrial Park (now the New England Business Center). At a couple locations down in the park in Needham you can see evidence of the tracks there, too (unless they've been eradicated in the last couple years). To access the park, the trains came through Newton Upper Falls, crossed Needham St., went behind what is now mostly shopping centers (although the industrial buildings are still behind them) on Needham St., and did a 180-degree turn and went back south-west across Christina St. and the Charles (again) and into the industrial park."

That's all I wanted to know, no more, no less.

Old railroad tracks, Newton, MA

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Volkswagen Time Machine

Red VW Bus III

From Mick Melvin:

When I see a Volkswagen bus, I get nostalgic. A trip to central New York gave me the chance to see this old friend up close. Back in the mid '70s, I was riding in the family's red VW bus with my mother on a back road in Pennsylvania. She asked me if I wanted to try driving and I jumped at the chance! I was all of 11 years old and scared to death, but I am so glad I jumped in that driver’s seat. I’ll never forget that day. I thought my mom was so cool for letting me drive. I still remember her saying, “Michael, slow down”! She still says that to me to this day.

This VW bus that was sitting along the road in Alfred, NY, looked as though it had many miles and many stories to tell. If you look closely, you can see a Grateful Dead dancing bear in the front window, which brought me back to the late '80s when I traveled in a VW bus to a “Dead” show in Buffalo, NY. Like the bus, that trip was many miles and many stories ago.

Red VW Bus

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Truth Behind Beautiful Ruins


From Joe Viger:

My father, Richard Viger, worked for the BMRY for over 40 years. The Berlin Mills Railway was the connection between Berlin, NH's pulp and paper mills and outside carriers like the Boston & Maine, Grand Trunk or Canadian National. Raw materials in and finished product out.

My dad wasn't an engineer as most folks assume when I mention he worked on the railroad. Rather he was a member of the train crew. Brakeman or conductor, sometimes yard master. He retired from the railroad as superintendent.

I remember being a kid when these new box cars became part of the railway. They were bright neon green with a big white logo and I would see them all the time when my dad would treat me to a quick ride on the train or take me to the railroad carshop to change the oil in our family's Buick. Today this boxcar sits on an unused track behind the old mill research building near the Northern Forest Heritage Park in Berlin, NH.


When I was born, I was given a family name and joined the ranks of "Joe's" that included my uncle and my paternal and maternal grandfathers. My dad's father also worked for the BMRY. In the image below, my grandfather, Joe Viger, is on the right. Ernie Gagnon is on the left. Ernie was one of my dad's best friends and never walked into our house without a MARS bar for me.

These images are from a great website called Beyond Brown Paper. It features vintage photos of life surrounding the Berlin, NH, paper mills. As it turns out, you can find photos of both of my grandfathers on Beyond Brown Paper. Joseph Ruel, my mother's father, was a millwright at the Brown Company Paper Mill for many years. If you aren't familiar with the term millright, think MacGyver. Millwrights are more than mechanics or carpenters. They are craftsman who keep mills running by leveraging the skills of multiple trades to shape wood, steel and whatever else is needed to keep machines running.

Like most New England paper mills, the Berlin mills are mostly gone now. The Cascade mill is still standing and last I heard was running small batches of paper with imported pulp. Much of the Burgess Mill has been removed and included the demolition of the mill's smokestacks in the fall of 2007.

The town has paid a high price for the downfall of New England paper production. Berlin quickly became a favored location for prison development and there are both state and federal prison on the outskirts of town now. There is work being done to possibly redevelop the Burgess mill site as a BioMass Energy project. That is, burning wood to make electricity. This creates hope because when the mill closed it wasn't just the millworkers who took a hit. Folks felt it up and down the food chain of the paper industry: loggers, truck drivers, mechanics, oil and gas companies, chainsaw salespeople, safety equipment manufacturers, insurance folks... well, you get the picture. I remember reading that the economic impact even reached to Southern New England when the mill finally closed because of the nature of the industrial products supply chain.

While those of us who contribute to the Backside of America work hard to capture visual beauty in the decay and ruin of old factories, buildings and things, let's make sure we have good thoughts for towns like Berlin. They are full of hard-working folks living good lives. They aren't just working grunts, but often highly skilled and specialized craftsmen. Their work is more than a job and, in many cases, a legacy that is generations old.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Editor's Note: I love the dedication of the Backside contributors. David Burke recently bumped his head on a large piece of metal, bending his glasses and denting his head just a little, in pursuit of photos (which will be posted in coming weeks). Joe Viger, on a recent business trip out West, emails that for one of his upcoming photos, "The wheels were turning when I bounced in to the break down lane to u-turn and take the pics." And every other contributor has gone out of his or her way to look for good shots, take them, and do a great job explaining the where, what and why of each picture.

Michelle Loya, whose pictures and post below are about hiking on Connecticut's Mount Tom, was curious about an old chimney in the woods. So, as you'll read, she set out to find out its story. I'm honored to work with such dedicated photographers.

Smoke Signals From the Past

chimney in the woods

From Michelle Loya:

I took these pictures at one of my favorite hiking places, Mount Tom in Litchfield, CT. For as long as I can remember I've hiked or have been carried up this mountain to reach the beautiful castle and its gorgeous views at the top.

On one of the trails on the way up you pass by this giant fireplace and what remains of a tiny foundation next to it. My whole life I've wondered what this is and why it was there. The chimney is so tall and its hearth so large and inviting. It's a mystery why it's there. I searched for days online and made phone calls to the Department of Environmental Protection state park branch and no one had the answer for me.

Finally I found a number for the park itself and was luckily able to reach someone. The kind lady on the phone looked it up in the park history book and found that there had been a Boy Scout camp there from 1916- 1934. The scouts had been helping build the park and clean it up to make the trails that we hike on today. The chimney had been a part of their rec hall, and that is all that remains of it today.

Families have enjoyed hiking this mountain for years and will continue hiking and swimming for many more years all thanks to the group of Boy Scouts who blazed the trails.

mt. tom

Monday, June 14, 2010

Bank Shots

The Terryville Bank & Trust

From David Burke:

I have always had a thing for old banks. Not the current "branches" that are most common nowadays, but the stately and spacious banks of yesteryear that were quite often the focal point of the downtown and helped define the town's personality.


The Terryville Bank & Trust building, in Terryville, CT, is still quite beautiful despite its current condition. I still had that feeling of grandeur and importance that I used to get when I would go to a bank with my mother way back when.

This building has been for sale for quite a number of years. I often wonder what will become of it; whether it will continue as a bank or some other sort of office space or whether it will remain as is, a relic of America's backside.


Friday, June 11, 2010

Chestnut Hill Phoenix

Ugly, vacant buildings, Newton, MA

From Dave Brigham:

This site in the Chestnut Hill section of Newton, Mass., has been a mess for years, since a major fire wiped out several buildings and took a handful of lives.

New England Development Co. initiated plans three years ago, before the real estate and economic collapse, to erect a major project here, comprising residential, retail and office space. The company's plans have been on hold, but recently reps outlined scaled-back ideas, including a new grocery store, an eight-story residential building (instead of the original 14-story edifice), about 100,000 square feet of retail/restaurant space and room for a health club and medical offices. With the economy looking up, N.E. Development hopes to break ground early next year, according to an article in the Newton Tab.

Former Omni supermarket, Newton, MA

While there's no doubt this site needs to be developed, and I'll likely end up shopping at the grocery store or other retailers that land there, I'll miss the carnival that's been held in the barren parking lot the past few summers. For more on the demise of venues featuring roller coasters, games of chance and fried dough, see June 1, 2010, Backside feature, "The Ones That Got Away, Part II."

Dilapidated buildings, Newton, MA

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Meet Me at the Station (We'll Find a Way In)

Train Station

From David Burke:

I have taken many pictures of the exteriors of crumbling old buildings, but I finally decided to venture to the inside (Yes! I'm totally jealous, as I take most of my pics with my 2-year-old daughter tagging along, so I can't be so bold. -- Ed.).

I have wanted to see the inside of the old Torrington Train Station for some time, but a moat of chain link fence, boarded up doors and NO TRESSPASSING signs kept me on the outside. Let's just say that I finally found a way around all those distractions.

What I found inside amazed me! Half of the floor, including where the ticket booth stands, has collapsed. The impossibly heavy safes have slid against the wall. ( A note to other wanna-be explorers; watch your footing!)

Inside the ticket booth

What also fascinated me was that since the station's closing (mid 1960's I think) it has been used for storage of objects that any Backside of America fan would appreciate. Amid the beer cans, liquor bottles, trash and debris there is a horse drawn sleigh and buggy, a bathtub, desks, filing cabinets and centered in the middle of the station, a dusty and beautiful piano.


There are stories behind all of these artifacts, yet all I know is that they are now mostly forgotten. However, I do believe that as long as images like these are out there, their past will continue to exist.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sure Signs of Recession


From Chris St. Cyr:

Nothing says "recession" like the hint of a once-present company logo or painted-over typography. Wait, this is a blog about cool photos that capture the hidden and forgotten remnants of Americana, not about the effects of poor decisions by 20-somethings on Wall Street.

As much as I enjoy these images of old business signs, they are signs of a different kind. There are probably as many reasons for the closings of the businesses as there are signs along Route 41 on the West Coast of Florida. Here in 2010 it's hard not to see the connection of a bad economy and the backside of America.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Go Away Into the Ruins

On rare occasions, we here at The Backside of America urge our readers to visit other web sites, because, hey, we can't fill all of your needs when it comes to posting photos and short essays about dilapidated factories, junky old cars and spooky train trestles. It has come to our attention that a new book, Ruin: Photographs of a Vanishing America, by Brian Vanden Brink, will hit bookstores soon.

You can visit the author's web site to find out more about his architectural photography and other books; or stop by the publisher's web site for a preview of the book, which looks incredible. A bit pricey, but maybe a good birthday or Christmas gift?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Ones That Got Away, Part II

By Dave Brigham:

After writing a short article for the Society for Commercial Archeology's monthly newsletter in the summer of 2005 about Dave Waller's efforts to save and restore old neon signs (see March 22, 2010, Backside entry, "Gettin' My Kicks" for more on Waller), I began looking for other story ideas. In searching online I came across information about the impending destruction of Whalom Park, an amusement park in Leominster, Mass.

I'd never been to the park, but I've long had a soft spot for amusement parks and carnivals, and lamented the fact that a great old place was going to be torn down. I decided to drive to the park before the wrecking ball started swinging, to gather some information for a possible article about the park and efforts by former employees and owners to save it from destruction.

I dragged my son, Owen, along (just as I drag Amelia along on Backside photo trips now), and drove around the perimeter of the park, looking at the old roller coaster and other rides, ticket booths and other buildings. I wrote a bunch of notes about the surrounding neighborhood and soaked in the atmosphere.

Here are a few of my observations, taken from my notes:

1) I noted restaurants including Sean Patrick's, Stella's Coffee Shoppe and the awesomely monikered Elvis's Hot Dog Palace.

2) There was an abandoned "bath house," with an active driving range across the way.

3) There were a few bars on Lakefront Ave., right next to the park: R.G. Scooter's, Captain's Lounge, and On the Rocks.

4) "The Black Hole rollercoaster hulks over the roadway," I wrote. "Burned out bldg (what was it? dance hall?) next to that."

I took some half-decent notes about the park and the area, but what I didn't do was take pictures. I didn't have a very good camera then, and the thought to record what I was seeing just didn't occur to me. These days if I think there's even a slight chance that I'll find some Backside-worthy shots to take, I pack my camera.

I never wrote the article. Now Whalom is gone, replaced by a housing development. That possibility must have been in the news at the time I visited, as I wrote in my notes, "w/ the views of the lake, the attraction for condos/homes/retail/restaurants is obvious."

In 2006, the park was torn down and new homes started going up. A lot of folks out there were devastated that Whalom couldn't be saved. I found a video that does a fantastic job of capturing the park in its decay, showing the roller coaster being torn down, and then showing what the various sites looked like after being junked and cleaned up.