tunnel vision

The cliffs surrounding Manitou Springs, Colorado echoed with yelped curses and the unmistakable *swoosh* of heavy objects sliding down a bed of rocks. In this case, the objects in question were myself and two brave friends, and the streams of profanity came from our somewhat hasty descent down the cliff. Our backsides bore the brunt of the assault, but despite some shredded pants and a few cuts we made it down intact. Whatever, the climb had been worth it. It looked steeper from the bottom anyway.

About halfway up the canyon wall lies part of a neglected route once used to ascend into the heart of the Rockies. A drive up scenic Highway 24 doesn’t even give clues; the deep red hillsides showing no trace of the path carved into their steep faces. This is no ordinary hiking trail, however. It is on no official map, and though it lies very close to one of Colorado’s largest tourism destinations, even most residents have no knowledge of its existence. We had just ventured into what formerly comprised a section of the Colorado Midland Railway – a series of tunnels, blasted and hand-carved out of the Rocky Mountains.


Midland Tunnel #8 in the year 1900. Below, next to Fountain Creek, is the dirt trail up Ute Pass that would eventually become Highway 24. (DPL Western History)

Back in 1883, the fledgling city of Colorado Springs had only a few thousand people within it. One of these residents was a man named H.D. Fisher, manager of a sawmill about 25 miles from the city, near what is now Woodland Park. Mr. Fisher had a problem: his lumber had a long way to go to get to his hometown. Though a logging railway had been built at the site to transport logs, the finished product still had to be hauled overland on rough trails to the Springs, where the railroad could finally take over. Fisher reckoned that if he had the money, he could link the two railways with his own, with the aim of eventually extending the tracks to Leadville – the epicenter of an incredibly rich mining region. The thick stacks of cash he sought were soon found in a man named John J. Hagerman. Hagerman had made his fortune in mining back east, and his ill health drove him to move to Colorado Springs the year prior. Fisher and his associates made Hagerman the chairman of their fledgling railroad, and with money in the bank, construction started in earnest. The route they chose led east from the Springs, over Ute Pass, and north along the Arkansas River to Leadville. This is some of the roughest country in the west, with 14000 foot peaks and deep valleys to wind around and through. Also, the banks of the Arkansas River that led to Leadville were already occupied by the Rio Grande Railway – a direct competitor to the Midland. These factors combined meant that the Midland needed to be creative with its real estate – the railroad turned to tunneling as a solution to its woes.


A Midland steam locomotive pulls a full load through Tunnel #7 near Manitou Springs in April of 1935. (DPL Western History)


Modern day Tunnel #7 peeks out from behind a hill as storm clouds start to gather. The above photo appears to have been taken from just above the bushes at far left.

As the line left Colorado Springs for the mountains to the west, it followed the steep, narrow canyon carved out by Fountain Creek. The banks of the creek above Manitou Springs proved too narrow to accommodate more than the existing dirt trail up Ute Pass, so to push the railway up to Woodland Park, the company’s engineers decided to dig. A series of eight tunnels were carved into the red rocks of the canyon, moving the railway through the most narrow parts. When the company finally went under in 1949 under the name ‘Midland Terminal Railway’, the tracks were simply pulled and the tunnels left to nature. Today, they are not on any tourist map, no signs point to them as historical relics, not even a marked trail to acknowledge their existence. When I asked a few Manitou residents about them, even they didn’t know of the tunnels in the hills. My friends and I had driven more than 100 miles for the chance to find them. All I knew was their rough location from a dusty book in the Denver Public Library’s stacks, but that was enough.

Before the evening’s butt-slide down the steep, jagged slope, we first had to ascend. I had tried this climb a few weeks prior on a scouting mission, and ended up having to come down hastily – and in near darkness. This cloudy June afternoon, we came slightly better prepared. As myself and my friends Evan and Ann struggled to keep traction on the constantly shifting surface, we were forced to grab for anything we could use to haul ourselves up. Finally, we reached the level of the rail bed – a shelf about six to eight feet wide more than thirty feet above the bottom of the canyon.


Ann pauses on the former Colorado Midland rail bed after the climb up. 100 years ago, you’d see this stunning view from a train coming down Ute Pass into Manitou Springs. Tunnel #7 is on the left, and Tunnel #6 is on the right. Click this panoramic image to view larger.


Evan and Ann pause before entering one of the tunnels above Manitou Springs.

We spent several hours exploring the westernmost tunnels, retracing the old route from one end of the rock shelf to the other. After the tunnels fell into disuse, the closest two to Manitou Springs as well as part of a third suffered collapses. The rest, however, have weathered the years in much better shape. The intervening years had allowed nature to take over some parts of the shelf until it scarcely looked like it could have been big enough to accommodate the steam locomotives that once chugged through this canyon. Unlike many of Colorado’s mountain railways, the Midland was built to standard railway gauge of 4′ 8.5″ – meaning that the shelf had to accommodate large main line trains. The remaining tunnels are in very good shape, good enough that an impromptu homeless encampment had sprung up in one of them. Upon closer inspection, we even found 100 year old coal soot still clinging to the ceilings.


The west portal of the 211-foot-long Tunnel #7.


A Midland locomotive pulls a load of empty cars through a Manitou tunnel in July of 1939. By this time, the dirt road at the bottom of the canyon had been widened and paved as US Highway 24. (DPL Western History)


Inside Tunnel #6.

By the time the sun was setting, thick, dark rain clouds were closing in. We decided to make a retreat to the car, and in the dying light, we made our graceful butt-slides down the steep slope covered in jagged loose sandstone and gravel. Dirtier and a bit torn up we made our way back to the car and loaded up. With the rain moving in, we realized this part of the canyon was not a smart place to be. Only a few weeks later, a huge mudslide caused by flash flooding charged down the canyon with the force of a flood of concrete, trapping dozens of cars in the muck. Shortly after that, yet another flash flood caused millions of dollars in damage to Manitou’s downtown. Thankfully, this evening we had only a dramatic sky to worry about.

A few weeks later, I went with a friend to go check out another group of tunnels about 80 miles deeper into the mountains, near the town of Buena Vista. Here, the tunnels were built because the banks of the Arkansas River were already occupied by a rival railroad – leaving the Midland the task of using what little real estate they had efficiently. Rather than winding back and forth across the river on bridges to dodge rock outcroppings until the valley opened, the Midland bored a series of four short tunnels, making the route north to Leadville a straight shot.


A train and its mustached crew pauses for a photo in front of one of the Buena Vista tunnels sometime in the 1890s. (DPL Western History)

This part of the line was actually abandoned before the Manitou portion, in the years following World War I. The Midland, like all other American railroads, was placed under the wartime control of the US Railroad Adminstration (USRA). The USRA decided that all traffic crossing western Colorado would be routed onto the Midland’s line, and for a few years the business outlook was good for a railroad which had just emerged from bankruptcy. Then, just as quickly, the government yanked almost all of the traffic away from the Midland when it became apparent that the line’s facilities and equipment could not hand the overwhelming volume. Adding to their woes, the dizzyingly high passes to the west of Leadville required constant maintenance and snow clearing in the winter, sapping the railroad’s cash flow and stalling their trains in feet of ice. In 1918, the year the war ended, all of the Colorado Midland west of the town of Divide was abandoned and pulled up for scrap – more than 3/4 of the railroad’s mileage. Unlike the Manitou tunnels, which remained in use for another 31 years, these tunnels were converted and repurposed with the rise of the automobile.


A car stops before heading through the Buena Vista tunnels in June of 1943. (DPL Western History)


Our expedition vehicle next to the tunnels in the modern day. Pullouts at each end allow cars to wait as the tunnels are only wide enough for one lane of traffic.


Inside the Buena Vista tunnels. All four are visible in this photo, bored so closely together that trains were occasionally long enough to be in all four at once!

Today, rather than the *chug-chug* of steam trains, only the rumble of tires on gravel resonates through the tunnels. The county owns the right-of-way now, keeping the old route plowed in the winter so backcountry enthusiasts and cross-country skiiers can access National Forest land. It’s well used, too; in our short time exploring the tunnels, dozens of jeeps and a few ATVs passed through one at a time.


We hold for a moment at the northernmost tunnel, waiting for traffic to clear as a storm rolls in.

I find it fascinating that these relics of Colorado history have remained in such good condition as they reach well over 100 years old. The most crucial tunnels to the Midland, at the top of Hagerman Pass, both collapsed by 1940. Another set remains passable, on a back road in a place called Elevenmile Canyon. With a few feet of snow on the road now, though, they’ll stay hidden until the melting of summer for a visit. Just a few more months to wait.

Titan I: the remix

« An AtH // urbanescape.fr collaboration »

For the better part of a year, I’ve found myself essentially semi-retired from urban exploring. The trappings of a renewed social life, a (mostly) full time job, and a number of other projects kept me out of the loop. However, sometimes life throws you a little curveball that makes you realize what’s still out there. In this case, that curveball came in the form of two French documentary filmmakers: Mélanie de Groot van Embden and David de Rueda, referred to me by a colleague from the west coast. The target for the crew: an abandoned nuclear missile launch complex we refer to as the Titan. It’s nothing less than a Cold War castle, a huge, decaying underground relic of a time when air raid sirens meant nuclear war rather than tornadoes.


The abandoned Titan I ICBM launch complex from topside. Launcher #2 is at left.

It’s been about six years since my first expedition to this relic of the Cold War, situated about an hour or so from Denver on Colorado’s eastern plains. For this reason, I contacted another local explorer, Micah, who, along with his roommate Ashley, had recently been inside the silo and could give us valuable information as to its condition – and the hazards we would face inside. The recent wet weather meant that the complex could be a muddy quagmire or partially flooded, new developments in the area posed a risk, and decay had doubtless taken its toll on the structure since my last visit.

Our meetup point was none other than Pete’s Kitchen on Colfax, a late-night Denver institution. Its glowing ’40s neon signs cast a bright glare into the night, beckoning our French comrades inside. Over cups of coffee, Mél and David told us stories from the road, tales of climbing bridges in New York and abandoned roller coasters in New Orleans. After crossing half of America, their cross-country road trip had led them here, to the edge of the Rockies. After spending a chilly night high in the Sawatch Range to the west, the two explorers descended on Denver in their fabulously painted van.

The night’s plan was simple: take our team of five and our gear out to the silo, stash Micah’s minivan nearby at a spot he had in mind, and sneak overland under a nearly full moon over to the silo entrance. Subtlety is key to the Titan – it would only take one rifle-toting rancher to mistake us for a varmint in the murk and really ruin our night. Once inside, all we’d have to do is try not to fall in a missile hole and be out by sunrise. Nice and easy.

We headed out of Denver at around 11 p.m., and settled in for the hour’s ride out east. The road was nearly empty, with all the traffic of the day fast asleep. David fired up his camera and our idle chatter became a candid interview. As we drove east, the glow from the city receded until the sky outside the van was an inky black; this is the edge of the Great Plains, and from out here, the relative isolation of Denver was apparent. Once upon a time, the Air Force had the idea that this would be an ideal place to situate the first generation of American ICBMs – the Titan I. The reasons for this move were multifaceted. Lowry Air Force Base was nearby, along with the garrisons of Colorado Springs, providing ready manpower. Denver’s mining history had bestowed some of the most gifted underground engineers in the world, perfect for creating a small, self-sufficient town 40-50 feet below the surface. Even the missiles themselves had only a short distance to travel – they were developed and tested at Martin Marietta‘s Waterton Canyon facility just south of Denver, and their 3.8 Mt thermonuclear warheads were assembled just north of the city at Rocky Flats.

Eventually, we hit our exit, and as we headed away from the highway, the darkness of the plains enveloped us. Our two lane road turned into dirt, then the dirt turned into little more than two ruts in the prairie. With nothing in front of us but headlights, Micah finally said “OK, I think this is it.”, and we disembarked. Outside the van, we gathered our kit: cameras, tripods, respirators in case of airborne nastiness. When we finally looked up, the view was astounding. With no light pollution from the city and a clear night, a seemingly infinite number of stars were visible. Only a few hundred feet away was our quarry. We slipped over to the site and down into the crater holding our entry point. The mission was on; the only hazard we faced on the way in was a lone skunk, stubbornly guarding the path down the crater wall. Lights unpacked and masks on, into the beast we went.


The Titan I’s power dome from the second floor mezzanine. When it was in operation, this room would have been cramped with ventilation equipment, water filtration gear, and 4 huge diesel generators to provide everything the 14 man crew would need. Click to view this image larger.

Our entry portal let us into the complex’s power dome. David and I busted out our photo rigs and began to get to work. This room was huge; 130 feet (40m) across and 60 feet (18m) high. In operation, it would have been an incredibly noisy place, with four enormous diesel generators running all the time, and right next door, the immense fans that vented the diesel exhaust and moved breathing air in and out of the complex. As David and Mél shot some footage near the mezzanine ladder, I noticed the large slab of concrete I had just jumped onto had moved! I bounced my knees slightly, and sure enough, it seemed that the whole slab was mounted on springs. This made perfect sense; almost everything in the complex was mounted on springs to prevent damage when the missiles were fired – or when a Soviet nuclear warhead hit nearby. The generators themselves were no exception, and even after fifty years underground, the huge springs holding up their foundations still had plenty of bounce left. Maybe not quite a Cold War bouncy castle, but close.


Let there be light!
This newsreel shows the inside of the Colorado Titan Is in operation. Note the missiles raised up above their doors – unlike later ICBMs, the Titan I launched from outside the silo, not within.

From the expansive confines of the generator dome, we headed through the complex’s main tunnel junction and into the control dome. It’s exactly what it says on the tin – this part of the facility held the computers and men that could actually fire the nuclear missiles within. Slightly smaller than the power dome, this space was divided into two levels. In operation, a crew of 14 would keep watch upstairs in rotating shifts until relief came. Instead of bunks, the airmen got a ready room/lounge on the lower level of the dome for their downtime.


The ready room on the lower level of the control dome was used as a venue for a small illegal rave back in 2003.

Before we proceeded upstairs, something caught Ashley’s attention. The floor of the lower level was littered with bullet casings, a testament to the years of locals who came down into the silo for shooting practice. Ashley proved to be an expert in firearms forensics; over there was a 9mm, here a .45 ACP, even a few 12 gauge shotshells. Also present were a few 7.62mm cartridges – spent ammunition for the notorious AK-47. Our French comrades seemed surprised, even slightly taken aback at the knowledge that these casings were not relics, but left here after the fact. This is Colorado, however, and guns in rural parts of the state are about as common as dish soap. Tonight, though, no armed resistance was encountered, and with souvenirs of middle America in our pockets, we headed up the stairs to the heart of the beast: the control room.


“LAUNCH OPS.”

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, this room was at the flashpoint of the Cold War. On 26 October 1962, at 8 P.M. local time, the United States raised its strategic readiness level – also known as DEFCON – to level 2 for the first (and still only) time. This move put US nuclear forces on high alert – and as a result, the men in this room actually raised the nuclear missiles from their silos, ready to fire in minutes if the order was given. I can only imagine what must have passed through their minds, waiting sixty feet below the Colorado plains for orders to obliterate millions upon millions of people and begin nuclear Armageddon. The stress must have been unbearable.


This is the heart – this room once held the control panels and computers for the site’s three thermonuclear ballistic missiles. The drop ceiling has long since given way, collapsing into the floor of the space.

We left the control dome for our next objective, the silos themselves. Down the tunnel lay the moats, deeply dug junctions between the connecting tunnels that served to join the various pipes and control lines strung throughout the complex. Their depth (about 15 ft.) means that they are now flooded with murky ‘water’ – a potentially toxic witch’s brew of chemicals and runoff dissolved in groundwater. We’d have no choice but to cross these pits in order to access the launchers. Micah and Ashley set across first to the right, while David, Mél, and I kept to the left side with our photo gear. There are no more floors in the complex tunnels, as these were some of the first metal parts to be scrapped. There was no easy way across the first junction; the thick steel support beams we had to balance on were spaced far enough apart that shuffling over them was a delicate task.

The junction room was filled with all sorts of exposed pipework and conduit, and while some of this metal made great handholds, some was so rusty and rotten it could easily give way. About halfway across I heard Mélanie suddenly yelp “Help me! I’m falling!” from behind me. I spun around just in time to see her wobbling precariously above the moat! Her gear had shifted ever so slightly and thrown her off balance, and David was already out of reach. I had only a moment to flip my tripod over my shoulder and reach out to keep her from falling into the murk. Once safely across, we caught our breath and ventured deeper into the tunnels.


This tunnel junction further into the complex remains high and dry. The tunnels tend to get quite wet during the rainy season, but the sturdy engineering means some parts remain remarkably dry after 60 years.
Mél traverses a tunnel junction near a propellant terminal. There were separate storage facilities for missiles, fuel, and the equipment to handle both. The beams were covered with plate steel floors, long since removed for their scrap value. Plumbing and control lines for the missiles ran underneath.

After another half hour of monkey business, we found our target. Through a pair of blast doors at the end of a tunnel was Silo #2. Water had long since replaced the Titan I missile that was once here, and over the years the water level had risen to only ten feet below our tunnel. With the silos reaching 160 feet in depth from the surface, it’s easy to see why some enterprising people have made indoor SCUBA an adaptive reuse of a few similar sites. A sobering silence took over us as we realized what had once been in here, the magnitude of the space we had come all this way to see. The weapons once stored in here could have killed millions at the turn of two keys. At the end of the access tunnel, only a flimsy wire rope strung as a makeshift guard across the opening stood between us and the abyss.


Mél, David, and I look for a stable shooting position at the silo entrance. Beyond us, in the blackness, is the pit of the silo. Photo courtesy of Micah.
Silo number 2 from the personnel tunnel level. This composite image only captures the top forty feet or so!

A check on our watches revealed that 4 A.M. had come and gone. All that remained now was the long walk back to the power dome and our exit. We packed up everything but our cameras as we began back through the jungle gym, clambering over pipes and ducking underneath low hanging beams. Farther down, once the tunnels became mercifully dry, we simply walked on the packed earth at the bottom.


David grabs some video on the walk back to the power dome.

We emerged from the Earth after four and a half hours, physically tired but totally awake from the adrenaline. If we could only get past our last barrier – that skunk – we’d be home free. Under the abundant starlight, we could see surprisingly clearly. A quick check revealed no marauding wildlife, so up the side of the hole we went. Almost there. Fifty yards away was the van, and a beacon pointed us towards it. Silhouetting our ride were the 139 turbines of the Cedar Point Wind Farm, all flashing on and off in unison, forming a long, red glow across the horizon. It was a fitting end to a surreal night.

Back on I-70, the highway noise took over as the crew snoozed on and off. Micah turned off the road once or twice, seeking the towering lights of an open gas station. Mél and David slept through all of it, getting a head start on an early morning. Their plan was to head out just after sunrise, aiming west for the Rockies and eventually California. They would be missed. Personally, I hope to have the good fortune to meet more people like them in my life. Sometimes, all it takes is a little positive influence to get motivated.

my name is Sam, Sam the Record Man

Toronto’s Yonge Street has a reputation as the city’s main drag, extending its pavement from the foot of Queens Quay on the shore of Lake Ontario to the city limits at Steeles Avenue and beyond. Lining its route are all manners of attractions for the curious, including the huge Eaton Centre (Toronto’s largest shopping mall), Dundas Square, and that most holy of Canadian shrines, the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Since 1959, the corner of Gould and Yonge Streets played host to one of the most recognizable landmarks of Toronto: two giant, gaudy, neon-filled records, ‘spinning’ in the dark. This was the flagship location for one of Canada’s largest and best-loved music stores: Sam the Record Man.


Sam the Record Man on its final night – photo courtesy JBCurio via Wikimedia

Sam’s started in 1937, in an shop in a faraway corner of Toronto. Sam Sniderman (the eponymous Record Man) and his brother Sidney started the operation as a department within their family’s radio store, but by 1959, Sam was ready to strike out on his own and moved his operation to 347 Yonge Street – next door to competitor A&A Records. As his empire grew, Sniderman opened hundreds of outlets across Ontario and the rest of Canada, eventually dethroning A&A from of its position at the top of the Canadian record biz – and eventually taking over their neighboring Yonge Street store. Boxing Day sales were legendary at Sam’s, with deep discounts on records (and later, tapes and CDs) generating queues of chilly Torontonians that stretched around the block.

However, as the recording industry became more Internet-based, Sam’s (as well as many other music retailers) saw their sales plummet. Even competitor HMV, whose huge, multinational industry reach (and conspicuously located store across the street from Sam’s at 333 Yonge) had helped edge them above Sam’s in the record business, couldn’t keep their heads above water. On 30 October 2001, Sam’s filed for bankruptcy and closed all of their wholly owned stores, leaving only the Yonge Street flagship (reopened the next year with Sniderman’s sons at the helm) and 11 locally-owned franchises open. Sam the Record Man managed to linger on until finally, on 30 June 2007, the iconic signs were switched off (though they’d be relit once for Nuit Blanche in 2008 – see above photo) and Sam’s closed its doors for good. The building that housed it was soon purchased by nearby Ryerson University to be used as a new student centre; to that end, it was reduced to a pile of rubble by the end of 2009.

The building had been hastily declared a Heritage site in an effort to preserve the iconic neon record signs (as the Ontario Heritage Act has no provisions for saving signs without their buildings), but with the demolition of the building, the fate of the records is now in serious question. Part of the deal with the city of Toronto that allowed the demolition of a listed building included a clause that says the university is obliged to take the signs, repair them and put them back on one of two sites — either the new Learning Centre or another building nearby. However, the powers-that-be at Ryerson have indicated that, due to money, they no longer intend to do this, instead opting to replace the signs with ‘digital representations’ – likely video projectors that would shine a facsimile of the sign onto the sidewalk next to Yonge Street. Not quite the same thing.

During Sam’s swan song at the beginning of 2009, I happened to find myself in Toronto, and one night, in the company of Dresden and Rustblade, we paid our respects to the Record Man. In just a few short weeks, Sam’s would be reduced to a pile of rubble, so we elected to strike while the iron was hot. Our entry point was, as things go, a pretty sketchy one, but the impending doom of this site meant the risk-to-reward ratio was unusually high. Plus, at this late hour of night, traffic on busy Yonge Street had slowed to a crawl. With lookouts posted at the ends of the the alley, Rust and I poked and prodded until, inevitably, we found our way in. We beckoned to the others, and into the now-derelict landmark we went.


Dresden surveys what remains of the first floor of Sam’s.

Preparation for demolition was well under way, the walls and floors mostly stripped to their structural foundations. Piles of salvaged pipe, conduit, and wire littered the floors, and loose boards threatened to send us flying at the first misstep. The adjoining rooms were much the same, and we had the sense that workers had been here quite recently, salvaging the last of the materials inside Sam’s that were worth keeping. The squad then whipped out our respective cameras, and the *whoosh* of traffic passing on Yonge Street was soon joined by the occasional clicking of our shutters as we photographed what remained of the first floor.


Looking towards the Yonge Street entrance, the advanced state of demolition prep is apparent.


A magic-marker mural decorates the wall of the basement. By this time, the famous signature panels upstairs that held thousands of rock star autographs had been removed.


Some of the larger store decorations, like this handmade sign, remained behind.

As we proceeded upstairs, we found that things were much the same, but the hastily deconstructed state of the upper floors gave off a strange sense of urgency. Not only had the walls been stripped of their electrical conduit and wiring, some appeared to be losing their plaster as well. The workers had been here recently, too, leaving work lights, empty wrappers, and even a few wayward hard hats and Nomex bunny suits to mark their presence. However, for the time being, we were still by ourselves, with only our own curiosity to lead us farther up the stairs.


A hole in the side of the building reveals cars passing below on Yonge Street. This hole may have been the consequence of the removal of the huge record signs which adorned the front of Sam’s.

Access to the upper floors allowed us to move between the original store on the corner and the two adjoining buildings that Sam’s took over and assimilated into itself during its existence. In the early years, Sam’s did daily battle with their archrivals A&A Records, with only Steele’s Tavern in a narrow slice of a storefront separating the two along Yonge Street. With each new acquisition, interior walls fell to their new owner, and the previously separate buildings were fused together.


The corner of Yonge and Gould in 1973 – A&A and Sam the Record Man adjoin each other at this point, but by the 1980s, all three buildings would belong to the Record Man. The second record sign would later be installed on top of Steele’s. – Photo courtesy Bob Whalen via Panoramio


This part of Sam’s was once the home of A&A. The plaster on the wall was removed haphazardly to get at the conduit and wire underneath, revealing this graffiti of sorts from bygone days.

All of a sudden, the relative silence was broken by a group of wailing sirens coming down Yonge Street. The sirens grew nearer, until they stopped just as they were about to pass by. We spent a few breathless moments paused in an upstairs corridor, waiting to see if we had been found out. After a few minutes, there was still no sound coming from downstairs, no shouts or doors slamming; it seemed the fire was somewhere else, so to speak, so we continued on. Finally, we reached the building’s final ladder, and with nowhere to go but up, the deed was done. We paused for a moment on the roof for gratuitous self-portraits, overlooking the garish lights of nearby Dundas Square.


The squad on the roof of Sam’s; this excellent view would no longer exist in roughly 3 months’ time.

After paying our respects to the soon-to-be-dust Record Man, we headed back for ground level and made good our escape. No alarms, no sirens at the end of the alley, just the four of us rejoining the foot traffic on Yonge, heading off into the night with a new story to tell.

Sam’s has been reduced to an empty lot now, and soon construction will begin on Ryerson’s new student centre – leaving only photograph and memories of those huge, spinning, neon records, twinkling away in the night. However, for the multitudes of Torontonians that grew up with Sam’s as the cool place to be, those memories will remain especially strong.

mirror’s edge

Chicago is known in the world of architecture as the birthplace of the modern skyscraper. The motivating force behind much of this vertical way of thinking was one of the most destructive events in the history of the United States as a whole – the Great Chicago Fire. In rebuilding itself from the cinders of the inferno, the city began reaching ever higher. Architects like Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan dreamed up ever taller edifices, financed by railroad and steel money pouring into the reborn city’s affluent upper crust. Before long, the city was home to artificial canyons, the sunlight at ground level dictated by the heights of the soaring buildings lining the streets. By the time the 1990s came to an end, Chicago was host to not only the tallest building in the world (at the time, the Sears Tower), but an entire skyline full of towering monoliths of glass, steel, and concrete.

Click on any photo in this post to view it large on black.

My experience with rooftopping began in Toronto back in 2009, giving rise to my current habit of getting on the tops of buildings in pursuit of photographs. Late winter 2011 saw an opportunity to visit Chicago – fertile ground for seeking heights. With only a few days to spend in the Windy City, plans to this end needed to be made carefully. Tops on the list for this trip was a 40-odd story skyscraper conveniently located on Michigan Avenue, the ‘Magnificent Mile’. This glittering strip of pavement is one of the most expensive streets in the world for real estate; a mere square foot of room on this high-rolling boulevard will cost you a cool $127/mo in rent. Let me put that into context: this absurd going rate means that a tiny 250ft² shoebox of an apartment would cost you more than $30000 every month. Well-heeled is a nice way of describing the residents of this street; however, despite all the massive piles of cash money all over Michigan Avenue, the best views here cannot be purchased; they must be attained.

I headed to the building in question (which I will refer to as the H) to see what the upper reaches of the stairwells held in store. It was late afternoon, the lobby packed with travelers and patrons for the establishment’s swanky first-floor bar. Thankfully, the herd of people made it easy to dodge the prying eyes of the concierge and head for the lifts. The ride up the elevator to the top floor (a base camp, so to speak) is one of the best parts of rooftopping – nothing but anticipation and butterflies in one’s stomach as the numbers tick upwards.

The door opened at my floor with an insistent *ding*, and out I went. The corridor seemed to be vacant, save for a housekeeper’s cart propping open a door on the far end. Unfortunately, this next part gets a bit fuzzy (funny how that works), but the next thing I can remember, the roof door was opening and I was face-to-face with Chicago’s Near North side. Paydirt.

The next day, I hopped an ‘L’ train and headed into the city to revisit the H after dark. However, the central Loop neighborhood was my first destination as the sun began to drop behind the artificial horizon of Chicago’s skyline. So named for the layout of the elevated railway encircling it, the Loop is the center of Chicago, and home to many of its tallest buildings. However, sometimes in the quest for ever greater heights, it’s easy to forget the shorter buildings that offer cityscapes that are just as appealing. Blue hour was fast approaching, so I made for some strategically located rooftops near the elevated.

After dark, I met up with Katherine of Chicago and headed for the H’s now neon infused rooftop. The mob that had been in the lobby the previous day was still present albeit in smaller size, allowing us to once again take the lifts all the way up. A few minutes later, out into the frigid night we went, the world suddenly shrinking as the door opened to the seemingly endless cityscape. This was a scene I was not prepared for; the jaw-dropping, brightly lit vistas on the skyscrapers to our north and south and the great, tangled blanket of streetlights in the neighborhoods and suburbs to the west.

While some fellow rooftoppers have used the fisheye lens to great effect, as of late I’ve been a fan of the multi-shot panorama. The idea here is to pivot the camera around on the tripod through a given arc, taking overlapping images all the way across. These images are then combined (after a lot of thinking by my computer) into a single image.

Bear in mind this image is actually much larger than this blog will hold, so I strongly recommend clicking on this one to view large.

Chicago is not a city known for its mild winters, and tonight, the arctic blast coming off of Lake Michigan was amplified threefold by the heights. After our fingers were good and numb, we descended back to the street below, the clueless concierge politely holding the doors open for us as we exited.

Michigan Avenue at ground level is something altogether different, our peaceful rooftop sanctuary replaced by honking taxis and hapless tourists stumbling all over the sidewalks. Ah, well…there’s always tomorrow night!

toronto heights

Canada’s largest city is home to some of the tallest skyscrapers in North America. Besides the instantly recognizable CN Tower, lesser-known edifices like the Bay Adelaide Centre and Commerce Court still crack the 700 foot (210m) mark. Recently, the rooftops of Toronto have been fertile ground for fellow photogs; Toronto has been called the best city for rooftopping in the world. It’s easy to see why: a downtown core full of tall buildings and cranes (engaged in the process of making more tall buildings), the potential for fantastic, brilliantly lit nighttime cityscapes, and a certain degree of luck with roof access doors. It’s a cocktail that goes down smooth every time.

After cracking Millbrook Prison with some of Toronto’s finest explorers, I went in search of a new point of view on the concrete canyons I’d been exploring at ground level for the last week. Joined by Jono and Dresden (names changed for mystery’s sake), we set our sights on the modestly tall CF Tower – a 36 floor monolith of steel and glass right smack in the middle of Toronto on Queen Street East. Past the security desk and into the elevators went the three of us, and a short vertical ride later, we were facing down the last door between us and the sky. Jono turned the handle, the catch drew back unhindered by a lock, and the magic portal was opened.

parapet
Three of Toronto’s tallest buildings keep watch over the city; from l-r, Scotia Plaza (902 ft/275m), Bay Adelaide West (715 ft/218m), and First Canadian Place (978 ft/298m). To the right of the downtown core is the CN Tower, dwarfing the skyscrapers at more than 1800 ft (550m) high.

From up here, perspective definitely changes. Aside from the sheer height (for reference, 465.88 ft/142m), turning all the pedestrians and streetcars below into pawns on a child’s play set, there exists up here a strange kind of solitude. Toronto at ground level is a busy, sometimes frenetic environment; people rushing everywhere with something to do, drivers cutting off each other in attempts to make green lights, the sound of streetcars clanking down Queen East, music, everything. However, at this moment, on this rooftop, there were only the three of us, and for all we cared we could be the only people in the city. The only sounds up here were the occasional *whirrrrrr* from the elevator machinery nearby, the muffled, reverberating soundtrack to the city below, and the rush of the wind coming off the lake, intensified by our present altitude. The roof was a fantastic perch, ringed by a small rail system used to carry the equipment needed to lower the window washers on their rounds. This ring of metal, as luck would have it, made an excellent place to anchor tripods.

Downtown Toronto was just starting to empty its buildings of cubicle dwellers, so the three of us decided to slip out among them, saying goodbye before heading off to catch subways and streetcars destined for far-flung parts of the city. Later that evening, Dresden and I headed for the King Edward to meet up with Hilite and pay a visit to not only the long-abandoned 17th floor ballroom, but the summit of the building itself. The King Eddy, which opened in 1903, is one of Toronto’s oldest and most well-heeled hotels. We dressed up for the occasion, my pea coat and D’s leather gloves and classy scarf passing the rich test given to us by the eyes of the front desk concierge as we walked in. We proceeded up the elevator, down a hallway to an out-of-the-way stairwell, and up another flight of stairs until we found an unlocked door to the vaunted 17th floor. We were in.


The King Eddy’s Crystal Ballroom was last used in 1978.
Dresden gets up close and personal with Toronto.

Farther up the magical staircase, another unlocked door led us to the room housing the hotel’s six humming elevator motors. Yet another door, again mysteriously unlocked, let us out into the chilly, cloudless night. From up here, the sleepy city still buzzed, illuminated from all sides by thousands of lights. The view from up here was simply staggering.


Couldn’t resist a little self-portraiture.


Dresden and Hilite make their way back down the magic stairwell.

After paying a visit to the Eddy, we made tracks to a pho restaurant just inside the Kensington Market neighbourhood. Out came big bowls of steaming broth, noodles and meat, and over these tasty midnight munchies we traded war stories, reminisced about long-demolished sites, and talked shop (all of us having some photographic pursuits). Toronto is known as the cradle of organized urban exploration, and the explorers who call this city their home are always knowledgeable about what’s under the surface of their glittering metropolis. Hilite was no exception; calm, well-spoken, and with his finger on the pulse of the city, intent on getting to the bottom (or the top) of whatever urban mission he set himself on. Our conversation was laced with names like Consumers’ Glass, the Royal Constellation, and the legendary Malt. Some of these places would see visits before my departure from Canada, but which to choose? Our bowls now dry of soup, Dresden and I said our goodbyes to our comrade and headed off to the subway again, retreating to the dark reaches off of Bloor Street to make our plans for the next night.