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.

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.

gilman: no man’s land

«Second in a two-part series on Gilman»

When one hears the words ‘ghost town’, the first image to come to mind is usually a small collection of log cabins high in the mountains, perhaps clustered around a rickety old wooden mine headframe; maybe a crumbling stone old-West-style jail house. The mining town of Gilman takes those stereotypes and throws them completely out the window. Its sheer size is staggering, even to those accustomed to exploring abandoned structures. More than 60 extant buildings remain in the town, many of them in remarkable shape.

In 2010, I went with three friends to explore this relic of the Rockies. The trick with Gilman is knowing where to stash your ride – too close, and the ever vigilant Colorado Highway Patrol will catch you, too far, and the hike in will take more time than it’s worth. We compromise. Our car was carefully hidden, locked up and left for the night, and we started the hike to the town.

strategic beer command: tactical insertion

Main Street was the center of everyday life in Gilman. The New Jersey Zinc offices, as well as a general store, boarding house, and the town’s prized bowling alley were all here. From the moment you arrive, the weathered appearance of the town makes the atmosphere a bit spooky. This is the original nucleus of the town, the part that burnt to ashes back in 1900 only to quickly spring again from the mountainside. The town’s boarding house may have been built on the site of the Iron Mask Hotel, which survived the fire only to be demolished later. During the town’s working days, this building was home to miners who didn’t have anywhere else to stay; rookies, transients, bachelors who needed the cheap rent. It was dorm-style living, with a bathroom at the end of the hallway, communal kitchen, and one hell of a view. We found ourselves a room in the newly christened Gilman Mountain Hostel and dropped our gear.

slummin' it

room with a view

At the far end of Main Street, just down the slope, there is a nondescript two-story concrete building. This was the science lab for the mine, fully equipped for testing whatever ore samples the miners brought up. The upper floor is set up much like a high school chemistry classroom, but with broken beakers and test tubes littering the floor and rusted gas pipes winding their way through the fixtures like decaying metal serpents. The most striking thing about this building, however, was the masses of X-rays littering the entire lower floor. The miners were required to get regular X-rays to check for things like abnormalities in their lungs (most of the negatives on the floor are miners’ chests), and now after 27 years, the thousands upon thousands of negatives lay strewn all over the floor.


Back up the street is the town’s club house and bowling alley. This was a showpiece for the town, the place that the miners, their families, and residents from nearby communities could come to enjoy themselves. The alley had two lanes, each operated by hand – in its latter days it was one of the few in the state to still use pin boys. At one time, Gilman boasted mens’ and womens’ leagues that went all over the state racking up trophies. A feature in the 15 June 1975 edition of the Rocky Mountain News had this to say:

The clubhouse has meeting rooms, the town library, a ping pong table, a runty basketball court with two baskets that are hardly visible because of ceiling beams and pipes plus a bowling alley.

Gilman’s two-lane bowling facility is the last of its kind in Colorado. Pins are set by pin boys, the ball return mechanism is antique and a chalk stand is located on the approach. A tele-score table and screen help remind bowlers they are living in the age of technology.”
– Rocky Mountain News, 15 June 1975

These days the lanes are quiet, the basketball court replaced by a MacGyvered skatepark made by some local kids. The chalk scoreboard still remains, though, and now serves as the guestbook for the town. I have a neat row of dates under my name on the right side – nine? Ten? I’ve lost count.

We headed next for the shaft house, a fairly conspicuous building closer to the highway which was the epicenter for mining in the town. The shaft house lies on the edge of what we refer to as the far side of the town – much more exposure, less cover to use. This is the part of Gilman that greets you as you round the curve on Highway 24, the ghost town’s most public face. Also, the only access lies down a steep, heavily forested hill which (it being autumn) was already mostly devoid of foliage. Anyone on the highway could easily pick out four figures running (hopefully not falling) down the hill to the safety of the shaft house. However sometimes, as dsankt of puts it, you just have to roll the dice and run for it. We left the safety of the trees and sprinted down the open hillside into the shelter of the shaft house’s open garage doors.

The Eagle’s main lifts took only three minutes to drop the miners four hundred feet straight down into the darkness to what was known as ’16 Level’ – the heart of the mine, though by no means its deepest point. The lifts were winched up and down by huge motors that pulled the cable over a massive pulley in the top of the shaft house. These lifts have been locked at the top level since the last day of the mine, held by a few inches of steel above what may as well be the bottomless pit.


the bottomless pit

The shaft house also held locker rooms, showers, and everything else the miners would need to do their jobs. Boxes of respirators and hard hats, bags of cement – even a forklift remain where they were left after the last workers turned off the lights and walked away. The intervening years have not been kind to parts of the structure, and a partial roof collapse has turned the attached locker room into something straight from a B-grade slasher movie.

the gauntlet

Today, the mine itself is sealed and flooded, filled with water by the Environmental Protection Agency as part of their cleanup of the complex. The site was added to the Superfund list of heavily contaminated properties almost as soon as it was closed. This is much of the reason that the town remains off-limits; the soil has higher-than-acceptable concentrations of heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and cadmium. I wouldn’t lick the rocks.

Farther down the slope, a few rows of nearly intact houses beckoned. Because of the steepness of the terrain, they are arranged in terrace-like rows, still stubbornly clinging to the side of the mountain after 27 years of neglect. This sprint was steeper and much longer than the first, and consisted mostly of fist- to grapefruit-sized hunks of sharp, loose rock. We took the dice in hand once again, waited for our move, and rolled ’em. Down the slope we went.

These houses are almost as they were when their owners walked away almost thirty years ago. While the elements have taken an inevitable toll on them, their remoteness and visibility means that they have been largely passed up by the vandals and scrappers that have ravaged the rest of the town. No graffiti, unsmashed toilets and sinks, even intact windows – unheard of on Main Street. These houses would have been owned by the higher-ups at the mine: superintendents, foremen, company bosses and the like.

the far side

We regrouped back up at the shaft house, having nearly been sighted charging back up the hill from the houses below. Our light was fading fast, the sun already approaching the tops of the massive peaks that surrounded us. It was time for us to go the hobo way and return to our impromptu hostel for the night. As the sun set, we cracked a few beers and waited for the innumerable stars of the Rocky Mountain night to appear. Tomorrow, we would descend to the canyon floor in search of entry to the world’s largest underground mill – Belden. Stay tuned.


For more photographs of Gilman, click here.


In the years following World War II, the United States Air Force began developing a new weapon based on two existing ones: the V-2 rocket from Germany (built by a man named Werner von Braun – who later designed the Saturn V moon rocket after being granted asylum by the U.S. after WWII), and the most terrible of all weapons ever devised by men, the nuclear bomb. The fusion of these two technologies was a simple idea, really: make a missile that could be guided to a target, and strap a nuke on the front.

The crew entrance to an abandoned Titan I missile silo in the middle of nowhere, Colorado.

What they came up with around 1955 was a twofold program. The Atlas missile, which was lighter (its skin was no thicker than a US dime or UK 5p coin) and had less payload, and the appropriately named Titan missile. The Titan was built to be the Atlas’ big brother – bigger warhead, more range, hardened shelters (ie: underground silos).

Layout of a typical Titan I complex. The silos were built to a cartoonishly big, evil-villain-hideout scale, with three silos and over a mile of connecting tunnels. (USAF)

Each had a two stage liquid fueled rocket with a range of 5,500 nautical miles (10,200 km); more than enough to get the warhead to the heart of Mother Russia. The propellants, cryogenic liquid oxygen and RP-1 (which is basically super-refined kerosene), were tough to handle since they ignited on contact – and they packed a wallop. The first test facility at Vandenburg AFB was destroyed when its missile was lowered into its silo too quickly – rupturing its skin and allowing the propellants to mix. The result was a blast which threw the silo cap hundreds of feet into the air – in several multi-ton pieces. Ouch.

These missiles were deployed for the first time to silos at Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado in early 1960. Through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Titans at Lowry stood on launch alert 24 hours a day – ready to send the 4 megatons of apocalyptic fire attached to each missile straight to Havana, or Moscow, or practically anywhere else in the world President Kennedy wanted to send them.

The Titan I missiles at Lowry complex 724A stand at attention for the USAF brass in 1960. This was the ready position for the missiles, poised at the tops of their huge elevators. (USAF)

After they were closed down in 1965 – that’s right, just five years later – the land was sold to various farmers who did some salvage work, usually taking copper piping and the steel plate floors from their silos. In this case, Farmer Bob dug up one of the giant diesel tanks that held fuel for the complex’s generators. The resulting giant hole in the ground gave us an access point that is found in no other Titan site – a maintenance corridor to the second floor of the power dome, a giant 60-foot-tall room that held the generators for the complex.

One warm May night, we ventured out into the moonlit Eastern plains of Colorado to explore this relic of the Cold War. The team that night consisted of myself, Tunnelbug from California, Secretdestroyers from Pittsburgh, and locals Lexiphoto and Orogeny. We parked our jeep a mile from the site and began the long walk back in.

After finding our entrance, we emerged from the maintenance corridor and descended the steep stairway from the second level to the first of the powerhouse. Condensation drops clung to every surface, giving off an unearthly shimmer wherever the light from our headlamps touched them. The scale was immense. We stood in a room 60 feet high by 160 feet across, 40 feet underground in the middle of Farmer Bob’s field.

The 60-foot-high powerhouse of complex 725B. The ring around the top of the dome held a gantry crane used to move heavy machinery around in the limited space.

The complex smelled of all sorts of nastiness. These silos were laden with PCBs, asbestos, airborne lead, diesel, and all manner of chemical solvents. Our respirators were quickly donned, and added yet one more layer of unearthliness to the expedition. We were visitors in a very alien place, one which few are privileged (or stupid) enough to see; a place that once held the power to end the world – literally. Though the weapons once housed here contained weapons-grade plutonium, thankfully there is no danger from residual radiation. One less thing to worry about, at least.

These blast doors still moved without a squeak after 65 years underground.

The tunnels were damp, but passable. The steel plate floors of the complex had long since been scrapped, so we were reduced to walking on the dirt of the tunnel floor. Tunnel junctions were a different story, as they were dug deeper to accommodate the various fuel and electrical lines. 65 years later, through water infiltration and seepage, they had become moats. Due to the lack of floors, these moats require a special method of movement to conquer them: beam walking. Keep your feet parallel on the steel beams traversing the moat, shuffling along so as not to lose balance. It gets easier with practice.

Danarchy crosses a tunnel junction moat on Expedition #2. All forms of nastiness reside in the “water” beneath his feet.

Control lines for the missiles remain intact.

The Titan Is were guided to their targets, but unlike today’s smart bombs and missiles, the invisible hand directing the flight was not in the missile, but on the ground. Two smaller silos at the far end of the longest tunnel in the complex held radio antennas that would beam target information to the missiles in flight, as they cruised high above the Earth’s atmosphere. Though these silos were now empty, they still made for good light painting practice.

Lighting up the nearly half-mile long tunnel to the antenna silos.

Up top, these concrete targets were used to calibrate the radars and computers that guided the missiles.

The missile silos themselves loomed ahead. 160 feet from top to bottom, they originally held a complex latticework of steel that supported the giant rocket within it. The Titans did not burst from their silos on a pillar of flame like later ICBMs. The missiles were fueled in their holes, and huge hydraulic rams would move the immense reinforced concrete doors covering the silo. After the doors were opened, the missiles would be hoisted up to the surface on a massive elevator attached to the cribbing, and launched. The whole process took 15 minutes for the first missile, and 7 minutes each for the last two. Only one could be armed and fired at a time. This lengthy procedure was one reason they went obsolete so quickly, the other being the liquid fuel. Liquid oxygen had to be kept at cryogenic temperatures requiring a lot of specialized equipment, and could not be stored in the missiles. By the time the Titans went on line, the next generation of solid-fuel ICBMs were already being designed. The Titan Is would soon be obsolete, replaced by the solid-fueled Titan IIs, which remained in the USAF arsenal until 1987.

In here was the rocket itself, and at one time the massive cribwork containing it. (photo: tunnelbug)

What once held an unbelievable destructive force was now slowly filling with water. During the rainy season, or after the spring snowmelt, some of the silos fill almost to the tunnel level with water, then they drain through the myriad cracks in the concrete walls. Some enterprising silo owners have converted these to indoor SCUBA tanks, but this one was now a watery graveyard for whatever animal was unlucky enough to tumble into the darkness. We stood 40 feet under the surface, with 120 feet worth of tangled metal and water below. It was an awe-inspiring experience knowing that this place once held such a terrible power. Each Titan I missile carried a 4 megaton thermonuclear warhead – more than enough to turn Moscow or St. Petersburg into a glowing, radioactive mass. The Little Boy bomb that leveled Hiroshima was a mere firecracker at 15 kilotons. 1 megaton of explosive equivalent, when converted to commercial kilowatt-hours, produces enough energy to power the average American house for 103,474 years. And this complex housed not one, but three of these bastards. Walking with a big stick indeed.

The control center was our last stop, a two story structure similar in size to the power dome, but a bit smaller. Its panels and computers long since removed, the nerve center of the complex was now home to graffiti, dead snakes, and empty beer cans. What must have gone through the minds of the men charged with the duty of being ready to annihilate the world I can only imagine.

The entrance to the two-level control dome.

The photographers take their shots in the control center.

These racks held launch control computers and telephone equipment.

We emerged from the silo around 4am, exhausted and smelling like eighteen different kinds of chemicals, but with a new respect for the ground beneath our feet which holds a testament to the destructive power of men – and the sheer ridiculousness of the nuclear arms race. All those millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars were spent on holes in the ground which were only ‘useful’ for five years. Now this huge facility rusts in the ground, only giving up its secrets to those brave (or stupid) enough to enter.

More photos from inside the silo right here.

the King’s throne

A merciless rain drenched the Long Island Railroad station at Kings Park, New York as E and myself sipped our corner store tea under an awning. The sun had long since set, and we still had twenty minutes of waiting in the downpour before the next train arrived to take us back to Brooklyn. The day had been long but successful, with marauding patrols dodged and landmark buildings explored. My first attempt at photographing a classic east coast asylum, and E’s first attempt at any urban exploring whatsoever had gone off without a hitch.

Kings Park Psychiatric Center is one of a string of huge mental institutions built on Long Island in the late 1800s along with Pilgrim State Hospital and Central Islip Psychiatric Center, as well as Edgewood State Hospital (built in the early ’40s).  For much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these institutions held thousands of patients, sent there from the teeming asylums closer to New York City to live and work on ‘farm colonies’ – at first the Long Island asylums were just that.  Patients would tend fields and livestock, build furniture and sew their own clothing.  During the early to mid 19th century, the campus was mostly comprised of small, scattered cottage-style buildings spread out over several hundred acres of land adjoining Smithtown Bay. When the state of New York took over the campus in 1895, it was renamed the Kings County Branch Asylum. The surrounding area, known at the time as Saint Johnland, was renamed as well at the behest of local residents who did not want their town and its railroad station associated with the asylum, giving the area and future township its current name: Kings Park.

The cottages that originally comprised Kings Park. The goliath Building 93 would later be built on this site. (courtesy LIOddities)

It was believed that this simple lifestyle had a curative effect on the patients, though the asylum’s remote location was no doubt also a form of banishment for some. In time, Kings Park eventually grew to be its own self-sustaining city.  It had its own power station, telephone exchange, even its own spur line off of the Long Island Railroad so coal (and initially, patients until buses took over) could be brought in by rail.  By the 1950s, the KPPC campus covered a huge area of northern Suffolk county, with more than 150 buildings dotting the rolling landscape.  Instead of growing outward, the hospital began to build upward, with the iconic 13-story Building 93 reaching skyward in 1939.  Designed by New York’s state architect, William E. Haugaard, Building 93 was for many years the geriatric ward, treating and housing patients older than 55. Along with 93, there were dedicated patient ward buildings, a fully-equipped medical/surgical building, a police and fire station, even a boathouse on the Nissequogue River.

Unfortunately, the same gremlins that plagued the east coast asylums were present at KPPC.  Overcrowding, the very reason that KPPC had been built in the first place, became a chronic problem. By 1931, almost 5800 patients were living at Kings Park – while the facility was only made to hold 3700. The problem was not confined to Kings Park – at the system’s peak in 1950, New York’s asylums held more than 33,000 patients, most in the teeming facilities on Long Island. Stories of patient mistreatment, widespread abuse of electroshock therapy and even unnecessary prefrontal lobotomies abounded, many of them bearing truth.

The development of antipsychotic drugs such as Thorazine in the 1960s was the nail in the coffin for Kings Park as well as the rest of the Long Island asylums. As drugs became more easily available, the asylums of the east coast began a process of ‘deinstitutionalization’ – in some cases transferring patients to facilities that were still open, like Pilgrim State farther down Long Island. Other patients were simply turned out on the streets, freshly inked prescriptions for drugs with names like Chlorpromazine or Haloperidol in hand. By the early 1990s, Kings Park Psychiatric Center (as it was now called) was only a shadow of its former self, with many of its hundreds of buildings already abandoned. Even Building 93 was not immune; it was slowly emptied of patients, its floors closed off one by one until, by 1990, only the first few were still occupied. In the fall of 1996, the state of New York transferred the last of the patients out, and the 111-year-old asylum was closed down and left to decay.

Earlier in the day, E and myself found our way by train from Brooklyn out to Long Island. The clouds in the distance menaced, but despite the weather we were determined to get into some mischief. The walk from the train station proved straightforward, and the two of us ventured up the road and into the massive campus. Most of the former hospital site was turned into the Nissequoge River State Park in 1996, so getting close to the buildings wasn’t difficult. Just over the ridge lay the first big edifice: Building 7, the medical building. E and I went around back to assess entry, but to our dismay, a pickup truck was waiting at the loading dock. Workers would be around, and getting in would be much harder with them nearby. We poked around for a moment, but no sooner had we tried a few doors than the 5-0 showed up.

why hello there!

Fortunately, they were friendly, and we chatted to the officers who approached us about the history surrounding the building we stood in front of. One of the deputies told us: “We see a lot of photographers out here, trying to get into the old buildings.” Funny how that works, I’ve no idea who’d do a thing like that. We, of course, promised to remain outside all the fences, and the cops headed off. We later saw the same two Suffolk County deputies we’d met hanging out on the roof of 7 – no doubt scoping out the KPPC campus from one of the best viewpoints around. As for us, we left the party and continued up the hill. We had business to attend to.

E checks a door at Building 23, the rec centre.

Building 93 looks great from out front. (Courtesy Brian Wasser via Wikipedia)

Building 93 is easily the most imposing of the extant buildings at KP. It towers over the campus with only the smokestack from the former power plant to challenge its rule. Though the building was surrounded by a fence that easily hit 15 feet, we had a mission. We pondered. We called our local contacts. We schemed. Eventually, we found a way through the fences and into the building, all the while keeping an eye out for the police we knew were now aware of our presence. We cracked 93, and the payoff was big.

The murals covering the walls of 93’s occupational therapy room are something of an enigma to this day. Though no one knows exactly who painted the figures on the wall, legend has it that a professional cartoonist was the creator. Percy Crosby, creator of the Skippy series of comics (yes, namesake of the peanut butter as well), was sent to Kings Park in January of 1949. He had been committed after an alleged suicide attempt following his mother’s death. At the recommendation of his uncle-in-law, Arthur Soper, Crosby was declared a paranoid schizophrenic by the state and confined to Kings Park indefinitely. Shady circumstances surrounded his confinement; for instance, the makers of Skippy peanut butter, Rosefield Packing Co., quickly trademarked the ‘Skippy’ name as their own, swearing under oath that no one else held claim to the name – certainly no one like Crosby, who at the time was still waiting for transfer to KPPC at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan after his suicide attempt only five days prior. Though he had been fighting Rosefield for years in court due to their use of the name, the peanut butter producers won out in the end. Crosby had been under audit by the IRS for tax purposes (an audit that some sources claim was politically motivated), and could not afford a legal fight from within the confines of the asylum.

In 1954, Rosefield sold the Skippy brand name to Corn Products Corporation (since renamed Best Foods Inc.) for $7.5 million (nearly $63m today).

Crosby died at Kings Park on 8 December 1964 from a heart attack. By virtue of his service in WWI, he was given a military burial at Pine Lawn Veterans Cemetery rather than in the asylum’s ‘potters field’ – where he would have been given a small grave marker with a number. It’s unknown as to whether he continued to work from the asylum; all incoming and outgoing mail was screened, so anything sent to publishers may have been lost before it ever left Kings Park. What he did leave behind, however, may be the mural covering the walls of the room E and myself found ourselves in. The sound of patients was long gone, their cries and murmurs now replaced by the sound of the rain outside and the occasional ‘shck-CHK’ of my shutter opening and closing.

The rain began to taper off briefly as we made good our escape from 93. As soon as it did, a low mist moved into take its place, giving the asylum an eerie air as we made our way back down Kings Park Boulevard to the train station. It seemed fitting, if slightly cliché. This place may have been a comfort for some, but for many it was no more than a prison, a place to be dreaded. Either way, Kings Park is a place with a certain character; its immensity is matched only by the emotional weight borne by the buildings. In the one hundred and twenty six years since its opening, Kings Park Psych had evolved from a collection of small cottages into a sprawling campus of more than a hundred buildings swarming with thousands of patients. It still remains to be seen what will become of the facility; various developers have made bids for the property (not counting the state park, owned by NY State), but nothing has materialized as of yet. For now, the asylum will continue to decay, visited only by the curious.

millbrook prison – lockdown

Prisons are not something usually associated with Canada, but even a country stereotyped as friendly and polite needs someplace to put all its evildoers.  Though Canada is not usually associated with the sort of violent criminal activity that has become expected in certain parts of its neighbor to the south, there are occasionally some people deemed as especially dangerous to be found up north. Naturally, with time, some of the prisons built to house these high-risk inmates become derelict, leaving behind huge, empty complexes which are difficult to reuse and stubborn to try to demolish.

The wide open farms of eastern Ontario spread out in front of us after we sped past the Toronto city limits, gunning our little Chevy down the 401.  The four of us in the car were heading into rural Ontario on the trail of an abandoned maximum security prison, formerly a place whose name once struck fear into the hearts of teenage hooligans and serial murderers alike: Millbrook Correctional Centre, known to its inmates as simply ‘the Brook’.

Millbrook’s back wall kept two worlds separate for 46 years. Shot on Kodak Ektachrome 100VS

Located far from any real population centers in the woods east of Toronto, Millbrook Correctional Centre was designed to be where Ontario (and occasionally the rest of Canada when there was a need) kept its most violent prisoners.  Opened in 1957 in response to a massive riot that ripped through Guelph Reformatory, Millbrook was purpose built to house the baddest of the bad, the inmates who could not be held anywhere else in the system.  Murderers and violent thugs rubbed shoulders with career burglars and rapists, eventually also mixing with people convicted of lesser offenses like drug crimes, simple assaults, and immigration violations. As increased loads placed on the prison system sent more and more people to the Brook, capacity increased from 268 to almost 500 inmates. 

Regardless of their crimes, new prisoners were tossed into solitary confinement upon arrival in what came to be called the Ontario Plan. Under a part of the Plan known as the Progressive Stage System, an inmate’s stay was divided into three phases, with the initial one being the most draconian.  Upon arrival at Millbrook, inmates would be put on a so-called ‘special diet’ for sixteen days: no letters, phone calls, or visitors; 24-hour-a-day lockdown inside a cell, and nothing to pass the time but a Bible. With good behavior and time, they were rewarded in later phases with things like library privileges, smokes, visitors, yard time, and at the top level, one outgoing letter a week and the opportunity to take correspondence courses from within the prison.

Conditions at Millbrook were notoriously harsh.  Things like personal toiletries and sweets were contraband, and the guards strictly regulated every detail down to how the inmates slept in their beds.  Part of the Ontario Plan meant “troublemakers” were classified (though not segregated in housing) into three groups: one for discipline problems, one for convicted sex offenders, and a third for inmates deemed to be homosexual. Psychological help and treatment was hard to come by, the staff overworked and underpaid.  In April of 2001, a 50-year-old Vietnamese immigration prisoner named Nguyen Cao Son died under ‘suspicious circumstances’ – sparking a hunger strike by around 60 inmates being held for related immigration offenses. In March of 2001, prisoners broke into one of the prison’s control rooms and unlocked a wing’s worth of cells – releasing 39 convicts into the halls of the jail. The inmates tried unsuccessfully to reach the outer yard, and after a few hours of rioting, finally returned to their cells. This incident, along with worsening labor relations between the provincial government and the Ontario public servants’ union made keeping the prison open harder and harder. Sure enough, by the end of 2003 Millbrook was shut down, the prisoners transferred away to jails in Kingston and Lindsay.

We climbed the hill through the trees to the prison, and slowly the imposing three-story-high brick walls came into view. All the doors were welded shut, and a walk around the perimeter quickly revealed our options were limited. After all, this was a compound designed to keep the world inside totally separate from what was outside. It was a fortress. But as with all castles, the walls were eventually breached. We found ourselves a well-placed chink in Millbrook’s armor, and into the penitentiary we went.

Inside, the prison was eerily chilly. The thick walls of cinder blocks and reinforced concrete insulated the cold air inside from the warm spring sunshine. One hallway was covered in a layer of ice two inches thick, trapping a fire hose in its grip.  Mid April didn’t seem so bright inside the bone-chillingly cold halls of the prison.

The prison’s maximum security wings were wide open, all the cell doors locked ajar by the last wardens to leave. The slots in the doors would have been the inmates’ only portal to the outside world, save for a window that looked out on the yard. No doubt a depressing way to spend 20 years to life.

Millbrook’s Solitary Confinement wing – known nowadays as a SHU (Special Handling Unit).

The prison was a self-sustaining city of sorts, maintained largely by the inmates themselves as part of the Ontario Plan’s emphasis on rehabilitation through education and vocational training.  Within its walls were kitchens, medical facilities, and a machine shop that, until 2000, made most of Ontario’s license plates.  An equipment malfunction that year left the province short of plates by 100,000 or so.  When three outside workers were brought into the prison to help make up the difference, all sorts of health and safety types cried foul, and the presses fell silent soon after, with production shifting to a private contractor.  It was one more thorn in the side of the wardens, and only added to government pressure to close the facility.

The beauty of an abandoned prison is that when all the doors are left open, one can see both sides of the same coin. The guards at Millbrook enjoyed several towers where they could survey the sprawling complex of buildings. Central locking stations, like the one the prisoners stormed in 2002, made their jobs easier and arguably a bit safer, allowing all the doors in a given wing to be controlled from a single room rather than risking an inmate stealing the keys. At the time Millbrook was built, these central monitoring systems had only begun to make their debut onto the penitentiary scene, and the new prison received the state-of-the-art systems as they were developed.

We escaped Millbrook without being descended on by the black helicopters of the Ontario Provincial Police (which, I’ve been told, besieged a team that went a few weeks prior to us) or the residents of the town itself. Our attention turned back to the glittering skyscrapers of Toronto, titans that begged us to stand upon their shoulders, their skeletons of concrete, steel and glass towering above us like giant futuristic sentinels. We would soon oblige them.

See more postcards from the joint right here.

**Update – 24 May 2015***

I have received word from Ontario that Millbrook Correctional Centre has finally begun to fall to the wrecking ball. After spending more than $70,000 every year since its closure on the site, the provincial government found the means and time to level the complex piece by piece.

From the demolition plan:

“This project involves the deconstruction and demolition of the main complex of buildings and fire training tower as well as the removal of all roads including the main “ring” road, transformers, septic beds and lagoons, all wells and storm water management systems. The design approach was first to de-construct the site by identifying what can be reused/recycled/diverted from landfill. Environmental remediation work was identified in a phase 1 and 2 ESA and is included in the scope of work. This work includes the clean up in the lagoons, septic beds, former dumpster area, onion field and sand pit, creek area, powerhouse area and sludge beds. Work will also be required under the fire tower.”

Though plans for its reuse have not been finalized, sources indicate that either a local sports center or a large-scale marijuana grow-op are both potential contenders for the site’s final disposition.

Check out some current photos of Millbrook’s dismantling over at Jermalism (scroll down to the bottom for the demolition pics).