The Old Railroad Tower

For several years now I’ve been meaning to photograph the old train station on Water Street in the old part of Charlottesville. After a routine doctor’s appointment this morning I drove over to that part of town and went into the old building—the facade of which was a fairly standard neo-classic architecture. I found the interior had been transformed into offices.

“”The new train station is about a mile and a half that way,” a very nice lady in one of the offices told me—as she pointed in a westerly direction along the tracks which still ran by behind the structure.

It was hot this morning—but not as hot as it very often is in central Virginia in the summer time—so I wandered out back to the railroad yard behind the old building to see what was there to photograph. Probably the tracks and equipment out back were pretty much the same as years ago when the station was in business.

My wife remembers the station in those days very well. About 10 years ago she arrived in Charlottesville on the train (this was long before we met) about the time it was getting dark to find herself in an empty station in an old part of town that was then dirty, run-down and ominous if not dangerous.

These days—since the urban restoration—it’s quite pleasant, clean, safe and busy. But 10 years ago it was a scary situation for a woman alone. She and another young woman had to wait an uncertain length of time for their rides to pick them up. They agreed that, whoever’s ride got there first—that person would remain until the other’s ride arrived. It worked out fine—there were no problems on that occasion.

I wandered east on the south side of the tracks finding interesting railroad scrap, junk and equipment lying around and there were a dozen or so tank cars a few hundred yards down the tracks with interesting graffiti spray-painted on them.

But by far the most intriguing and photographically fruitful discovery was an old concrete coal tower—standing I guess 80 or 90 feet high—a 6 or 8 minute walk down the rails. I crossed over the tracks to the north side to get closer to the obviously abandoned, grim old structure.

I vaguely remembered hearing or reading the tower—locally referred to simply as “The Railroad Tower”—had a dark history. I briefly researched the archives of the local paper—The Charlottesville Daily Progress and found the following excerpt:

“At one point, developer Oliver Kuttner hoped to fix up the tower to live in, but those plans fell through. And in 2001, it was the site of a double murder that spurred two standoffs with police before the killer, Craig Edmund Nordensen, surrendered. Nordensen, who lived as a vagrant on and off in the tower, was sentenced to two life terms in prison.”

Here’s the link if you’re interested:

As I approached the curious structure I noticed two vultures sitting in a broken-out window and at the immediate base of the structure it is surrounded by an 8 foot high chain link fence with barbed wire at the top and there is no gate—no way to get inside the fence. I’ve never seen a space or structure contained by a fence with no way to gain access to the space inside.

Standing back a bit I took a number of wide and close-up (detail) shots. As I was shooting a girl came walking by—she looked to be in her late teens, early twenties wearing a book-type back pack (probably a UVa student). She stopped and looked up at the birds,

“Are those vultures?” she called to me.

“Yeah,” I returned as I stood studying the windows with the watching buzzards in them about 40 or 45 feet above the tracks.

“Cool,” she responded and continued walking east.

I finished up my shooting of the tower and walked west back toward the former train station building following the path the girl had taken to get to the tower.

A few hundred feet easterly, the gravel of the railroad yard ended and a beaten path through grass and small trees paralleling Water Street picked up—the girl had almost certainly followed it. It brought to mind a phenomenon from childhood I hadn’t thought about in a number of decades.

As a kid walking and riding a bike around my neighborhood and the part of town we lived in, there were trails we kids (and probably more than a few adults) used that grew up spontaneously through woods, vacant lots, fields, across open commercial property as we went about our travels and movements. These typically were cut-throughs or short cuts that were more direct than the regular paved streets and side walks that virtually always were constructed at right angles. I remember these spontaneous paths emerging were ever people needed a more efficient walking route to routine places (school, stores, homes etc.) or to “unofficial” (for want of a better term) places like swimming or fishing holes on local creeks and rivers or cool trees to climb.

I remember reading an article about an architect or engineer who built a campus or complex of buildings but deliberately left out any walkways. He/she just let the people using the buildings determine their own natural routes then paved those. Pretty smart!

These informal, spontaneous paths/routes are a naturally occurring component of our constructed or demarcated environment that no one seems to talk much about—a whole network of movement through the weeds and trash, along railroad tracks, behind vacant buildings, through holes in fences, up and down creek banks—that lies along side and outside of the formal, proscribed route structure institution of our society. In many parts of the world I’m sure it’s the only network of movement. I also remember reading about the movements of hobos following these same networks of trails and paths to the places outside of official, respectable society that they frequent—vacant buildings they might stay in, hobo camps where they would congregate etc.

That old tower—abandoned from use—standing on the peripheries of the official, formal world of right-angle streets and sidewalks—was one of those places on one of those routes. I had heard vagrants and run-away kids stayed in that structure of abandonment, decay, darkness—outside of the clean, well-lit, relatively safe world. It was a place of death too—as it happens. We know two people died there—who knows what else happened in the concrete silence behind the vultures.

Fascinating as these places and spaces are I was glad to find my way back to the parking lot where my truck was waiting and drive back to my warm, clean home on a right-angle street. Places like the old tower are interesting places to visit, photograph and write about but I wouldn’t want to live—or die—there.

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