Last year, I made the longest journey ever taken in my trusty FJ Cruiser to a remote town in West Virginia called Moundsville. I had never heard of it prior to an offer I received from a flickr contact who was planning a trip to shoot its famous prison. After some fairly effortless travel coordinating, I set out on a Friday night in April for the first leg of my thirteen-hour journey from Cape Cod.
I awoke in Allentown Pennsylvania having made it that far the prior evening. This is what I considered to be a three-leg journey. Leg one was complete; leg two would lead me to airport in Pittsburg where I would pick up Mike Cooper. From there, we’d make a short run of the final leg, which would put us in Moundsville. By five o’clock that evening we had arrived at the Sleep Inn conveniently located in the Moundsville Wal-Mart parking lot.
The following day we made a trip the West Virginia Penitentiary, our primary destination for this visit. This sprawling, historic facility has been long since closed as a prison. Now, it serves a few functions such as a training facility for police and guards from other correctional facilities. On some nights, folks interested in tracking down ghosts and other oddities can explore parts of the building.
We took the daytime tour which was hosted by a former employee of the facility. There were no children in our group so we likely got some of the stories reserved for adult-only groups that covered cheerful topics such as murders, assaults, riots, horrible conditions and what landed some of the more famous residents at the prison. Needless to say, most of the stories painted a picture of a horrible place to stay. It’s no wonder ghost hunters and the like enjoy frequenting this place. It just so happens that night photographers often tread where ghost hunters journey and this is what allowed us to gain access to the prison grounds for a few hours after dark. The property managers are all too happy to offer nighttime access for a fee. Taking the day tour allowed us to get a good perception of the layout and give some ideas as to where we’d spend our time.
Most of my trips to the world of abandonment involve visiting old buildings out west. Very little scouting is done beyond reviewing images that other photographers have shot there or speaking to them about their experience. There’s a “watch your back” mindset that is ever present. Are those headlights coming toward us? Was that a coyote? Is our vehicle safe? While it does add some excitement to the experience, it also requires hyper focus and vigilance in paying attention to your surroundings. I wouldn’t say it takes away from the creative process all that much but it also can keep you from really absorbing the moment like I might be able to do here on Cape Cod. This night would be different though. We’d been granted legal and unchaperoned access to several parts of the building including cellblocks, cafeterias and prison grounds within the walls. The forecast for the evening was overcast. We were going to spend most of our time inside anyway but part of me was hoping to see what this place would look like as moonlight broke through the prison glass and lit old cement walls and floors. This would also stop any attempt to shoot the outer grounds simply due to misty conditions and nearby light pollution. On the flip side, we were going to have some very dark rooms to light paint. That was an exciting prospect.
We returned later that evening at sunset following dinner at a local Mexican restaurant. The prison employee met us at the main door and went over the necessary paperwork and conditions attached to our visit. After a few minutes of chatting, we began our trek into the prison. Also happening that night was some sort of “escape room” event in another part of the building, which explained the number of cars in the lot. No matter to us as we were several walls away on a different floor.
Flashlights and camera gear in hand, our first stop was in the prison’s old post office space. There was a tiny iron window area through which mail was handed through and this was attached to a larger sorting area. As you would expect, the walls were textured with thick, peeling paint strips thanks to the high humidity levels often found throughout the facility. It had the smell of old wood and plaster, dust and paint. Most places looked like this, with the exception of the cafeteria that had held up quite well probably due to having been the newer part of the property. Across the hall was a massive iron door. All though we could see through it to the stairs beyond, it was locked as the area behind it was deemed to be unsafe. Some of the floors above had collapsed due to roof damage. We weren’t going to be able to go up there.
While shooting this area, a guard from a nearby facility who Mike had met during a previous visit arrived to check on us after learning of our arrival. This turned out to be a great opportunity because he had keys to doors we would not have otherwise had gotten passed. He led us up the stairs to what was a former medical ward. In one room was an exam table, in another a chair for a similar purpose and in another there was the remnants of the prison’s dentist office. There were also a lot of bats flying around, hanging around and just generally being everywhere we seemed to go. I watched Mike use a piece of cardboard and his Protomachine LED flashlight to light and photograph three bathroom stalls. Despite the subject matter, I think that shot ended up being the best of his for the trip. We spent a good chunk of our time shooting this floor, listening to the stories told to us by Mike’s friend about various things that had happened on that floor over the years, before heading back down stairs for a visit to the cellblock closest to the entrance. At one point, I made a slight detour to hit the cafeteria. Because of its newer construction, I didn’t find it as interesting and worked my way back to the general area where I knew Mike to be. I also took a minute to pop outside to verify the conditions were still less than ideal for exterior shooting. They were and so I continued to what would be the final location of our four-hour visit.
We took turns shooting various cells and angles in that final block. This is where I would have loved to see moonlight streaming through the massive, tall windows in this part of the prison. Regardless, the excessively dark spaces gave us a blank canvas to light and for the next hour or so, that’s exactly what we did.
Around midnight, we called it quits per our agreement with the contract we had signed. That last hour really flew by and it seemed like things were coming to a quick end when we were just hitting our stride. I think we both agreed that we could have easily banged out an eight-hour shoot here. Once we exited the main doors back to the parking lot, it was back to the truck and a short drive back to hotel.
The next night was wide open as far as plans went. We hadn’t found a lot in the immediate area after doing some scouting the previous day. After a good night’s sleep, we started looking online to see what might be available. It didn’t take long to find Cass on the map. Sure, it was over four hours away but it did have steam-powered locomotives, an old factory building, a vintage water tower and a train station. I knew that we were most certainly opting out of any useful sleep the following night by committing to an eight hour round trip drive but when would be have this opportunity again? We left Moundsville around noon and headed south to Cass across interstates, over mountains and through small towns. We arrived at about four o’clock and in time to talk to the Cass State Park employee on duty, plead our case and get permission to shoot the railroad grounds. At this point, we had nearly three hours to burn before nightfall. There was no cell phone service here, which made any sort of further research impossible. We did a quick scout and headed to the closest gas station just a few miles away from the massive Greenbank Radio Telescope. I had always wanted to see this place but never really paid attention to where it was…and suddenly, there it was! On the way back to the railroad property, I spotted an old barn that made a great foreground for shooting the telescope. I made a mental note of it so that I could take that shot on the way out.
Good thing we had time because it took almost an hour for the pizzas we ordered at a local tavern to come out. By the time we were done, night was falling and we were ready to start our shoot. Initially, we took turns photographing steam engine and the station before walking down the tracks to an old caboose, the water tower and the old factory structures. On a length of curved track, just around the bend from where we were photographing were two idling steam trains. What a great mood-maker for a night shoot these turned out to be. We could hear their boilers chugging away, occasionally letting off some of that steam while the faint smell of coal filled the night air. I have to say, it was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had on a night shoot in terms of my surroundings. Our last subject was the old factory. Unfortunately, the dew point was starting cause massive lens fogging on both of our cameras and this meant our shoot was over. We headed back to the truck and off to that little spot with the barn at Greenbank. Unfortunately, low-level fog had formed and was obscuring the telescope entirely. No chance of a shoot there.
It took nearly five hours to get back. We made a brief stop along the side of the road so Mike could hit an old church we saw on the way there and after that it was a lot of conversation and caffeine to keep us going. Eventually, we arrived back in Moundsville – in full daylight at 7:30am. I’d sleep until around 2 but that was the most rest I’d get for that day.
The prison and the railroad property were worth the thirteen-hour drive from Cape Cod. Having split most of my shooting between the Cape and the southwest, this felt like it fit somewhere in between and a welcome change. I dropped Mike back off in Pittsburgh so he could catch his flight home and made the journey to Massachusetts in one day.
As of this writing, plans are in place to return to both of these locations and two others in a few months. This time, a friend and fellow night photographer from out west will be joining us which is something I am looking forward to. Also, we’re making some tweaks to the logistics to minimize the driving between destinations. Not getting a solid night of sleep between shoots is a creative-killer for me and so I am hopeful that our travel plans will strike a balance between driving, shooting and resting.
Enjoy a selection of images from this location below. For more information on the places I mentioned here, check out these links: