Louisville Cooperage
Louisville, KY

Two Yankees Walk into a Kentucky Ghetto…

What do you wanna do?” Beatrice asked as we pulled the bright green Volkswagen Beetle into a western Louisville slum, not quite an hour after emerging an abandoned cold storage warehouse, the cute, clean subcompact reflected the few non-boarded windows of the surrounding neighborhood and the tarnished chrome of abandoned Cadillacs, lawlessly balanced between overgrown sidewalks and that potholed road.

She's a charmer.
She’s a charmer.

Way to Pick Em’

Locals slowly waddled past, in a Walmart sort of way with their progeny in tow, squinting through the Beetle’s tinted windows as if to ask, “Who the fuck are you?” In the passenger seat with a half-broken laptop overheating on my lap, I scanned my Google Earth industrial repository, flying past waypoints and quickly reprioritizing the buildings. “Damn it, I dunno…” I muttered perusing the many options, “Ok, there are three locations near where we are now. The choices are—I’ll let you pick—Portland Power, Moser Tannery and a big factory that I don’t know the name of yet, but it takes up a few buildings it looks like.” “Where’s that?” she asked, referring to the mystery landmark while dropping the car in ‘D’. “About four blocks that-a-way! Let’s do it!”

With a little difficulty we swerved around the random groups of locals walking down the middle of the streets and found our way into the back of the industrial park. Looking up from my GPS to the back wall of one of the bigger factory buildings with its torn-up fence, I mused that by the combination of tire tracks and fence damage that someone must have plowed right through the gate with a truck. Thoughtfully, the perpetrators didn’t return to prove me correct.

One of the old cooperage buildings is largely unchanged from when it was built. The raised section of the building houses a crane.
One of the old cooperage buildings is largely unchanged from when it was built. The raised section of the building houses a crane.

Yankees in a Kentucky Ghetto

The powerhouse was notably older than the rest of the complex. I'm still not sure if it was build just for the cooperage, or whether it preceded it.
The powerhouse was notably older than the rest of the complex. I’m still not sure if it was build just for the cooperage, or whether it preceded it.

Two pale Yankees get out of a little diesel car bearing cameras and tripods and stroll through an open gate toward an abandoned mystery industrial complex.

Upon approaching the buildings I began to appreciate the scale of the site; the footprint of this location was about 3.5 acres with 16 buildings on it.

“Who knows how long this could take…”

Rounding the side of the first building I noticed most of the buildings were open to the elements, garage doors and agape and welcoming. “Great,” I thought, “This’ll be fast enough–in and out and time for lunch.” Yet, stepping through the cracked rail-loading door, it became obvious that there was too much photographic potential to simply pass over.

I love these heavy rolling doors in the old tobacco processing building.
I love these heavy rolling doors in the old tobacco processing building.

Heavy-Industrial Rainbows

This particular building was mostly constructed of wood, including beautifully worn floors, with one large skylight in the center of the space, running almost the length of the structure and making room for a gantry crane that showed its age. Green and blue glass lined the sides of the walls formed Technicolor prisms that threw heavy industrial rainbows across the warped floorboards, accenting the piles of rusty nails with pink and purple flares and loose floorboards a shadow puppet theatre of sundogs running through the dust.

She liked to joke that she was my "tripod sherpa".
She liked to joke that she was my “tripod sherpa”.

Toward the back of the building we found a few seemingly ancient offices that reminded me of Minneapolis, Minnesota’s ‘Department of the Dakota’ by the way that most windows were boarded, but just so a sliver of daylight streamed through, making the windows pose as ghostly green portals. Their cobwebs fluoresced like virtual halos. The neighboring area was a restroom, and, as cliché as it is to take pictures of abandoned toilets, this scene proved too inviting; the bowls all seemed threatened by a sizable hole in the floor, into which they were poised to leap into at any moment. Steam pipes crisscrossed in and out of the darkness of the distorted portal, suggesting a quite painful fall for anyone tempted by the promise of the paint-chip-filled pots.

A closer look at the side of the generator.
A closer look at some of the machinery.

Not wanting to spend all afternoon in one spot, we decided to move onto the next building, rail shipping.

Lining the walls were a set of large sliding wooden doors that opened to reveal old tracks and ties still firmly spiked into the ground: trees several years old grew straight through them, however, suggesting that the extended disuse of this resource. Like a reminder, a train slowly passed by the far side of the complex, blowing its whistle and winding behind some buildings we had yet to see. Light was fading, however, so Beatrice and I quickly trotted across the dusty floors of the shipping building and into the sun, a modern-looking concrete and steel building with a piped crown. We jokingly called this section of the plant “the Medusa.”

The Medusa’s Secrets

Ducking through a low brick archway into the radiating heat of the Medusa’s threshold and into an old locker room, I picked up the telltale aroma of a boiler room: coal ash, mingled with steel, grease, oil and asbestos. Whatever factory we were in the middle of, it used a lot of steam for heat, and doubtlessly to power its heavy machinery.

Somewhere, Bruce Springsteen is playing while an exceedingly furry man tunes his Ford truck in the driveway of a house he built with his bare hands. This is for that person.
Somewhere, Bruce Springsteen is playing while an exceedingly furry man tunes his Ford truck in the driveway of a house he built with his bare hands. This is for that person.

After spending some time appreciating the view of Louisville and fresh air from atop the Medusa’s head, we headed back down to see what else the building had to offer.

Stretching over some fallen pipes, and tenderly avoiding the various pools of sludge and leaking hydraulic fluid, we made our way to the rear of the boiler room through a pair of small dark rooms.

Emerging into the next room, I looked up and down, never taking my eyes off a pair of—I couldn’t believe it. “Wow, I didn’t think this place would have… these… damn these are cool!” Before us were a pair of giant steam engines connected to corresponding generators. Then I did what I love: I gawked at, analyzed and photographed all the amazing vintage machinery.

The secret sweet-yet-salty center of the nameless factoryscape. Home base, tuned to rule the AC and turn out Product X at record rates, I'm sure.
The secret sweet-yet-salty center of the nameless factoryscape. Home base, tuned to rule the AC and turn out Product X at record rates, I’m sure.

Name: Yet Unknown

It was dark when we hiked from the steam engines to the car; without light for my exposures and caught without a decent flashlight, we would have to return for more. The next day we returned for a few hours to revisit the machines and the few buildings we hadn’t seen the afternoon prior, finding a small train engine, yacht and lots of empty space. When I think back on Louisville Industrial Park, I remember the smell the most, I think: it massaged my senses to help me forget I was in a strange place. In a trance I focused my viewfinder and relaxed as I gently pressed the shutter release, and I truly hope the sense of this place in those moments was written into my photographs.

"This way," then, "No, that way!"
“This way,” then, “No, that way!”

It’s not often that I cannot find the history, let alone the name, of a lost factory. No doubt it came to help define the neighborhood that grew around it, the people that labored here, and the industry that collapsed around it. Although its details are yet unknown, what remains—the steam engines and boxcar warehouse—deserve to be recognized for their cultural-economic contributions to Louisville, “Medusa” and all.

Postscript: Medusa Unmasked

Thanks to the excellent research library at Notre Dame University and their historical map collections, I can report the identity of the Medusa!

Only three years late.

The industrial park began as two unrelated factories that had some space between them, but over time their mutual growth made the property resemble a single property. On the east side, with its kilns and powerhouse was ‘The Louisville Cooperage’ which manufactured whiskey barrels for the Schenley Distillers Corporation, a big conglomerate that included more than one bourbon distillery. This places its construction in the mid-1930s.

Dominating the western half is the ‘Tobacco By-Products & Chemical Corporation’ whose powerhouse was demolished before my arrival, thus making me think all the buildings were part of the same company. Typically one steam plant per company per property. Its empty buildings were once full of chemical extraction equipment and laboratories and its products included insecticides and sulfides. It dates back to the 1910s, though it steadily grew on the property through the 1930s. Their main product was a nicotine-based insecticide, which they sold under the name ‘Diamond Black Leaf.’

So, one side of Medusa turns out to be booze and the other nicotine, go figure.

For this post I decided to retain the sections written before I knew the historical identity of the location, if only because it’s a lesson on how differently one analyzes something one does not know about. I hope my readers enjoy both the unknowing and the actual history.