The first light of day was probably yellow—it was summer, after all—before it pierced the coats of creosote and cobwebs that clung to the sills of the lime-green skylights. I could see the texture from my perch; it was glass, I knew, but I could have sworn it was flypaper. It caught me, at least, in an artificial and calming way.
When you’re straddling the rail of a gantry crane, suspended by steel and kept aloft by adrenaline, it seems like the details alone elevate that blunt metal tightrope. The ‘big picture,’ people call it, but it can look so small even from a short distance, so long as you remember to look down.
That incessant buzzing wasn’t the flies unplucked from the dusty, greasy air by the polluted windows, the few that remained. A train whistled at a short distance, trilling and echoing through the long hallway, hinting at the source of the reverberating ruckus. I imagined a puff of steam and a locomotive backing-up under the crane I was sitting on. I imagined the walls vibrating with the awry engines misfiring as those wounded machines crawled backwards into this cave to heal under flaming, sparking torches and grinders.
Photo Comparison: Machine Shop
The machine shop in 1920.
The machine shop today.
Diesel exhaust wafted through the kicked-down doors and my daydream alike. The fumes and smoke probably would have made it impossible to see from my altitude and I considered being blind and deaf, a worker guiding a limping train along. Behind me, where the rails stopped and a smaller crane waited on standby, the industrial surgeons huddled at their stations while metalworkers and engineers fabricated the boldly riveted organs of the sleeping, steaming giants.
Back on their round feet, they would surely take a long rest, right in the roundhouse around the corner, while waiting approval and paperwork before it was back to the grind of pushing and pulling.
Another whistle blew outside the thick brick shell, this time even closer, the tinny sound hung in the hollowness several long seconds after the engine pulled away getting back more rail yard play.
A dozen leaves reached into the still void and grabbed an unseen, unfelt breeze and rode it out across glass, concrete and moss, between the scarred pillars and graffiti and into one warm beam of yellow-green light.
I wish I could go where they go, and that I could take you with me.
Built to Work
The Duluth, Messabe and Iron Range Railroad began in Two Harbors with a 6-stall wooden roundhouse, but it didn’t take long for the railroad expand from there. By 1930, a machine shop, boiler shop, car shop, boiler house, storehouse, foundry, engine room and a 50-stall brick roundhouse blanketed the 30 acres of DM&IR’s lakefront property. 109 locomotives were maintained by the shop, half of which were overhauled annually, while 30 or so received light repair. The roundhouse and machine shop ran 24 hours, maintaining the fleet for both a long ore season and abusive timber season, in addition to limited passenger service.
Out of the 30 buildings that comprised the historic shops, 8 still exist today, although the roofs of many are failing catastrophically. Historic roundhouses and locomotive shops all over the Midwest have been destroyed, but these are still preservable, in spite of the damage. With a little social-historical consciousness and the desire to save those reminders of bygone days that mark the American timeline.
The east side of the boiler shop sported a platform with a control booth and heavy machine mounts. Note the door that replaces the lower section of stairs for explorers.
The machine shop today.
On my first visit to the roundhouse, the control booth was extant.
The underground portions of the engine shop were mostly filled in.
So much relies on one thing stacked on top of another thing.
Blondes und bricks!
The giant radiators in this casting shop look like a flag to me.
Like looking out of an airship.
This gives a sense of scale for the engine works side of the property.
I like to imagine this as fountain.
I love this original brick archway, near the narrow gauge shop. Gorgeous!
The building in the foreground–the old control booth–was arsoned in 2009.
Taken on a short trip where the whole floor of the roundhouse and engine shop was covered in fresh snow–thanks to the holes in the roof and open windows.
Generations of Two Harbors teens smoked their first weed in this abandoned building, in my estimation. Comment if I’m right!
The rear of engine bay 13… according to the heavily faded sign.
Without a roof, the bricks were being washed away in the later years of the roundhouse.
A poor panorama showing where the turntable used to be for the roundhouse.
A self portrait, from the early 2000s.
This gives a sense of the scale and the water damage of the old side (brick, rather than concrete) of the roundhouse.
Looking from the main shop into the boiler shop, one of three attached buildings that specialized in certain repairs. One thing that architectural photographers have to work with is an elongated “magic hour” with ideal shadowing and coloring–this photo is a result of that lighting.
This part of the roundhouse was being brought down by rain and gravity.
I am not sure, but I think this section was a storehouse; it has two ramps that connect the rail yard outside and the blacksmith shop. On all of the historic doors that face that part of the yard, signs caution workers to look out for cars…
This is one of my favorite doorways (yes, I have favorites) for a few reasons: 1.) You can see how the once-arched door has been squared-off for rectangular doors to fit; 2.) you can see one complete historic door and one ruined door, and the chain that used to hold them together before someone kicked-out the security, and; 3.) I like the texture of the bricks and design of the radiators in the room beyond–the blacksmith shop. Just do.
Ryan, as seen from the crane ladder.
This building was an office and lounge for engineers. It is also demolished.
The bricks routinely fell from the walls, like seeds falling from trees. On a smaller scale, new walls grew from the floors.
A photo from my first trip, although very little has changed in this area of the building except for the level of graffiti. I love skylights, don’t you?
Police tape marks were kids got hurt in the past… probably from falling from the unstable catwalk above.
At an abandoned train repair shop.
Note the pit is filled in here.
When block glass shatters, it looks like ice.
Looking into the engine works from the concrete addition.
Kat’s pretty cool.
The crumbling building barely contained the colors inside of it.
Although it’s difficult to spot at first, there is a traveling mini crane down the way about the three windows. This was installed to service all of the fabrication machines that would be in this section.
This “pit” would allow workers to crawl below locomotives to service them.
At noon, the lower skylights around the shops glow yellow-green, thanks to the flora blooming on the roof above.
Update: roundhouse demolished in 2014
Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. (1901). The Railroad trainman, 18. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=M9vNAAAAMAAJ
Order of Railway Conductors and Brakemen , . (1909).The Railway conductor, 26. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=huADAAAAYAAJ
Society for Industrial Archeology, . (1999). Society for Industrial Archeology newsletter, 28-29. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=2YJMAAAAYAAJ
Transportation of iron ore. (1927). Two Harbors, MN: Duluth & Iron Range Rail Road Co.
Walker, D.A. (2004). Iron frontier: the discovery and early development of minnesota's [p.61]. (Google Books, Illustrated), Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=Nb-QErynwWwC