Saturday, April 16, 2016

Last Respects for the Armour Plant. Implosion Video

Photo by Chris Andoe. Edited by Pamela Devine

There's been buzz for the past month that the Armour Meat Packing Plant is being demolished, and last night I got word that the behemoth would be imploded this morning at nine. 

In Delusions of Grandeur I wrote about the last time I visited the site, what it meant to me, and a kindred spirit I encountered. 

Old Man of Armour

I've spent a great deal of time documenting the collection of ruins that made up much of the East St. Louis area. It’s fascinating to see what happens to large masonry structures after fifty years of abandonment. The first couple of times the decay seems static, but after a few seasons your eye begins to measure the steady progression.

The site urban explorers long found the most intriguing was the Armour Meat Packing Plant, which was the first of East St. Louis’s big three plants to shutter, closing in 1959. Visiting this behemoth was a religious experience for many, with its soaring smokestacks, towering ornate machinery—some circa 1902—incredible views, and endless areas to discover.

With a few flashlights you could descend into the labyrinth basement complete with oily black stone walls and deep watery pits. You could climb multiple levels, taking in the glazed brickwork and the old slaughter floor complete with a cattle chute, and check out the incredible views of the St. Louis skyline and the Mississippi.

Oneexplorer documented his journey to the top of the smokestack, where bricks came loose in his hands and he nearly fell to his death.
 The mystique around this place was accentuated because it was difficult to find, and you had to have a lot of street cred to even begin to look. You’d head north through East St. Louis, past the rough old prostitutes strolling Route 3, make a right at nowhere, make a left at nowhere, park along the nameless, overgrown and potholed road surrounded by the remnants of long vacated stockyards. Once on the property you’d trek the long convoluted pathways through thick vegetation, careful not to fall through open manholes, before finally reaching it.

Nature had taken back the site, inside and out. Trees were firmly rooted on the roof, vines climbed through windows, and a giant white owl waited in the rafters.

I’d visited the site regularly for a couple of years before metal scrappers discovered it and removed much of the flooring, and disassembled some of the ornate equipment. On an intellectual level I wondered why the thefts bothered me so much. After all the building had been steadily collapsing on itself for decades, and was well past the point of being converted into a new use. The condition was terminal, and after half a century of isolation, development was finally encroaching with the new I-70 slated to skirt the site. This hidden, mysterious treasure—long a beacon for explorers and thieves—would soon be laid bare as a dangerously accessible, intolerable eyesore on newly visible, valuable property. Its days were numbered but the dismantling bothered me nonetheless.

After being in California for seven months I was eager to see the ruins. With my friend Roberta in tow I visited the neighboring Hunter Plant, owned by my buddy Badass Charlie’s trucking company and slated for demolition, several sites in downtown East St. Louis, and I saved the best for last.
Sure enough the scrappers had stripped away even more of the personality, but in light of recent severe weather I was surprised that the structure hadn’t fared too poorly.

I was in the main machine room looking around when my eyes locked with an old Black man in an official-looking uniform.

“Who told you you could be in here?” he demanded.

I’d always had ready-made replies in the event this would happen, but in that moment I felt like one of the 12-year-old kids in Stand By Me. I simply replied, “Nobody. I was just taking photos.”

“Get your crew and get outta here.”

My crew? I realized he thought I was a metal scrapper. I called to Roberta, and he followed us closely as we walked the long overgrown road littered with stamped bricks, scraps of wood, and broken, colored glass towards the property line. I shared that I knew about the scrappers and also thought it was a shame. He then opened up.

“They’re who I was hopin’ to catch!” he began. “They’re tearing this place apart.”

I’d found a kindred spirit. This man loved this crumbling monstrosity even more than I did. After inquiring further I was astonished to learn he worked at Armour during its heyday.

“When they said the plant was closing and everyone was let go the boss pulled me in and said they need to keep one guy on as the caretaker, and offered the job to me,” he revealed.
In 1959 he watched his coworkers leave for the last time. He watched a solid facility slowly decay until entire sections of the roof crashed in, walls crumbled, supports failed, and people like myself climbed the building with abandon.

I had so many questions for him and asked if he’d speak with me for a piece I’d planned to write for the blog UrbanReviewSTL.

“I can’t really say nothin’, I’ve gotten in trouble in the past,” he said.

He did point to a few areas and told us how many people worked in each. He spoke of all the jobs that were there.

The overgrown lot littered with brush, bricks, and debris gave way to the blinding white pavement of the brand new access road. We were off the property. The old man with gray stubble, one blind eye and a sharp, pressed uniform had done his job.

A few years back I had a dream that after a storm I went to check on the plant. As I approached I heard a snap, like a lone firecracker, then watched as the entire structure collapsed in slow motion before me, a spectacular sight, so vivid with the smokestacks splitting and a fire escape landing just feet from my body. That would have been a demise worthy of such a structure. Nestled in quiet vegetation, and in the company of someone who loved it.

Just before we got in the car, the caretaker pointed to a nearby dirt mound and said,
“That’s where the new highway’s comin’.”

All of us understood what that meant.
I long gave tours of the urban ruins in East St. Louis, but there's not much left. Today I'll watch as the mother of them all comes down. Check back for updates.

**UPDATE** Video of demolition. My banter is wildly entertaining throughout but you can skip to the last six minutes to see the smokestacks fall.

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