During its heyday in the early 20th century, Scranton Lace employed over 1,400 people and was the world’s largest producer of Nottingham lace. It had bowling alleys, a gymnasium, a barber, a fully staffed infirmary, and owned its own coal mine and cotton field.
Founded in 1897 in Scranton, PA, the company used looms that were made in Nottingham, England, stood nearly three stories tall and 50 feet long, weighing over 20 tons. During World War II, the company expanded its production line to include mosquito and camouflage netting, bomb parachutes, and tarpaulins. After the war, the company returned to producing cotton yarn, vinyl shower curtains, and textile laminates for umbrellas, patio furniture, and pool liners.
In recent years, the number of employees dwindled to around 50, with annual sales averaging $6 million. As mechanized looms replace manual, Scranton Lace joined the ranks of craft-style textile manufacturers in shutting their doors. – From: http://www.scripophily.net/sclacucope.html
We woke up the day after exploring the St. Nicholas coal breaker, still sore, tired and picking coal dust from between our toes. Will, Andy and myself hopped in the SUV, and headed down to Scranton, PA.
Andy had done a drive-by of a few weeks back and noticed video cameras around the building and a few posted warning signs, so we weren’t entirely sure of what to expect. A fellow photographer had given us some access tips so we were relying on that information.
The neighborhoods surrounding the Lace Company buildings didn’t seem too bad. We circled the massive buildings twice before parking on the street. Gear in hand, we trekked along the side of a large building that spanned at least two city blocks. We followed our access instructions and slipped into the complex undetected (or so we thought).
The complex consists primarily of two massive buildings, side by side, with a long ‘courtyard’ running between them. The total footprint of the buildings were over 288,000 square feet! The courtyard was quite overgrown and we waded through waist high weeds as we searched for an entry point into the buildings. We passed old loading docks, and walked under large enclosed walkways that connected the two buildings from the second floor.
The space was rich with details–wooden boxes stamped with the company emblem, old safety posters, even an R2-D2 robot-like machine! I noticed a VHS tape lying in a pile of junk. I flipped it over and found it was an instructional guide to the original Windows 3.1. The computer geek in me was greatly amused.
First thing we encountered was the heat and we immediately started sweating. We came to a packing room. Conveyor lines on either side of the wall ran at least 70 yards to a stock room. At one end of the room we found a funny old sign that at one point used to light up depending on what production was traveling down the conveyor lines. We speculated as to whether the lace company actually supplied Wal-Mart with fabric or if it was a joke denoting the high quality production (black tie) versus the lower end production (Wal-Mart).
The second building by comparison was not nearly as wide as the first but it was still a pretty big place. We explored the first floor but found no sign of the bowling alley or any other paths to take. We went back to the walkway stairs and up into the hotter second floor.
We came out in what at one time must have been an employee recreation area. A wide hallway filled with stacks of the coded punch cards presented itself to us.
As the three of us stood there shooting, a very loud, low, deep BOOM shook the building. We stared at each other, listening for follow up noises. It was hard to tell where the sound had come from but it had been very loud. We had felt it. A minute passes and we heard no other noises. We speculated that it may have been a large metal bay door slamming shot, or maybe someone lit a M80 somewhere nearby. It was the day after 4th of July after all. A little nerve wracked and startled from the explosion we continued on.
The room adjacent to the kitchen must have been the old cafeteria, but now was a repository for hundreds of waist high stacks of more of the punch cards used in the looms. It was staggering how many there were.
From Top to Bottom:
We turned around after taking our portraits and…there it was… THE BOWLING ALLEY! A four lane bowling alley complete with pins and dozens of old bowling balls. Old score cards still littered the floor.
We had been shooting for a solid 4 hours and at this point we were completely drenched in sweat. We decided to head back down and start to pack up. When we reached the old wooden door we had come in through we stopped in our tracks. It was propped wide open with a piece of wood. Our minds started racing, that boom we heard… there was definitely someone else here. We headed out into the court yard for a look but didn’t see anyone. We decided to shoot a few more shots of the outside of the building before we left.
We exited the grounds and walked back onto the street running behind the building. We stopped on the sidewalk to take a few snapshots of the “Scranton Lace” sign on the old entrance.
As we were shooting the sign, a large black SUV cruised down the far end of the street. As it approached, it slowed to a crawl, almost stopping right next to us. Inside were two unfriendly-looking guys with shaved heads, and white tank tops on. They eyeballed us with intent. We took the hint and started walking back to where we had parked, about 150 yards away. As we walked off, they disappeared around the corner. We were about halfway to our car when they circled around the building a second time. Again they slowed down and glared at us as they passed. At this point we started getting nervous, jogged to the car. We agreed that we would just throw our gear in the trunk and high tail it out as fast a possible. No sooner had we reached the car and started pulling away, when the two thugs rounded the building a THIRD time… They fell in directly behind us and proceeded to follow us. We drove away from the building making several turns hoping to lose them. They tailed us for a few more miles until we reached the highway and then peeled off in a different direction as we got on the highway….
We all breathed a sigh of relief thinking that we had dodged a bullet (possibly literally!) It was at this point that I realized–I had lost my glasses! I knew I had them on me when I left the lace factory and now they were not in the car. They had to have fallen off during our flight from the factory. We turned around and headed back down the very road where we were just chased out of town. At our original parking spot, Will and I jumped out and began frantically searching. Andy kept the car running and drove along side us on the street. Thankfully, I spotted my glasses on the sidewalk about halfway back toward the factory. We jumped into the car and sped off! Laugh about it now, sure, but it was a pretty scary situation, and we felt very lucky to have gotten away without a confrontation.
All in all Scranton Lace was a fantastic location to shoot, and we had quite the adventure.
-Written by Walter Arnold Photography. Photos by Walter Arnold Photography unless otherwise noted.
Thanks to the fellow photographers who joined me on this trip: