We have all heard before that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, but there is a growing number of people taking this statement more and more seriously. To an urban explorer, even an overgrown and dilapidated farmhouse can sustain the interest and beauty of a piece of fine art. The term “Urban Exploration” refers to groups or individuals that seek out abandoned, inaccessible or off-limit places in order to see the remains of its former glory. At any time in an urban area there are countless stretches of buildings closed down, boarded up and waiting to be explored. This movement of urban exploration is quickly becoming more popular and a growing number of thrill-seekers are taking advantage of the chance to explore. St. Catharines and the Niagara Region are prime locations for explorers to find the rusty gold they are looking for.
The appeal of urban exploration is far more than just getting a workout from scaling fences and climbing walls—but there is also a historical aspect to every location. Whether it is an abandoned sewer or a closed-down factory, each location provides a different challenge as well as insight as to how the building was used. As a rule, many urban explorers always bring their cameras when ‘cracking’ new locations to make sure they never miss a chance of snagging the perfect shot. Although the illicit nature of their craft is always a concern, these explorers are not usually “punks” or “anarchists” as some might assume. In fact, many urban explorers prefer the term libertarian historians.
“Most of the places I’ve explored have been terribly creepy and ominous”, said long-time urban explorer and former Brock University Student, Clayton Thai. “It’s always weird to think that you might be the first person to go into a building or tunnel in literally decades”. Although Thai often visits more exotic locales in search of a worthy challenge, he finds some of his most poignant adventures in the Niagara Region.
A few of the more well-known places to explore include a long-shut down public school, an industrial property and an abandoned knife factory, all to be found in St. Catharines. Although the possibility of danger is always present when exploring barricaded and closed areas, there are many tactics explorers use in order to prevent injury. Flashlights, gasmasks as well as gloves are almost always used to accompany the well-equipped explorer. Even with all the precautions of preparedness, preventing danger must always be a concern—it is specifically important to only explore sites for which you are experienced enough to handle. It’s probably best not to scale the outside of the Skylon tower on your first foray into exploring.
One of the most notable local exploration playgrounds is the Blue Ghost Tunnel under the third Welland canal. Clocking in at over 700 feet long, the tunnel spans an incredible distance—emanating feelings of loneliness and intrigue all the way. The limestone that reinforces the tunnel freezes in the winter as well, creating some truly marvelous ice structures.
The Blue Ghost Tunnel (the Holy Grail of Niagara Urban Exploring) is not only a great find because of the atmosphere or the accessibility, but instead for its rich history. In 1903, a fatal crash occurred between two colliding trains in the tunnel—two men lost their lives. The ghost tails that go along with this tragedy greatly cement the tunnel’s universal allure. It is far more than just limestone and rusted track pieces lining a baron hole in the ground—it’s an entrance to a time and place long forgotten. The places we inhabit take on characteristics themselves, as if they too share in the experiences of the people that inhabit them.
There is a certain degree of skepticism regarding the legitimacy of urban exploration as an art form and the legality of its practices, but these accusations are somewhat misunderstood. Any proper urban explorers would not act in disregard to either safety or disrespect to the ruins they visit. In fact, as almost a thesis statement for the subculture, the motto is, “Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints”, Thai said.
As a disclaimer, when buildings or tunnels are sealed off or closed, it is often for safety reasons and it can often be better to avoid previously uncharted areas. Even in St. Catharines, the varieties of buildings to roam vary greatly providing anywhere from the most accessible entries to the most adventurous treks. It is always important, if ever going to a location for the first time, to proceed with caution and respect.
Although Urban Exploration might not be as relaxing as taking up canasta or billiards, it can certainly provide an interesting perspective on the mundane things we tend to ignore in everyday life. Finding beauty in the ugly and rugged landscapes of crumbling ruins might not be for everybody, but it has the potential to bring excitement as well as an almost meditative peacefulness between rushes of adrenaline.
For all you avid photographers out there, exploring the paradoxically gorgeous side of decaying buildings certainly provides a nice change from the usual photos of dandelions and rolling meadows. Whether you have a taste for testing your own personal limits or unraveling the buried secrets of Niagara, urban exploration might just satisfy your craving. Who knows, 50 years from now a new generation might be exploring abandoned Starbucks and Apple stores?