PHOTOSHOW: A warehouse after the workers have gone

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‘Man in the Distance.’ | Videographer Bobby Lee Messer sets up a shoot inside the cavernous interior of the warehouse floor, seen from a second floor observation room. | Huntington WV | feb2021 | photo

What is it about static industrial spaces that make them so compelling to the inquiring eye? Maybe it’s the forlorn, yet intriguing glimpse of past workaday lives — the lunches, the labors, the left-behind tools and flotsam of work — in a place emptied of human activity.

I visited for a few hours in a decommissioned warehouse in downtown Huntington WV last week. WestVirginiaVille Minister of Video, Bobby Lee Messer, was there shooting a music video of a song by West Virginia’s “First Lady of Soul,” Lady D. (For news of its release, subscribe to our free newsletter:

‘Overlook.’ | The second-floor room where captains of a once-industrious warehouse might survey the work being done and the money being made. | Huntington WV | feb2021 | photo

The warehouse harkened to another era in Huntington history, when the city boomed with muscular manufacturing sites. James E. Casto, retired associate editor of the Huntington Herald-Dispatch and a student of the city’s history, wrote an article marking this year’s 150th anniversary of the founding of the city, incorporated by the WV Legislature on Feb. 27, 1871.

‘Safety First’ in the latter days of the warehouse. | Huntington WV | feb2021 | photo

Huntington was initially constituted of 21 farms totaling about 5,000 acres on the shore of the Ohio River. Rail tycoon Collis P. Huntington, for whom the city was named, came to the rescue of the near-bankrupt Chesapeake & Ohio railroad, fashioning a railroad terminus that would seed a city, Casto writes.

The company needed new capital to recover from extensive damage its lines suffered in the Civil War. The investment — which the tycoon agreed to only if he were made president of the firm — led to the birth of a city in his name. The C&O laid tracks from Richmond, Virginia, westward to the Ohio River, “where passengers and cargo could readily be transferred between the railroad and the riverboats that traveled the Ohio,” Casto notes.

‘Nuts & Bolts & Other Stuff.’ | Huntington WV | feb2021 | photo

The configuration of rail to river shipping was a boon to the new town. The community grew quickly and by the early 1890s had a population of more than 10,000 souls. Its importance grew when, in 1887, the Cabell County seat was moved from Barboursville to Huntington.

The city’s course was set, says Casto. Collis P. Huntington’s aim was true in siting a city:

The community prospered as a gateway to the coalfields of southern West Virginia. Coal flowed to market via Huntington, and manufactured goods traveled the other direction, a two-way traffic that spawned thousands of jobs in the river city. In addition to its role as a transportation hub and a center of retail and wholesale trade, Huntington attracted manufacturers that produced a broad array of products, including rail cars, steel, glass, china, brick, stoves, furniture and even church pews.”


‘Light Show.’ | The tall windows of the warehouse look out upon a railyard that supplied the raw materials for its work. | Huntington WV | feb2021 | photo

Casto points to the era considered the city’s most vibrant:

“With the war’s end, the 1950s proved to be a decade of remarkable growth and achievement for Huntington, the city’s zenith, some would argue. The 1950s saw construction of Tri-State Airport, the Huntington Museum of Art, Cabell Huntington Hospital and Veterans Memorial Field House.”

Out the tall warehouse windows you see the railroad lines that are the very reason for the existence of Huntington and the warehouse itself. Huntington WV | feb2021 | photo

Huntington struggled in the closing decades of the 20th century. As a cub reporter at the Herald-Dispatch from 1980 to 1987, I wrote interminable stories about the city’s effort to revive its downtown “Superblock,” a barren plot of land south of 4th Avenue, where teenagers would cruise a weedy road in loops on weekend nights.

‘Hooked.’ |Huntington WV | feb2021 | photo

Nowadays, with development of the Pullman Square warren of shops, a moviehouse and other establishments on Fourth Avenue, between 10th and 8th streets, downtown Huntington has experienced a revival that would have been hard to envisage in the early 1980s, as I watched Chevys and pickups full of randy teenagers trying to catch each other’s attention.

‘No one will see you, now.’ | Huntington WV | feb2021 | photo

The knock-on development — The Market, a renovated hotel and Civic Center, and more — are poised to reap a resurgence in retail business. It seems bound to happen once a tipping point of people are vaccinated and herd immunity results from Covid-19 — and we all come busting out of quarantine and onto city streets.

‘Raw Materials.’ | Huntington WV | feb2021 | photo

The fortunes of cities wax and wane. These photos are freeze frames of a waning, when it turned out there were too many warehouses in Huntington and not enough business in the marketplace to keep them humming.

‘Be Honest With Me.’ | Huntington WV | feb2021 | photo

Life — and cities — go on. Economies, too, which are among the prime movers of social and demographic transformation in the life of towns. We are well past the momentous transition from a smokestack-and-warehouse industrial landscape, to one powered by digital economies. Different sorts of industrial behemoths have cornered the market, churning out torrents of bytes and pixels and products based upon them, instead of massive plumes of smoke.

‘Door to Nowhere.’ | Huntington WV | feb2021 | photo

What of this Huntington warehouse and its future, as it is so full, right now, of its past? I will admit, despite its ghosts, I found the space exhilarating to wander about in. To ponder its stories. To document its tableaus of a time when steel hooks hefted heavy objects, first weighed upon a Toledo scale, and electricity surged through walls of breaker boxes while nearly 1,000 days had passed without ‘a lost time accident.’

Lost time‘ strikes me as a very good phrase for describing the rooms and spaces of a warehouse out of work.

‘978 Days.’ | Huntington WV | feb2021 | photo



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PHOTO|ESSAY: 10 ways of coping with a dreary West Virginia winter’s day: dec12020: On a winter day of all-day rain and bone-chilling cold, I give up trying to Figure It All Out. Instead, I sift through my photos, crop and lightly filter them. Maybe I can find order and meaning there. Or an aesthetic distraction, which may be just as good.

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  • David Imbrogno

    Am I able to leave a comment yet without some sort of sign in. If so, nice piece of work.

  • Errol Hess

    I remember when the C&O moved its offices to Baltimore. Locals could call their former friends and family toll-free.

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