PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: The photograph above was taken by my friend and periodic shooting companion, Gary Anthes. His picture fills an essential gap in my story of Coal Pier #18 for which I have no photograph of comparable quality. I thank him for permission to include it here.
There is a courtyard, town square, plaza that falls between the second and last sections of Coal Pier #18. It is a community space where you can sometimes meet and talk with other visitors. As architectural space it adds unexpected openness, a place where one can see across the pier unobstructed. The original purpose of the pier is impossible to understand without understanding the six-story high dinosaur that once stood in the public square. Track ends on one side, continues on the other to the end of the pier where the ramps grow slender at the scorpion's tail, and the track's path is unclear.
Railroad "dumpers," were a late 19th century, Rube Goldberg invention perfected through the 20th century rise of industrial America. They were giant structures designed to move goods, especially coal, ever faster to feed the fires of growing consumption. By 1915 a single state-of-the-art dumper could dump forty, 100-ton coal cars in an hour and automatically distribute the coal in the hold of a waiting cargo ship. Dump is exactly what they did, lifting the whole coal car and tipping it sideways into chutes to distribute the coal evenly into the ship's hold below. My understanding is that this dumper was designed so that while a loaded car was pulled up one ramp to the dumper, an empty car on the way down served as counterweight. The scorpion tail at the end was where the upbound car would switch tracks to the downward bound ramp. The tail may have given a bit of kick to its roll back.
On our recent visit, I was already heading back from photographing at the end of the pier, had crossed the public square and had my mind set on a few possible shots I'd seen earlier. I was surprised to see eight or nine young men walking on top of the coal ramp. How did they get up there? My mind was focused on what I wanted to shoot, but I shouted back to Gary to call his attention to the boys who he had also just spotted. He was in the plaza and caught the shot when they reached the end of the track. The red, white and blue graffiti is one of the best on the pier, but it would always be a disappointment to have it without the boys who knew the secret of how to get up there. This was their home turf.
They didn't stay long, and I had barely set my tripod up at the start of the pier when I saw the line of them on their way back. I watched to see how they dismounted. Near the beginning of the ramp a tree grew close to the concrete abutment , and large, steel spikes, an inch on a side, had been driven like a spiral stair down the tree trunk. I watched as each of the boys grabbed the tree, swung out and climbed down, some with the graceful care of tigers, the last with an awkward leap and a four-point thud. There were all shades between. This was not a group bound to be urban freerunners. Do they know of McMyler dumpers and the story of their jungle gym playground? How deeply do cultural discontinuities divide us? How quickly the past looks ancient!
For inspiration: While researching McMyler dumpers, I came across this video of a model of one that operated in New Jersey: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XLbqnw2bKeI
You can see more of Gary's photographs of Coal Pier #18 here.