Tuesday, December 29, 2015


PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: The mills of Farrel and American Brass in Ansonia make little fuss about appearances. They are a haphazard collection of additions, adaptations, and replacements, patches and hacks, whose only goal was getting the job done. And so since 2011 I’ve often stopped and sometimes photographed where the American Brass, Flat-Wire Mill sprouts skirted, tin cupolas with pentangle finials. When was this bit of virtuoso twinkle put in place?

Historical maps of Ansonia are a treasure trove of information (http://www.historicmapworks.com/Browse/United_States/Connecticut/). The building with the skirted, cupola vents lies at a recognizable intersection. The row of vents parallels the old Ansonia Canal which lies a half-dozen yards off. A bridge crosses the canal just where the building ends, and the factory road across the bridge continues down the slope and across the rail corridor to the river. As the road descends toward the tracks, the wall reveals three gable ends tracing the roofs of sheds behind them. From inside they now function as a single large space: the Flat-Wire Mill. The Canal is now invisible, buried underground, but the old iron bridge still erupts from the lumpy macadam in a way that only makes sense when you realize it is the truss and road of a forgotten bridge.

In the 1921 aerial map of Ansonia (https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3784a.pm000770/) three gables are clear, though the road beside them looks level. The top gabled roof, nearest the canal sports five (not four) tin cupola vents. Does the map even show a bit of an iron truss of a bridge over the canal. On maps before 1921 identification becomes more tenuous. Even in 1884, however, there are three long sheds close to this location. 1890 looks far different. A new rod mill is under construction, and the map includes detailed notes about what is happening in each section of the factory. Along the canal a long building is divided into lots of little shops. Could one of these be the current building? 1895 shows expansion of the same plan. One room holds in place in this long building through 1900; it is the tinning room. Could the skirted cupolas have been made there?

The 1906 map shows big changes have been made. For the first time the company is called American Brass Company instead of Ansonia Brass and Copper. Now the road across the mill site clearly shows the three gables, and, while the top building shows no cupola vents, it shows skylights similar to those on either side of the the vents that are still there today. The bridge over the canal is there as well. 1911 further confirms my view that these are the buildings that make up today’s Flat-Wire Mill, but the possibility remains that the building with the cupolas survives from an earlier time when this was the tinsmith’s shop, and so I continue to believe it was those tinsmiths who made starlight at the brass works.


Jan 28 @ 7 PM - New Britain Industrial Museum (snow date Feb. 4)
Feb 16 @ 7 PM - Woodbury Public Library (snow date, Mar. 1)
Feb 25 @ 6 PM - Ansonia Public Library
   -Throughout March - Photos on exhibit at Silas Bronson Library, Waterbury
Mar 10 @ 6 PM - Silas Bronson Library (snow date, Mar 14)
   -Throughout April - Photos on exhibit at Hagaman Library, East Haven, CT
Apr 27 @  6:30 PM - Hagaman Memorial Library, East haven
November 12 - January, 2017 - Photos on exhibit Minor Public Library, Roxbury
Nov. 12 @    - Minor Public Library, Roxbury, CT

Monday, December 28, 2015

Farrel Yard

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: A moment after it pulls away from the station platform in Ansonia, the northbound train on the Naugatuck line passes beneath the pedestrian bridge of Farrel Machine Company and enters the Farrel yard, where the bridge and buildings (all out of the picture on the left) are casting their shadows. The rear masonry stack marks the American Brass casting shop, where this series began, beside the river. The front masonry stack serves the old “dynamo room” and powerhouse (1911) of the Farrel Machine Company at its northern edge.

The previous two photographs in the series were taken from points on the track between the two bridges. The first faced north; the second faced south. Between those pictures and this lies the heart of the old Farrel Machine company. The two campuses taken together, Farrel and American Brass, are a unique, pre-flood survival, and local residents will be quick to remind visitors of the roles both played in WWII, but the truth is, they were important as far back as the Civil War.

Anyone with a bent for metal will be drawn to the sand elevator rising on the left, a corrugated tin giant with tin stairways and pipe-railings and balconies dangling treacherously from unreachable operation centers and offices high in the elevator tower. One can still trace the old track that ran below the elevator and into the long "coke and sand" storage shed. It first appears on the Ansonia maps in 1890, but the bridge from it doesn’t appear until 1895.

The bridge across the track is two stories high and enters the eastern sheds of Farrel near their midpoint. Half the length of the bridge is hidden in this picture. It continues an equal distance across the roofs of three rows of work sheds before reaching the giant foundry, perched a level higher on the hill. There, the sand was used to make molds for casting giant machine parts.The foundry was built between 1884 and 1890.  Once the old Ansonia Canal ran along the North Main Street edge of the Farrel Foundry, between the foundry and Main Street. 

Inside the three rows of sheds, a half dozen architectural styles, at least, tell of the incremental adaptations by which Farrel grew and changed. The first of these sheds appears on the 1900 map. At some point the pedestrian level of the bridge where it crossed the lower sheds was removed to allow for increased ceiling clearances in the sheds below. In another place an interior wall was once the fine masonry facade of the pre-1900 shed. 

Perhaps the most curious feature of the Farrel Yard is the rustic green, wooden structure that seems to upset the geometries of the place. It is not just a wall set a-kilter to shelter trains that once entered at the first opening; it is that a whole shed has been set at an angle that produces difficult to utilize corners where it bumps against the sheds of the  foundry section. A second large opening permits an old road to run beside the angled shed, as the road climbs the hill to Main Street. It’s not a surprise to discover much of this angled section and probably the green wooden facade were already in place on the 1884 map of Ansonia. These are the most ancient geometries that crept toward where the trains had been passing since 1849.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Arriving, Ansonia

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: I’ve stepped through the opening in the chain link fence in yesterday’s photo and turned 180 degrees to look down the rails the other way. 

The track passes under two bridges that unite multiple buildings of the Farrel Machine Company. Anson Phelps, who established the brass and copper mills that became American Brass in Ansonia (from whose property this picture is taken) hired millwright Almon Farrel to dig the mile-and-a-quarter canal that powered the industrial village that Anson Phelps named, "Ansonia.” Afterward, Farrel began his own mill in Anson Phelps’ Ansonia. About that time the railroad came through.

Through the chain link on the left can be read the name, “Farrel Birmingham.” The windows line the first of seven parallel rows of sheds where Farrel machinists cast and finished machine parts for some of the largest factory equipment of the 19th and 20th centuries. The high windows, that project over the track, lie just where the famous, “tunnel,” beneath Farrel work sheds emerges (a public right-of-way, I understand); the road runs on beside the track.

The near bridge is two stories high and connects the Farrel Foundry at the top of the hill to the tall, tin sand elevator (the most distinctive single "architectural" relic of Naugatuck Valley industry) and to the shed below where Farrel Foundry stored sand for molds. The bottom level of the bridge was for pedestrians. The top level is a crane-way for the crane that moved materials between the train siding and the foundry. The crane and much more is intact.

Near the back, the irrepressible Ansonia Opera House, an early work of Robert Wakeman Hill shows off its crisply detailed cornice. It is matched by an energetic facade on Main Street - a gem of a building! It is a relic of what Ansonia once was. Just beyond the Opera House the train arrives at the Ansonia station platform beside gray flood walls.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Anyplace, USA

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: The railroad corridor cuts through the center of American Brass in Ansonia. When this looked like anyplace because such corridors were spreading everyplace, this was someplace to stay. Now that it is no place, and will soon be gone, its antiquity begins to make it someplace worth remembering.

The building on the left with the sawtooth roof and the extended bay of corrugated metal is all connected to the casting house of the previous photographs. Opposite, on the right, a large mill space still houses a giant extruder that can turn out metal rod in almost limitless lengths. I’ve never seen it run. The bridge connecting them is inaccessible and unused. Once it housed a monorail crane that could circle through all of the buildings.

Further down the track on the left is the powerhouse, where a roofed structure carries utility lines across the track. Beyond the Powerhouse the main road through the complex crosses from Liberty Street to the riverside.  Beyond this crossing are the longest buildings on the property. On the right, the light colored buildings are known collectively as the “Flat-wire Mill.” Harder to distinguish on the left side of the track are the damaged, high windows of the, “Rod Mill.”

Long before the train gets to this place, whether from north or south, the train’s horn begins sounding - no longer a whistle, but a throaty horn with a distinctive and threatening bend in its pitch. Wherever I am in the buildings I stop to listen to the sound that rolls off the hills and absorb the full cadence as it rises and falls with the rumble of the train in the middle.

Monday, December 21, 2015

March, 2012: Willy at the Priming Furnace

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL:  Making pictures in the casting house was a series of experiments, as I learned to shoot in conditions I’d never experienced before. At its best, it was highly hit or miss. No shoot was more difficult than the priming of the casting furnace where there was always both too much and too little light. Priming and the challenges of photographing it are both described in "Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry." The casting house was and continues to be a learning experience.

I’m still figuring out new ways to get more out of the original RAW files. and I’ve re-developed this image, from 2012, to achieve better clarity and textures. 

[Anaconda American Brass, Ansonia, casting house]

Saturday, December 19, 2015


PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: If this were a church, we’d be in one arm of the transept looking into the crossing, climax of the nave. But this is a casting house, and the liturgy for this crossing with its high crystal skylight, climax to the dark place where the last furnaces ran, has long been lost to time and memory as casting house fires went dark and movement ceased.

[Anaconda American Brass, Ansonia, casting house]

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Fire Works

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: It’s not at all clear that there can or should be any further use for this old building. The wrecker’s torch is already at work, picking it for junk and metal scrap to prepare it for final burial, but those who care about the history of Ansonia and of Connecticut might take note. This is the inside of the casting house of American Brass in Ansonia as it looked yesterday.

People who know the history tell me the art of mixing copper alloys was refined and perfected here beginning before the Civil War. Those who worked here knew the secrets for mixing alloys to enhance machinability, conductivity, or corrosion resistance, for pouring alloys with extra spring or for resisting torque or for releasing the antibacterial qualities the copper. This is where that knowledge was crystallized as metal for manufacturing. At its peak, 40 furnaces ran here. When the casting house closed in 2013 a single furnace was still mixing metal for critical marine applications such as the U.S. fleet of nuclear subs. 

[Anaconda American Brass, Ansonia, CT, casting house]

Monday, December 14, 2015

Belly of the Beast

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: When the shutter opened for this picture, though the men were away on break, the world inside the casting house remained dark and intestinal; soot-saturated and sweaty; cinder-soiled, buttered in grease, and filled with a hanging haze. It required a very long exposure. I was back in the casting house again this week for the first time since work stopped in 2013. It’s gone slack; only dark, dirty junk for the rites of the junk men.

[Anaconda American Brass, Ansonia - casting house]

Saturday, December 12, 2015


NOTE: The last of the slide talks is done until after the new year. I’m just beginning to build a schedule of new talks for winter, spring and summer. I invite any suggestions for places I should speak, and I ask readers who would like me to come and speak in their area to recommend my slide talk, Finding Brass Valley, a Place in Time that has Almost Vanished, to your local library, art association, or historical society or to any other group that may be interested.

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: My friend Bob tells me that the filters shown in yesterday’s photo were "cyclones, precleaning units that remove large cinders before the exhaust gases go thru the bag houses  - which are like large vacuum cleaners filled with cloth bags that filter the air   -- the rectangular boxes are the bag houses - the dust is collected in the hoppers at the bottom." 

Somewhere I have photos of the collected bags waiting for disposal from bag houses in the Waterbury tube mill. I enjoy knowing that the name for giant pastry squeezers is “cyclones,” while still appreciating that its all pasta.

[Anaconda American Brass, Ansonia - casting house filters]

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Tinker's Folly

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: I can’t imagine this tin-can truss-works of filters and stacks becoming other than junk. For the moment it represents a part of Ansonia that many probably wish to leave behind. Nor can I imagine it amounting to much once the sad ruin of a casting house behind it is gone. -just junk waiting fore the junkman.

Since I first saw it, it fascinated me. I suspect I’m not the only one who has imagined climbing on it like a jungle gym. Viewed from across the river, and always from behind awkward obstacles, it’s hard to get to know, but it blossoms up the side of the Anaconda American Brass casting house, and it sends fat tendrils over the rooftop. They tell me these are filters for the huge furnaces within. From a spot on the hill across the river, I enjoy the silhouettes of ladders climbing inside metal cages, and stair rails angling into catwalk rails, where ant-sized people can go everywhere.

The reality of unexpectedly getting access was quite different. Getting up the first ladder with backpack and tripod was neither pretty nor quick. Level one was nowhere. I was still below the flood wall, and I knew I was trying to be so careful that I had talked myself into absolute terror. I tested the safety of each stretch of catwalk before trusting it with my full weight. Below was concrete if fate did not impale me on the way down. 

Getting above the flood wall was my first goal. Whatever level this is, it’s as high above the wall as I reached - perhaps level 3. It was not unlike finally, after extraordinary effort, reaching level three in a computer game, but the reality was not virtual. I took a few pictures sheepishly, though with tripod and camera extended as far out from the structure as I dared. And then I very carefully climbed back down, and I have tried repeatedly to photograph the shapes of the filters and stacks from the ground. My friend Lazlo, who once worked as a window washer in NYC, went up over the rooftop.

[casting house filters, American Brass, Ansonia, CT]

Tuesday, December 8, 2015


BOOK SIGNING: Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry
Thursday, December 10, 11:30 to 2:00 PM
John Bale Book Store
158 Grand Street

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Yesterday’s image showed the American Brass mothership mills in Waterbury where the surviving tube mill was the last functioning building of the South End mill complex, and one of the places in which I photographed active production. Here is the other. This is American Brass in Ansonia where the casting house still functioned turning out large billets of metal to be processed by the tube mill upstream in Waterbury.

The large Ansonia site is similarly distinguished in pedigree as the Waterbury site. It is descended from the brass company initially founded by Anson Phelps and Sheldon Smith when they built Birmingham in the 1830s. Later it moved to this site when Anson Phelps built Ansonia. It was known here as Ansonia Brass and Copper, and when I photographed the casting house here, until 2013, it was known as Ansonia Copper & Brass. 

The Casting House is the building on the right with the tin can sculpture crawling up the side. Directly across the bridge is the Powerhouse that drove all the mills. On the left we see the front of the Rod Mill which extends a long way beyond the edge of the picture.  A second row of buildings across the rail corridor includes a flat-wire mill and an extrusion mill, as well as a bunch of other shops and warehouse spaces, and at the very top is the corporate office building and labs. The canal, that Anson Phelps paid for and Almon Farrel dug to bring power to the new industrial village of Ansonia, runs through this property still. 

Both the site shown yesterday and this site are facing imminent demolition. I have been following and photographing the deconstruction of both sites. These two images mark the start of a series of images I’m titling, “Postindustrial."

Monday, December 7, 2015


BOOK SIGNING: Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry
Thursday, December 10, 11:30 to 2:00 PM
John Bale Book Store
158 Grand Street

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL:  These are the mothership mills of American Brass Company, once the largest brass manufacturer in the world. In the years just before 1900 American Brass Company was formed from smaller brass companies up and down the Naugatuck River Valley, but two companies dominated the consolidation. 

The red brick building with the Victorian tower is the 1880’s lampworks of Holmes, Booth and Haydens. It’s what’s left of a larger group of buildings. Israel Holmes was one of the founders of the brass industry; Hiram Haydens was one of its most inventive innovators. Because of his interest in photography the company also made lenses and photographic plates. The Naugatuck River makes a loop here, and old maps indicate a canal once crossed the loop, a natural spot for Holmes, Booth and Haydens to set their earliest millworks. Lamps from this surviving building lit rooms, wherever there was oil, throughout world. 

The river winds around the east side of Holmes, Booth & Haydens and between the gray stack of a recently added power plant and the old brick stack from the powerhouse of Benedict and Burnham. Aaron Benedict was another founder of the brass industry. Benedict and Burnham’s success made it the first brass factory in Waterbury to incorporate. Holmes, Booth & Haydens sits on the west side of the Naugatuck, Benedict & Burnham is on the east.

As lawyers and bankers worked out the details that would stitch together American Brass, evidence suggests workers at Benedict & Burnham were pioneering new benches for making metal tube and assembling a tube mill. The tube mill, however, was being built on the Holmes, Booth & Haydens side of the river. The second Victorian tower was added at that time. The sawtooth roof was added when the tube mill was scaled up for World War I. By then it was all American Brass.

Those who follow these postings will have realized that mill, scaled further and updated for World War II, was the working mill I photographed until it closed in 2013. It is the working tube mill pictured and discussed in Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry. 

Across the river, beside the brick stack on the powerhouse wall are what look like chalk marks. Although the company has not existed for over a century, up close those marks spell out, “Benedict & Burnham.”