Saturday, February 7, 2015

Back to the River: Winding through Brass

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: From the Bank Street Bridge the river is closer and now feels almost lazy where it winds through the middle of the overgrown campus of American Brass Anaconda. It is a place that has become dear to me through four years of regular photo shoots there.  The river winds in front of the old chimney to the powerhouse, whose wall still carries giant letters spelling out, "Benedict & Burnham.” All the buildings on that side of the river closed down ages ago and have suffered the indignities of abandonment: gangs, metal thieves, leaking roofs, final cave-ins. When I go there I’m careful not to back up for a shot, as all the manhole covers have been stolen.

Meanwhile, on the west side of the river the old extrusion mill was still using processes and machines put there sometime after 1903 to produce specification-critical, metal tube for our nuclear subs. I’d photographed the last pour of the casting furnace in the fall of 2013, and I'd watched the last of that metal pass through this extrusion mill ( which closed two months later.

However, standing on the Bank Street bridge I wasn’t thinking of the men or machines I had photographed there, but of the stratified remains of 150 years of industrial adaptations which I had begun to learn to read in the awkward junctures of the extrusion mill architecture and read about in a Raber Associates report. Sections went back to the Civil War. An 1880s section began as Holmes, Booth, & Haydens lampworks. Changes in window details there whispered of carefully paced expansion, but south end truncation revealed itself where structure embedded in the brick end-wall itched like phantom limbs toward lost passageways.

The tower in this picture and the windowed wall on either side mimic the forms and detailing of the Holmes, Booth & Haydens’ lampworks, though also clearly different. I’ve read they were added in 1895. Inside the tower is a tank for hydraulic oil, though the shadow of a missing stair tiptoes up two walls. The walls flanking the tower were built to enclose motors, hydraulics and the long steel expansion benches and draw benches of a tube mill that was later expanded. It was still being used in 2013 ( when I photographed there, though the phantom stair in the tower and the place to which it once led were were a mystery to all.

WWI produced the biggest addition, expanding the capacity of the tube mill beneath a broad, sawtooth roof. That’s probably when the pylons were set in the river to carry a single branch line past the tube mill in the place where once the Naugatuck Railroad’s, double-tracked, trunk line had run before 1909 and the opening of Union Station. 

The extrusion mill was modified again in 1931 and again at the start of WWII. That was when the second extruder was added, the one that was still running when I shot there. It was the factory’s centerpiece, and at the end it became the reason for the factory’s existence: the last place in the U.S. where the sub's tube could be produced. The factory closed in December of 2013. I watched them scrap, and I saw the salvage leave for Mexico nine months later.

The story of the active Brass Mill is told in:
BRASS VALLEY: The Fall of an American Industry
Available as of September from most book sellers.