On the Possible Existence of Ghosts at the Heppenstall Plant
Story and photography by Justin Wuycheck
Like the hollow, abandoned houses at the ends of dirt roads, the Heppenstall plant of Lawrenceville seems like it should have ghosts. Its brick walls are crumbling and stained with rust gouts; many of the windows lie shattered on the pocked asphalt. Dark, wet rooms lurk silently in the mill buildings, small rooms containing lockers, schematics, razors, old mugs, moldering newspaper clippings, lots and lots of memories.
Furthermore, a fair share of dramatic accidents must have occurred over the eighty-nine years of Heppenstall's existence, and don't ghosts inhabit scenes of tragedy? There is a small glass mug the color of frozen milk in one of those rotting rooms; a story swirling in its bottom says Leonard held it when a cherry-colored ingot fell on his head. He was sipping coffee (cream, no sugar), walking across the mill floor andBAM!didn't even scream. The funeral was closed-casket, and his wife couldn't say goodbye. That's a good reason to come back and haunt a place.
But instead of weird, individual spectres, past works inhabit Heppenstall. This might be because ghosts have enough sense to stay away from where they toiled for ten, twenty, thirty years. "I haunt the edifice that gave me a sore lower back. I haunt it... FOR ETERNITY!" Bad idea. Trauma is one thing to attract a ghost; daily drudgery is another.
But that's the spirit, the ambience, of the Heppenstall mills: labor. Heavy, sweaty, hot labor, the doldrums of working with 2500 degree metal. Below the cries of mourning doves and the shush of tree leaves in the wind, one can almost hear the ovens roaring, men shouting rote warnings and curses, the jokes half-drowned by the sound of a pneumatic press contorting steel. A man operates a furnace, opens a weighted door and stares into a glowering fire until the glow reflects in the grimace of his eyes and he becomes part of the machine. He doesn't lose his humanity; it just leaves for a while. Eight hours a day (more if there's a baby on the way), he mans the oven, and it runs him. And when he's done and visits the corner bar with his friends, most of his humanity returns; just a little remains in the furnace, burning brightest of all.
Seeing the remains of the humanity at Heppenstall is easy; seeing the labor is more difficult. The main mill buildings were eviscerated of any useful machinery after the plant completely closed in May 1979. The floors are dirt; the remaining ovens mourn silently. Pools have collected in shallow holes left by machines' moorings, still pools where mosquito larvae flit and dance in insulated silence. Only the overhead cranes look somewhat serviceable, with their hardy boasts of "Weight Limit: 50 tons/100,000 lbs," but they'd only shudder if they had power; unable to move on their tracks or lower their gigantic hooks, they'd struggle against twenty years of rust.
If one imagines very hard, though, a crane vibrates with a little hum and a whistle of electricity, and it starts the slow glide down the tracks, lugging a thirty-five-ton generator wheel. Imagine more and a man appears, signaling a second worker, the crane operator. They place the wheel on a train car, then sit down at a table and eat the lunches they packed at six o' clock this morning, thirty years ago: chipped ham, Town Talk white bread, and Heinz ketchup and mustard. They're friendly, but their eyes are brownish smoke.
Well, maybe there are ghosts at Heppenstall, nostalgic for one more turn at long-gone equipment. They probably sit in those dark, wet rooms, waiting for the shift to start. Having drunk their coffee, they fidget; one guy tells a joke. They laugh, and the one worker looks at the clock. 7:59 a.m. A guy just married two weeks back in 1958; they ask about the honeymoon. He turns red, and they keep teasing him. But they're all ready for the shift. The timekeeper looks at the clock again. Still 7:59 a.m. Always 7:59.