I can see its looming smokestack every day on my way to work. I can make out the sign, bold, all-caps letters against the sky: FIRST PRIZE CENTER. I even approached it last year, shying away from a shady tunnel down its crumbling structure at the last moment. I wasn’t going to let you taunt me much longer, my friend. A few weeks ago, B and I finally made it in, explored this industrial maze and came back with a few photos. If you ever wondered what’s inside, read on, it’s a story of pipes, broken catwalks, vats, giant letters, zombies in barrels, 80′s toys & Bugs Bunny.
More photos below. Click on any of the thumbnails to open a larger view, or check the full-screen Flickr slideshow if you have Flash installed.
The Tobin First Prize Center can be seen from I90, near exit 5. Sitting between West Albany and Colonie, in the middle of town, this old meat-packing plant is not your typical abandoned building lost in the sticks. I’ve seen construction work going on near this 32-acre site as long as I remember. I drove by for the first time back in August 2009, to recon the place. Sure enough the building was surrounded by businesses. I made no efforts to hide from the trucks going in and out of the adjacent parking lot, I was just passing by. I waved hello and climbed on top of a pile of rubble to take pictures of the façade at sunset and the old railroad switching yard.
A quick history of the Tobin’s packing plant can be found on Wikipedia, lifted from servinghistory.com. The slaughterhouse roots of West Albany continued into the later half of the 20th century, decades after the railroad abandoned hamlet, thanks to the Tobin Packing Company. In 1924 the Albany Packing Company was incorporated, and it would later merge with the Rochester Packing Company to form the Tobin Packing Company. Tobin’s First Prize continues to be one of the most top-selling brands in the Northeastern US, and especially Albany, according to the current owner of the brand, John Morrell and Company. The plant was according to former employees so busy it pumped out 50,000 hot dogs, 700 hams, and 20,000 pounds of kielbasa a day; and every hour roughly 360 hogs were slaughtered to keep up with this production.
I love the catwalk going straight to the upper levels, the long smokestack, and the vegetation growing on top of the structure. What’s the story behind those broken windows? Who worked there? My friend Jessica Pasko and many commenters had something to say about it on All Over Albany back in May. I walked around for a bit, only to realize that a few companies were still sharing the first floor of the First Prize Center. Be careful here, should you pay a visit. After ambling for half an hour, I noticed a small passage going under the building. This is my way in. Alas, it looked pretty unsafe and darn close to a small, very functioning electrical power plant. The one to the right of the photo above. I pondered my options and figured I’d rather get my BFF Bennett get electrocuted first. We make a good team.
Fast forward exactly a year. I was working with B on pictures for the Grand Street Vacant Lot Project and we were done early. It was warm out and boredom started to settle in. I suggested we finally explore the First Prize Center. Nod. We grabbed our gear and off we went. A short drive from my house later, we parked across the street and put on our best inconspicuous looks. There was a lot of activity around, no time to waste. I showed the passage to B, we jumped over the fence (allegedly) and got in. This was, indeed, our way in the monolith. We stepped in the middle of a large pump room, a tangle of rusty pipes, valves and catwalks, pictured above. We took photos for a bit, B looking for his customary abandoned chair shot, me searching for my usual decrepit fridge shot. He settled on old gauges, I followed.
We tried our luck in a few unlit hallways but the doors leading further inside were shut solid. We were about to sign off when B pointed at an opening above our heads. A good 20+ feet over. On top of a distant silo. I looked at him with disbelief but I really wanted to get in. What’s more, he didn’t get electrocuted so far, so that must have been another of his lucky day. We climbed up, carefully walking along the metal framing of broken catwalks (photo above), bending over a few pipes, through the gap he had spotted. I looked down: not so bad. As I caught up to him I realized this was really opening up the whole building.
The rest of the adventure? Unfortunately, a good 70% of this huge, labyrinthic (it’s a word!) building was in complete darkness and mostly empty. While this didn’t make for good photos, this certainly made for a few creepy moments. What can I say, I’m easily impressed. Can you really grow something on this radioactive mud above, for instance? What was in this huge vat too? I thought MythBusters already tried to make a water heater explode?
In one distinct room, shortly after I stepped on a nail (tetanus 1 – Seb 0), we bumped into three large wooden pallets choke-full of tapes. Hundreds and hundreds of musical tapes from lesser known artists, an improbable memorabilia stored in the dark. Don’t get any wrong idea please, leave them be. A few minutes later, we walked in yet another musty windowless area. One massive wall had collapsed, probably from water damage. In the middle of the room, black menacing barrels (photo above). Yes, menacing I’m telling you. If you have seen the 1985 documentary The Return of the Living Dead, you know why I would use that word. This is the kind of barrel the military puts Trioxin-infected zombies in, right? Right.
We finally reached the upper floor and an access to the rooftops. We couldn’t miss this opportunity to take a picture of the iconic First Prize Center sign. On the same floor, we stumbled upon enormous spare letters (above), and a few feet away, a child’s tricycle. A lost toy? No surprise here, it’s a classic urban exploration conundrum.
A possible explanation came a few minutes later, in the form of our very own Ali Baba’s cave. Picture dozens and dozens of toys from the mid 80’s, littering a whole floor (photo above). B hypothesized a Toys for Tots storage, something we had seen in the Central Warehouse before. Star Wars Rebel Infantry Deluxe Pack? Checked. The severed head of Bugs Bunny? Checked. Wait, that was probably a pillow…
Our journey ended as we entered one of the worst pigeon’s dominion I had ever seen. We couldn’t venture very far into this room of pure evil, the layer of pigeon crap was half a foot deep and crackled under the foot. I don’t even think there was oxygen left, or any room for joy and happiness for that matter. Bennett always had a special relationship with pigeons, I think he really wished he had a flamethrower that day. Allegedly again.
What will happen to the First Prize Center? Tobin closed the slaughterhouse in 1981, laying off 600 people. Several deals have been dropped since the late 1990s, including at one point or another a Walmart, Kmart, Home Depot (now across I90), Lowe’s or Whole Foods. A sporting goods superstore and a Salvation Army super center have been rumored as well. This prime real estate, owned by the Albany County Industrial Development Agency, is now being marketed for $5 million. Thanks to a rezoning expansion and pending considerable financing challenges, this location may one day see commercial and residential units. (Source: The Business Review, Wikipedia).
As you can tell by now, we either missed or didn’t notice too many remnants of the building’s meat packing past. A lot of rooms were certainly meant for cold storage. Is this room above the kill floor? Was this trough on the floor is runoff meant to circulate blood? This area is directly connected to the huge catwalk outside the building, which was most likely used to pipe the blood away from the kill floor into a bloodhouse nearby, where it would be barreled and sold to local farmers as fertilizer (source).
Our way out of the building was unremarkable in a comical way. We found some stairs and reached the floor below. Then another one. As we progressed further down, the dust disappeared, paint ceased to peel and time moved forward. On the second floor, we saw the entrance to a fully functional office, a sure sign that a main entrance was nearby. We found it on the first floor. We dusted off, put the cameras back in the bag and exited through the main building doors. They had been open all along.
Bennett took photos of as well, of course. Here is a glimpse below to wet your appetite, the rest can be found in his Flickr photoset. He has his own side of the story on his blog (no B, I scouted properly). Check it out, it’s in proper English.
Rosemary Armao ran an interesting series about the place earlier in 2012 at the TU. Check what she has to say, starting with The story of the Tobin Packing Company of West Albany.
Urban Explorations in Print
Are you looking for more? I have assembled a hundred photos from 10 abandoned locations in my first photo book, “The Unnoticed”, available online and at different branches of the Albany Public Library. Find more about this 136-page volume, available in hard cover, soft cover, and eBook format for iPad/iPhone, in the book section.
More abandoned buildings are listed under the “Urban Exploration” category.