StelcoWorks is one of those UE locations that never fails to impress me when I visit. As of this writing, I've explored there about a half dozen times...and each time I find new areas and interesting details I missed on previous trips. Its one of those places that is impossible to fully appreciate in just one day.
For anyone who's never had the pleasure of visiting the old Stelco building on Barton St. - its a place that's rich in both decay and renewal. Crumbling walls, peeling paint, sagging roof girders and broken glass are contrasted by the numerous plants (and trees!) that have stubbornly flourished inside the walls, growing from cracks in the floor despite all odds. Several areas are almost surreal in this regard, and one has to admire and respect the tenacity of a plant that can survive in this seemingly hostile and bleak environment.
Upon entering the premises, one is struck with wonder and awe by the sheer size and scale of the cavernous building. In the northwest area near the annealing vats, the ceiling towers some forty feet overhead. Whispered voices echo in the vast emptiness, and every noise in the place is magnified and distorted - making it nearly impossible to ascertain the direction of its source. The slightest outdoor breeze causes pieces of dangling roof structure to bang loudly against the building, giving the sometimes unsettling impression of another presence in the building. High overhead the natural air flow causes old roof fans to slowly turn, as if still powered by a motor someone neglected to turn off. On calm days, the building is silent as a tomb, save for the occasional sounds that filter in from the surrounding streets.
The look of the interior is in constant transition depending on the time of day. Large sections of roof are missing in many areas which allows the sunlight to paint everything with its ever-changing lightbrush. At midday the bright sunlight casts vivid sunbeam shafts through open holes in the roof. At sunset the wall textures take on a warm glow, making the decay more rich and vibrant. On rainy days the water pours in from above, causing huge sheets of water to pool on the floors, further adding to the ongoing erosion - yet at the same time providing life-giving sustenance for the vegetation. Its both a blessing and a curse.
To say Stelco is a photographer's paradise would be a gross understatement. Virtually every area of the site contains beautiful vistas that mere words can't adequately describe. A photographer is constantly left to make decisions between scenic wide-angle views and closeup shots of intriguing details and minute points of interest. Sometimes a room dramatically changes its appearance just by a cloud passing overhead and altering the available light. Light and shadow perform a timeless ballet in perfect synchronicity, revealing details one moment and then just as quickly cloaking them again in mystery.
You can't visit the place without taking time to stop and ponder what the working conditions must have been like back in its operational days. The constant screech and clang of heavy machinery, the harsh cacophony of industrial steel production...and of course the ever-present and overpowering heat. For those of us who work in the relative comfort of climate-controlled offices or retail places, this world would have been as alien as the depths of the ocean. Soot and sweat would have been a day-long ritual.
For those hearty (and well-equipped) enough to venture below ground, the lower levels of Stelco are just as interesting and rich in discovery as the rest - although good strong flashlights and a supply of spare batteries is a definite requisite. An explorer doesn't want to find themselves caught in a dark and remote sub-level with a fading flashlight. One must also be wary of potential hazards such as PCB contaminants and asbestos, not to mention a gamut of low-hanging objects, nails protruding from caved floor boards, and of course...broken glass.
Throughout the building there is ample evidence of the numerous fires that have ravaged many sections after the plant closed in 1986, the most recent in the northeast area in June/2004. Whether the charred structure adds or detracts to the overall personality of the building is a matter for debate. But one thing is certain, no fire can completely destroy the place...given that so much of it is built of non-combustible concrete, mortar and brick. Its a safe bet that the only eventual fate of Stelco will be at the hands of a demolition crew and the wrecking ball.
A generation has passed since steel workers bustled and toiled in the building, but one gets a sense of their ethereal presence still lurking in the shadows just out of sight, quizzically peering out from behind soot-stained faces at the adventurous explorers, curious visitors and neighbourhood children who frequently use the place as their playground.
For young and old, history hangs in the air like a palpable sensation, providing an excuse for reflection and appreciation of a bygone era.