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Urban explorers dare to investigate seldom-seen Pittsburgh sites

Mysteries are revealed but left intact

Sunday, September 07, 2003

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The mission you're about to go on is, technically, illegal.

But, for better or worse, that's part of the allure of a subversive, sometimes extreme sport known as urban exploring -- or "urban ex" to many of its Generation X and Y practitioners.

Pittsburgh Urban Explorers Tristan Robinson, left, and Fred Angstadt leave a culvert that leads to an old industrial complex in Plum. The teenage friends from Penn Hills heard activity and decided not to enter. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Related article

Some groups explore via the legal route

They love to go where no man has gone ... for a long time. That means shut-down factories, abandoned businesses, condemned homes, even working rooftops and storm sewers.

As worded in the subtitle of a 'zine of this scene, Infiltration, it's all about "going places you're not supposed to go."

Now that we've parked beside a road in the Universal section of Penn Hills, gather around the trunk of the car, from which four teenagers are pulling their exploring gear: flashlights, a water canteen, a video camera. One young man, Fred Angstadt, pockets a tiny digital camera as the tallest, Tristan Robinson, sprays him with insect repellent. The one with the video camera, Bryan Boyle, wears fingerless gloves. The other, Josh Benedetto, wears the same kind of gloves, an orange hard hat and a climbing harness.

Meet the core members of the Pittsburgh Urban Explorers, or PUX, a loose group that formed about two years ago.

Tristan tells them to remember their creed: Exploration, not vandalism. The rest nod affirmatively.

And then they're off, disappearing single-file into dense weeds and trees. Their objective: Universal Atlas Cement Co.

Built in 1908 by Carnegie Steel Co., the 200-acre site became the world's second-largest cement plant and the area's economic foundation. Locals accepted the constant coating of dust along with the paychecks, but it later signaled the end, when pollution laws forced the plant to close in the 1970s. Much of the complex, including massive silos, still stands -- a gargantuan white elephant.

After leading his band of explorers over a makeshift bridge that spans a stream, Angstadt motions for them to stop and duck: A truck is approaching along the railroad tracks. After it passes, they step out of the woods and start onto unfenced cement plant property. All of them are eager to explain to newcomers how the structure ahead was a cooling tower, but what is most striking about this man-made pond now is how the surface is covered with pink-bloomed water lilies. The only sound is the buzzing of dragonflies.

Bryan Boyle videotapes many of the expeditions for the Pittsburgh Urban Explorers' archive, including this visit to a building at the old Newfield Mine. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Then the truck returns. A man gets out and yells at the group. Angstadt walks back to him and, giving his name, explains what PUX is, how they visit and document locations like this. The man isn't sure what to make of it. His gold Union Railroad Police badge gleams.

He warns that they're trespassing and could be subject to a fine and a criminal record. He tells them they should leave.

They comply, grumbling only after the guard is out of earshot that the cement plant isn't in his jurisdiction.

They'll be back.

For now, there are plenty of other places they can explore.

Within minutes of piling back into the car and parking at a nearby supermarket, the troop is filing down a busy road, their flashlights out of place on such a sunny day. They don't even turn down their chatter as they walk through a bashed-in gate and down a dirt road to the closed Newfield Mine, which straddles Penn Hills and Plum.

The brick buildings appear bombed out -- the handiwork of dedicated vandals. Robinson crouches near a crude fire ring and sifts through a mound of papers, which on closer inspection turn out to be mine records. He reads off the dates -- 1973, 1971. Here's a pay stub from Nov. 30, 1969, when a miner named Ludwig earned $242.34. Robinson lifts one of the yellowed slips to his nose and announces, "Ah, smell it: The smell of urban exploring!"

Inside, the musty, dusty aroma is heavy, and the floors glitter with glass. Following their flashlight beams, the guys drop into a dark hole to a basement. Their muffled voices announce their discovery of an old box telephone.

Fred Angstadt leads fellow Pittsburgh Urban Explorers down a path to a defunct Universal Atlas cement factory. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

"Who's up for some coffee?" Angstadt jokes, lifting a greasy old pot from a subterranean shelf.

And so they crawl and climb through the complex, ignoring signs that read, "No Trespassing. Violators Will Be Prosecuted."

What appears to be a former office is piled with papers, including employee files and canceled checks. On the floor of the "shower room" is a bottle of Vitalis.

Benedetto finds a shelf with 16 electrical outlets that he announces had to be the charging station for miners' headlamps. On it is a federal Bureau of Mines safety sticker:

"In case of a mine disaster when escape is cut off! When you hear 'three shots,' pound as hard as possible 10 times. Rest 15 minutes. Repeat this cycle. When you hear '5 shots' on the surface you are located, and help is on the way."

The explorers have an overly dramatic if playful patter of their own. Spooked by pair of swallows flitting around the ceiling of one building, Robinson says, "Josh, you have a hat. You go in."

But they're sober when they come upon a wall covered with spray-painted swastikas and burned-on crosses. "That's a delight," Benedetto says sarcastically, before calling out, "Hey, Tristan! We just stumbled into our local neo-Nazi hall!"

They pride themselves on not breaking into or doing damage to the sites they visit, though sometimes they'll leave their calling card in the form of "PUX" written in chalk. (They have taken doors off hinges, Angstadt says, "but we'll put them back.")

Benedetto does wield his flashlight to beat down a nail sticking up from the floor. "Be careful, "he calls out. "This is a puncture hazard!"

They can't resist picking up things: machinery belts, a spent fire extinguisher. But the only things they wind up taking are photos and video -- that is, until Benedetto tucks under an arm one of the dumped employee files, to add to their archives of "rescued" documents back home.

On the way out, they encounter three boys who have parked their bikes to do what they probably think of as just poking around.

After about an hour, the urban explorers are hiking back to the supermarket, where they snack on cookies and iced tea.

Mission accomplished.

The explorers don't always like what they find. Josh Benedetto says he new "Philistines and cretins" break into buildings, but he was shocked to find the hateful messages on the walls of a Newfield Mine building. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Back at the Angstadt house, the guys -- boyhood friends who graduated from Penn Hill High School last year -- explain their hobby, which they started, naturally enough, like the boys they ran into at the mine.

Angstadt, 19, grew up exploring railroad yards and tunnels and storm sewers. He says, "We never knew other people did this kind of stuff" until Robinson discovered urban exploring sites on the Internet, where explorers post their exploits in words and images.

Now their group has about a dozen members, and its own currently-being-revived site -- -- is linked to others around the country and beyond.

The groups are quite diverse. There are "drainers" dedicated to charting a storm sewer system in Minneapolis, by foot and by float.

Detroit's Urban Exploration League, recently spotlighted in a Los Angeles Times story, delves into downtown department stores, hotels and other grand ruins.

Interests range from defunct Ohio amusement parks and depressed West Virginia coal fields to the "abandoned" Pennsylvania Turnpike and working steam tunnels at Penn State University. (Utility tunnels are magnetic at colleges coast to coast, including Carnegie Mellon University, where official policy warns that trespassing in steam tunnels will result in "serious disciplinary action.")

"The whole point of urban exploration is, there's so much out there that you don't know about," says Benedetto. "We're the people who ask why and go to find out."

They are keenly interested in the history of the sites and the artifacts they find there. Back home, they study the technical documents they say they saved from destruction at the abandoned U.S. Steel research laboratory on the cement plant site. Many are marked "Confidential: For use within United States Steel by authorized personnel only."

Says Benedetto, "It's kind of ridiculous that some of these highly classified documents went uncollected." They haven't contacted U.S. Steel, but he says that if the company wants the documents, it's welcome to them.

All kinds of people are into this kind of thing, so you can't make generalizations under "urban exploration" or "urban adventure" or any other tag. But according to the Toronto-based Infiltration, which publishes on paper and on the Web, "Genuine urban explorers never vandalize, steal or damage anything -- we don't even litter. We're in it for the thrill of discovery and a few nice pictures, and probably have more respect for and appreciation of our cities' hidden spaces than most of the people who think we're naughty."

The editor, who identifies himself only by his handle, "Ninjalicious," says organized urban exploration started about 15 years ago. But the timeline on his site starts in 1861, when poet Walt Whitman wrote a newspaper account of his visit to Brooklyn's recently abandoned Atlantic Avenue subway tunnel, the first one in the world in 1844. It mentions urban explorers bad (Joseph D. Konopka, arrested last year and sentenced to 13 years in prison for storing cyanide in Chicago's subway tunnels) and good (Vadim Mikhailov, who last year led Russian authorities into a Moscow theater, where Chechen rebels had taken 922 people hostage, by a little-known underground route).

In a telephone interview (to further protect his identity, he did the phoning), "Ninj" said urban exploration had been booming until post-Sept. 11 security concerns "had a major dampening effect, especially in the U.S."

He estimates that urban exploration has about 4,000 to 5,000 enthusiasts worldwide. They're not all affiliated with the 300 to 350 identifiable groups, many of which are linked to his site, There, Ninj writes that exploration isn't harmful or that dangerous: "The liability-conscious may disagree, but in my opinion, the hobby is no less of a personally assessed risk than smoking, driving or even riding a bike."

PUX members know what they do has risks -- at least one of them has fallen partially through a rotted wooden floor -- and that's why they at least pair up on missions. They're conscious of but not too worried about other hazards ranging from asbestos to rats, and so far have suffered only "bruises and scrapes," Benedetto says.

Nor have they ever been arrested. The few times someone has stopped them, they've identified themselves and talked with the person rather than run.

They aren't concerned about being identified by their real names. "We're pretty open about it," Benedetto says. "We want people to know we're out there."

He's starting at ITT Technical Institute. Bryan Boyle, also 18, is starting at Indiana University of Pennsylvania at Punxsutawney. Robinson, 18, a Penn Hills volunteer firefighter, commutes to the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. Angstadt plans to join the Marines this fall. But they say the group will continue exploring.

Their geeky boyishness may cut them some slack, but some of their activity has been not so innocent.

Angstadt freely talks about monitoring security at some sites, and says, "We're really good at getting into secured areas." In Plum, they've gotten into one barbed-wire-fenced factory, still used for storage, via a culvert under an adjacent road.

Angstadt has entered active off-limits areas ranging from the Monroeville Expo Mart after hours to the roof of UPMC St. Margaret Hospital near Aspinwall, and says he'd love to figure out a way to "summit" the U.S. Steel Tower. But he acknowledges that such exploits are much more dicey in a post-Sept. 11 world, and says he doesn't attempt them these days. "The stuff I'll do now is sneak into motels and get pool access."

It's as clear as posted signs how authorities feel about most urban explorers. Last month in Australia, the site of the Sydney Cave Clan was shut down by lawyers for the Roads and Traffic Authority of New South Wales, concerned that "the promotion of these activities on your Web sites could risk human safety and threaten the security of its infrastructure."

The Toronto Transit Commission told The Associated Press of using Web intelligence to foil subway tunnel expeditions, even sending investigators to explorers' homes.

In December, Maine police panned the anonymous Bangor Explorers Guild site for encouraging behavior that could get someone hurt or killed. One deputy chief said that "we'd treat it like any other crime."

Angstadt isn't concerned, since simple trespassing carries a maximum $300 fine. He expects he'd be warned before being charged. (Actually, the trespasser also could incur court costs, and Pennsylvania's penalties for defiant and criminal trespass can be much stronger: imprisonment for up to 10 years or a fine of up to $25,000 or both.)

Still, this is not the biggest worry of law enforcement and other officials, many of whom haven't heard of "urban exploring" per se.

But then, young people going places where they shouldn't go, that's timeless, says Pittsburgh's chief building inspector Ron Graziano. Part of his bureau's responsibility is to monitor abandoned and condemned properties, and it gives special attention to ones that they call VOV -- vacant and open to vagrants.

When urban explorers enter closed buildings, it "is definitely trespassing, and we wouldn't encourage it," he says, but, "if they have, we don't know about it." The bureau's biggest worries are fires started by youths and the homeless, and squatters -- people who enter an abandoned property and then won't leave.

Some explorers ask permission to enter certain sites, but that can take the edge off the adventure. And in the end, adventure is what urban explorers are really looking for in a world with fewer and fewer real untamed frontiers. Ninjalicious laments the increasing rules attached to our shrinking common areas, and says, "The world is just moving away from any sort of society where people can have adventures without paying to have those adventures."

Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at or 412-263-1930.

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