Cruising along the back roads of Maine, looking out beyond the labyrinth of evergreens, you catch a glimpse of something. A shape, maybe, or lines that don’t jive with nature’s unpredictability.
Sometimes, it’s something more overt—an old mill, a forgotten manor, a dark hulk overtaken by weeds, its purpose lost to time.
The curiosity starts out innocent enough. The first sight grabs your attention, makes you turn your head. Serotonin levels in your brain fluctuate, and a sudden surge of adrenaline leads you to it: an abandoned house, a crumbling barn, or the big momma—an abandoned military facility. Did you bring your camera, you wonder?
All over Maine lay decaying pockets of time: places of industry and family sacrificed to wilderness and progress. For some, the lure of the hunt, the exploration of these places, is far too great to ignore.
“At the time, I was traveling quite a bit for work,” said David Dauphinee, the administrator and primary contributor at coldwarrelics.com, a website that documents Maine’s abandoned Cold War-era structures. “I would pass by a place, I’d budget a little bit of time and swing by and check it out. Sometimes you go see a place, and it generates more questions than it does answers.”
While there’s no official title for those who see abandoned sections of Maine as a means to travel through time, many consider themselves “urban explorers,” casual members of a growing national trend of urban exploration (or “urbex,” in hobbyists’ parlance). As the name suggests, it involves the exploration of man-made structures, often seeking to appreciate them in more intimate and unique ways than the casual passerby. Photography, an interest in history, and the desire to document are often involved, and although some urban explorers see trespassing as a means to an end, it’s not always the case—many remain outside of a structure, or obtain landowner permission first. Most follow a “leave no trace” philosophy, and those who practice vandalism are frowned upon.
“For me, it’s a curiosity about those things. I’ve always appreciated military stuff in one capacity or another,” said Dauphinee. “There’s just a natural curiosity about it, and also the fact that it is in our backyard, the fact that we had this huge infrastructure in Maine and nobody really talks about it. It’s just sort of out there, left alone and nobody ever discussed it.”
“I’ve always found Loring Air Force Base to be the most fascinating,” he continued, “just because of the sheer scope of it. You’re talking almost three miles of runway, they had nuclear weapons there… that’s pretty amazing when you think about the capacity and the power of a nuclear weapon, and a bunch of them were there. We had nuclear weapons in Maine! That’s just kind of neat to say.”
Most Maine residents can name at least one abandoned area that’s captured their imagination: the airfield at Pickerel Pond, for instance. The old waterworks building in Bangor (since repurposed as low-income apartments). The shuttered bomb shelter along the bike path in Old Town. The “Captain Park house” in Searsport.
Dauphinee says when you’re at a loss for answers about a site, turning to the internet helps and allows you to meet fellow explorers.
“You start Googling around on the internet, and then you run into this guy or that guy who knows a little bit more about it, you kind of make some friends, it sort of cascades from there,” he said. “I took a picture of a mural at Loring. There’s a mural of a B-52 on the wall in one of the hangars that the maintenance crew painted at some point, and a guy emailed me out of the blue not long ago who lives in New Hampshire and said, ‘I’m the guy who painted that!’”
Websites and social media groups for urban exploration abound. Author and historian David Fiske, a Bangor native now living in upstate New York, runs the Abandoned Maine Facebook group and has written the book “Forgotten on the Kennebec: Abandoned Places and Quirky People.” An avid hiker, his curiosity for the abandoned was lit after discovering the book “Abandoned New England.”
“You can be traipsing off into the woods,” said Fiske, “and you think you’re in the middle of nowhere and [communing] with nature or whatever, and all of a sudden you come across a stone wall or a foundation or the remains of an old mill and you realize that this place wasn’t always forest like this. Somebody lived here and somebody worked here. I find that part fascinating.”
Many tend to think of ghost towns as something “out west,” but there are in some cases entire villages in Maine that just didn’t work out, Fiske said.
“The one that’s the most like a ghost town is Swan Island, which is in the Kennebec River across from Richmond,” he said. “It’s a wildlife preserve now (managed by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife—Ed.), but there’s some of the houses there, some of them date back to colonial times. It was called the ‘Village of Perkins,’ but it basically died out as time went on. People stopped living there, [due to] changes in industry and…the way the ferries and bridges worked, but you can still go there…and you can hike around and look at the houses that are left.”
“At one point it was somebody’s pride and joy,” he said, “whether it was a mill or a house or whatever. [It’s] just been left to decay. Now it’s something that’s a curiosity, but at one point people actually lived there or worked there. Now it’s just something people see and wonder about, and in some cases wait until it finally crumbles away.”
Fiske said he doesn’t encourage people to enter places that aren’t open to the public—without permission it’s trespassing, he said, and potentially dangerous. Still, some urban explorers chance it, driven by curiosity and a willingness to take the risk.
One explorer, who goes by the urban exploration handle “MaineUrbex,” spends his free time exploring and documenting locations from Maine to Massachusetts.
“It was an exhilarating feeling, exploring something that had so much history,” he said of an early trip to Battery Steele, a publicly-accessible WWII fort on Peaks Island in Maine. “From there, I wanted to explore more abandoned places. I’ve visited some [abandoned] hospitals in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, and it’s just an eerie feeling going into some of these buildings. For instance, there was an insane asylum [I explored], and as you walked through the halls you could feel the presence of the people that once roamed, the patients that have been there…it’s like history is stuck in that building until it’s fully gone.”
He didn’t just jump into the urban exploration game. Thanks to YouTube, he developed a fascination with abandoned places.
“I had stumbled upon a video of someone going through an abandoned insane asylum, and from there it sparked my interest,” he said. “It took me about a year of watching those types of videos until I mustered up enough courage to do it myself, which I still don’t get how I did that. Ever since then I haven’t been able to stop.”
Today, he’s a regular contributor of publicly-available photos and videos of his explorations on YouTube and on sites like Abandonment of Maine, another Facebook group that caters to urban explorers. He admits that sometimes urban exploration puts you at risk, and recognizes the legal and safety ramifications involved when you trespass.
“You’re always a little 50/50 on it,” he said. “You’ve gotta do your research. For instance, when I drive to a place I’m always looking everywhere, I’m on edge. I feel like there’s going to be someone out to get me, a cop there or something. Most of the places [that I visit] have been open to the elements for a decade or more, and then you have people who are scrapping copper…It’s scary, obviously, thinking about the consequences. Once you step in you kind of go, ‘I’m already here. [If] you get caught, you get caught, but if not, I’m going to photograph this, I’m going to film it so there’s history of it before it gets demolished or collapses.’”
During the summer, he’s out at least twice a week with a buddy and a camera. While many of the sites he documents are visited with permission, some are not—and he said he’ll walk that fine line of risk for as long as he can. For him, the benefits outweigh the costs.
“The legal part of it scares me, but to me it’s worth it,” he said. “I can’t get enough of that feeling, and once you start doing it a couple of times…you want to keep going, you want to keep exploring.”
Editor’s note: All of the images accompanying this story were taken at public locations and/or with landowners’ permission.