when was the last time i took a decent photo

Oceana District High School - Built 1925 Closed 1950


Remembering back to the fall of 2000, I was a sophomore in high school and on one golden October afternoon some friends of mine made the suggestion of going into the old abandoned high school on the other side of town. Sitting about 100 feet from the front of the building was a small white house where an elderly gentleman lived who instantly notified the local police of anyone trespassing at the former school as soon as he caught wind of it. Occasionally I would see him during the summer mowing the grass on the property and I often wondered what his relationship with the school was. Did he purchase the land from the county? Was he employed by the school board as a caretaker? Whatever the situation may have been this guy hated anyone being near it regardless. On this particular day we waited until he wasn’t home and made our way toward the school.

Back in those days I didn’t have the passion for photography that I now possess. There had always been a vague interest since I was a kid riding my bike around my neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia with a little Vivitar 110 camera around my neck, taking snapshots of whatever caught my eye. During high school I didn’t have the money for (and probably was in no way responsible enough) for a decent 35mm camera. Needless to say I went through my fair share of single use disposables during my teenage years. The old high school was the second abandoned building I had ever been in and it planted a fascination with me that I hope will never fade.

When my friends brought up the idea of exploring the school I was instantly filled with a frenzied joy thinking about the endless possibilities that waited for us inside. In this case and with most abandoned buildings sometimes the easiest way in is the least you would expect, the front door. Immediately upon entering my eyes could not fix on one particular spot as they were constantly searching the room as my heart began to race from excitement. There was a small office/administration area with old papers scattered about on the left side of the lobby right before the rear exit and staircase leading to the basement and second floor. On both sides of the lobby were small classrooms and a large room sat behind the office that I assumed was the cafeteria but was filled with so much debris from the upper floor that had caved in that it was barely recognizable.

After wandering around the first floor taking a few photos we made our way to the staircase. With the first glance at the basement stairs a chill quickly crept up my spine as I peered into the dark abyss below. This was a darkness unlike any that I had ever laid eyes upon and I immediately came to the conclusion that whatever was in the basement spelled certain doom for our group. None of us had flashlights so out of curiosity my friend tossed his empty soda bottle down the stairs so we could judge from the sound how far down into the darkness it went. The upper floor of the school was pretty much the same layout as the lower floor with small classrooms on both sides but included a gymnasium. The gym was by far a sight that will forever be burned into my memory. Basketball goals still hung from the steel beams in the ceiling with a faded crumbling scoreboard attached to the wall. The once bright polished floor was now a dull shade of grey, covered with dust, and for the most part had collapsed to the floor below. In the front of the room on the floor was an antique traffic signal that straight away sparked my interest as to the origin. The small town of Oceana, West Virginia had but only one main road that ran through it and there certainly weren’t any traffic lights so where it came from still baffles me fifteen years later.

We were one our way out when we heard the old man’s car coming up the driveway he shared with the school. After parking at his house he took a few paces toward the school and looked suspiciously around for a minute and then began to shout in his thick southern West Virginia accent “I know yur in thar.. Cops are a comin’..” How he knew we were inside will forever be a mystery to me as we were sure to keep the noise to a minimum and left no evidence we had entered. Never less we waited a moment for him to go in his home to make our exit. He was obviously looking out his window waiting for that exact moment because he then came back outside to shout some more at us. The words from his mouth quickly became incoherent as we ran further and further from sight. I returned the following weekend with a friend that didn’t get the chance to go when our group went the first time. We were in there long enough for a quick look when we noticed the wind had blown open the front door just wide enough to see the front of a cop car pulling up. Quickly and silently we made our way toward the back door hoping that it too was unlocked as it was our only option of escape. While my friend quietly tried to open the door I glanced toward the pitch black basement and sitting on the top step descending into the horrible darkness was the plastic bottle that was tossed down the prior week. I knew it was the same bottle because the label had been ripped off and it was drawn all over with a black marker. Whatever horrid thoughts I had shoved out of my mind about the basement instantaneously came rushing back. At that moment my attention was diverted when I heard the officer approaching the steps leading to the entrance. After enough jolts the rear door finally opened wide enough for both of us to pass through as the officer came through the front. We ran as fast as we could into the surrounding woods and up the mountain until we noticed that the cop didn’t even bother to chase us. After coming to a resting place in the woods we both immediately broke into laughter. It was far from the first time and would be far from the last that we had ran from small town police.

The main reason behind this post is I lost every photo I took that day (along with most of everything else I owned) when a flash flood consumed the majority of Oceana in the summer of 2001. 3.5 feet of murky water made it’s way through my house destroying everything in it’s path. I left that small WV town as soon as I graduated the following year and I don’t visit family there nearly as much as I should. When I finally had a decent camera and made my way back to retake some photos of the school I was filled with sadness to discover that it was now just an empty lot because some asshole decided to set the building on fire. This solitary building was responsible for what would later grow into the fascination with abandoned buildings that I have today. These aren’t just vacated long forgotten structures to me, they’re a glimpse into history unlike any you can get from a textbook. Every one of them has a story of life to itself all the way from the people who originally sketched them out on a piece of paper, to the ones who constructed and occupied, to the ones who abandoned them because of various circumstances. It’s then that people like us come in and give purpose and a glimpse of life once again through our interest in exploring and preserving history. What it boils down to is it’s a way to travel back in time and I don’t know a single person that wouldn’t want to do that.