Erin’s been on a bit of an adventure kick lately. She kicked her own ass a few nights ago when she and Gerald drunkenly ice skated in sneakers on a frozen lake. A few pirouettes, jumps, and spins later she found herself pretty banged up, but still aching for more. I caught up with them at a local bar where Erin showed us her bruised and cut up legs, “There goes my summer legs!”
When we were younger Erin, Mark, myself, and a few others would night tour Weird NJ roadside attractions and haunts; since then I’ve gone to a few others but nothing more dangerous than driving down an unlit side road in Bumblefuck, NJ.
“I found this place called Gingerbread Castle in Hamburg, NJ.”
“Is that near Wayne? I’m thinking of the Hamburg Turnpike I think.” Definitely hadn’t been to Hamburg, don’t think I’ve ever been on its’ turnpike.
“I think so! It’s an old abandoned kid’s attraction. The stairs are different colors! There’re gnomes! And Humpty-Dumpty!” Gerald nodded and offered an occasional “Sounds dope!” to her finding. I was in already, too.
“When are we going?” Gerald asked.
“Jesus Nang! Tomorrow?” I had never been to an abandoned warehouse/hospital/school/whatever before, either. I was ready to go, just wasn’t sure if I was ‘tomorrow’ ready.
“I gotta get this out of me! I have finals coming up and I’m going crazy!”
Erin’s been studying in an accelerated nursing program, this module’s been killing her lately. She’s found an outlet for her frustration and constant studying in somewhat dangerous adventures; something Erin, Mark, and I have in common. Gerald is usually just up for anything, anytime.
After (very little) research, it turns out the Gingerbread House was built by a well-known theater designer sometime between 1928-1930. It was paid for by the owner of a long since abandoned grain mill surrounding the small amusement. The castle closed in the late 70s, opened again in the late 80s, and my sister swears we’ve been there while it was functioning. Since then it’s become home to every NJ adventurer and urban explorer; anybody with a sweet tooth for partially collapsed and decaying buildings.
From our area, it was about an hour away and very hard to miss. The road leading to the mill and attraction is called “Gingerbread Castle Road” with a small road leading to the grounds and lot across the street to park.
“We have to promise that we’re all hopping that fence!” Mark said on the way.
When we got there, Erin found out that the gate leading inside was unlocked; a chain had been wrapped once around the barbed wire fence to deter any looking-for-an-excuse-to-leave investigators.
Once inside, we took a small walk into the Gingerbread Castle, a bright and tiny building still intact with overgrowth around it. Though the steps leading up to an entrance were covered in ice glazed snow, we hiked up and into the castle proper. Multi-colored stairs, a few missing, spiraled up to a higher lookout and down into complete darkness. Mark and Erin hopped up the missing steps and out to the top, I got dizzy and needed to head back down. We had been inside for about 5 minutes before we heard a truck roll up to the gate.
“Yo! Somebody’s here!” I panic whispered to everybody exploring, peeking out of a stone, glassless window.
“Shit! What’s he doing?”
“He just locked the gate …”
“How are we getting out?”
“He’s not coming in, right?”
“He just left. He came just to lock the gate?”
“Maybe if we walk across this ledge,” Gerald said, pointing down to a snow covered brick ledge seating Humpty-Dumpty, “we can walk out to the street.”
“Shit, there’s a barbed wire fence there, too.”
Gerald led us down the spiraled steps into a dark basement with beer cans and old clothes. Down here there were two exits to a yard with a giant boot, farther beyond a gravel road leading to an entrance into the mill.
From outside, the mill looked like two separate buildings: one warehouse building and another several stories high. Inside it housed neglected couches, building materials, glitter, a car, bathtubs, and a jet ski from the mid-90s. The warehouse opened to a large office hallway, at the end of the hall stairs led up to other large, destroyed areas.
Historical research of the building turned up a fire in 1834 that destroyed a good portion of the building. It had been restored in some way, but didn’t look that way when we were there. Walls and wooden stairs were charred, chunks of floorboard were burned through or missing altogether. Blackened door frames opened to entirely collapsed floors: wood, brick, walls, and roof laid against each other partially buried by winter.
Decayed, the building was kind of maze-like. Finding staircases amid rubble was tough at times, finding the faith to believe they wouldn’t collapse under me was even tougher. At some point Gerald and I became separated from Mark and Erin. Higher into the building the staircases became more narrow, more rotted out. Gerald continued to find and climb them while I followed at a distance, snapping pictures with my phone almost every 5 seconds. Some staircases momentarily brought us back outside, high above Hamburg and the Gingerbread Castle. Others were covered entirely with ice or bent and creaked with each step.
We finally made it to the top of the building, peering out past Hamburg towards mountains in the horizon. “Dirty Jersey” was spray-painted against one of the walls, and as Gerald and I walked around the top, Mark called.
“We’re at the top!”
“Oh shit, is she ok?”
“Alright, we’ll be here.”
The call ended.
“Where they at?” I asked, not hearing most of the conversation.
“Erin fell down a flight of stairs. She’s bruised up but I think she’s ok.”
“Yeah, they’re gonna come up here now.”
They caught up to us quickly. Erin’s black pants were ripped at the knee, dark blood stains formed around the tear, but she was all smiles.
From up top, we searched for a way out.
Mark pointed down, “There’s some footprints along that stream. Maybe we can get there somehow?”
We made our way back down, Erin showing us the 2 inch ice thick steps she tumbled down while taking pictures. Directly to the right of the mill’s opening, we found a mound of snow against a fence with cardboard over the barbed wire. The building may be burned, broken, and missing in places, but it certainly wasn’t abandoned too often. After we jumped the fence we found multiple holes in the bottom of the fence. I don’t know why that man locked the gate behind us, it was one of about 5 different ways to get into the area.
Almost back to the car, Mark realized he had forgot his backpack. We trekked back, retrieved it, and found our way to the car again where Erin realized she dropped her bank card and driver’s license when she fell. Back again, but this time we didn’t find anything.
“I’m just worried that the guy who locked the gate found my cards and took them.”
Gerald drove us the hour back home, where Erin found her cards in a coat she was going to originally wear.
“Where’s the next place we’re going, Erin?” I asked from the passenger’s seat.
“Yeah, that place was awesome!” Mark said behind me.
“I don’t know! Are there any abandoned hospitals around?”
“I think there’s an abandoned institution, I gotta look it up though.”
The next day, I went to an outdoor store and bought a flashlight and first-aid kit; now Erin could fall wherever she wanted.
Most of my slight research came from this site: http://www.preservationnj.org/site/ExpEng/index.php?/ten_most_12/index_detail/Wheatsworth_Mill_and_Gingerbread_Castle