Walk with fine art photographer Keith Dotson as he explores and shoots the incredible, abandoned, old Main Street in Pamplin City, Virginia
Come along as I photograph and explore the abandoned old main street in Pamplin City, Virginia. As always, I have exhaustively researched this location, so be sure to read all the way down if you’re curious about the history of this ghost town.
Like most artists, my work typically revolves around a few major themes or subjects, and one of my passions is shooting abandoned places — whether it’s an old abandoned farmhouse or an entire ghost town, the strange sense of being in an abandoned place really gets me going!
It’s partly that strange feeling of being someplace that was once lively and occupied with people, that’s now been left to rot. It’s partly the mystery, what happened in that place? Who lived or worked there? And, it’s partly nostalgic curiosity — admiring the handiwork of the artisans who created the old architecture. And I’ve realized over the years that a major theme in my work is the passing of time — which encompasses my architectural and my landscape work.
So when I find out about places like Pamplin City, I’m drawn like a moth to a flame.
The business side of traveling to make photographs
As a working professional fine art photographer, I love taking road trips and shooting in places I’ve never been, but I also have to be aware that this is a business trip — an investment in the future. Every penny I spend on photo trips comes out of my own pocket with the goal of being recaptured by future print sales.
I’ve made some very profitable road trips — where the photographs have sold well and have not only covered the initial expenses like hotels, gas, meals, and fees — but also have earned significant profits! Sometimes I see sales very quickly — with first print sales within a few months. Other trips have taken longer — even years to pay back the travel investment. While it’s very satisfying to earn money from a trip I took years ago, I never know if I’ll get any good images or even if I’ll ever sell any! Sadly, not every trip pays off.
When I go on a photo trip, I can do my best to plan and prepare for success, but there are always a lot of variables — the weather and the quality of the light being two things that are always unpredictable.
But as much as I love going on road trips and making photographs in strange towns or unfamiliar landscapes, this is not a vacation, but in fact a working trip. I do my best to be open to shooting not only the subjects of my destination, but anything else I can find that might make the trip pay off financially AND artistically.
And I plan my time to be as efficient as possible! I get an early start, to get the best light of the day and to try to beat crowds. I shoot usually for hours, until I’m exhausted or until the midday light becomes too harsh. Then I grab lunch and head back to the hotel to cool off, download the images and videos, recharge batteries, archive files, and prepare to go back out again, either that evening or early the next morning.
On the Pamplin trip, I pulled over a terabyte of data off my camera cards. I use free time in the hotel to begin culling and sorting the images, research other potential locations, update social media, and sometimes I even begin editing the photographs.
How do I find these abandoned places?
A lot of people ask me how I find abandoned places. The truth is, I find them in a variety of ways. Sometimes I find abandoned old houses in the woods on hikes, just purely by dumb luck. Sometimes from driving back roads.
Other times I find locations from research on Google, YouTube, flickr, social media pages, and even Google Street View. Sometimes I get tips from friends, or fans.
History of the old ghost town at Pamplin City, Virginia
Pamplin City has a population less than 250 people now, but it was historically a thriving community. It was originally called Merriman’s Shop after a shoe shop located in the vicinity as early as the 1820s. A post office was established there in 1826, but people had lived in the area since the early 1700s.
Nicholas Pamplin donated a large tract of land in the 1850s, so that a railroad line could be constructed, and the town was formally named Pamplin City in 1874 in his honor. It was also known as Pamplin Depot for a while. The old train depot still stands on Main Street and has been renovated into a library. The town had many churches, four doctors, a flour mill, a lumber mill, a shop for making tobacco barrels, a blacksmith shop, a livery stable, a silent movie theater, restaurants, a tavern, and more. I don’t know which of these were located here on Main Street, but they were all destroyed in a big fire in 1909, which resulted in a city ordinance that new construction must be made of brick. So, while I don’t have any definitive dates on these buildings, probably none are earlier than 1909.
Pamplin clay tobacco pipe industry
Pamplin was a major maker of clay pipes from the 1860s until 1952, when the last factory closed. They literally made millions of clay smoking pipes here. Before the pipe factories were established, individuals made hand-made clay pipes in the region since the early 1700s, and it’s said that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin both smoked tobacco with Pamplin clay pipes.
How the Pamplin clay tobacco pipes were made
Pamplin’s local clay was mixed with water for the proper consistency, then pressed into lead molds. With the use of special tools, the molded pipe bowls were then extracted from the mold, and baked in the sun or in kilns. Hollow reeds from nearby Virginia wetlands were inserted into the bowl, held in place with a cork. The baked clay bowl was polished with beeswax or lard, and ready for sale. These pipes were cheap and designed to be disposable, used only once or a few times.
Remains of one of the old pipe factories still stands. You can see photographs and read about it here.
Remains of ironwork storefronts
All of the buildings are brick, as required by that 1909 city ordinance I mentioned earlier — some still feature parts of old ironwork façades like those made by Mesker Brothers, or George L Mesker, and many other companies in the late 1800s. In those days, you could mail order from a catalogue a complete, fancy iron storefront for less than $200. It would be shipped by rail, or boat, or wagon, to be installed on the front of your otherwise drab main street commercial building. There are still some very fine and well maintained examples in many cities and towns across the US. but here in Pamplin, the iron work is fragmented, bent, and pulling loose.
Only one of the buildings has signage remaining — above and on the sides of the curved metal awning are rusty signs that say “Williams Hardware and Grocery”. This was a general store run by Harry and Woodrow Williams. Harry was also the postmaster. Woodrow “Woody” Williams was a professional baseball player who played with the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds. Woody also played in the minor leagues in Nashville in 1939 for the Nashville Volunteers, a team that no longer exists. Woody Williams retired from baseball in 1949 and operated the Williams Grocery in Pamplin for 30 years. He died in 1995 at age 82.
What made Pamplin’s old Main Street become a ghost town?
I don’t know specifically what happened to cause Pamplin’s old Main Street to become a ghost town, but I suspect it was the closing of the pipe factories, combined with the loss of railroad stops.
Black and white photographs of the abandoned buildings of Pamplin City, Virginia
Thanks for reading!
Appomattox Virginia Heritage, page 15, accessed via Google Books
“Pamplin Entryway Designs,” Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, October 2012
Woodrow Williams, Baseball-Reference.com
Woody Williams (infielder), Wikipedia