They Just Left and Never Returned – 20 Years Abandoned Time Capsule House
photography by dave conlon

The Ontario photographer who shoots abandoned churches, schools and mansions

His images reveal the things we leave behind

March 6, 2024

In 2012, Dave Conlon was in search of a hobby. He was a young father and marketing professional, filling his spare time collecting records, bodybuilding and even riding motorcycles—but each new pastime failed to keep him interested for longer than a year.

One day, a friend told Conlon about a supposedly haunted house in Niagara-on-the-Lake, an hour’s drive east of his family home in Burlington, Ontario. It was a dilapidated brick shack with boarded windows that faced a cemetery. The more he read about it, the more photos he found of the house, all by amateur photographers and urban explorers: people who venture into abandoned or off-limits sites to take photos. He was intrigued. “I wanted to feel the thrill of doing something you’re not supposed to do,” he says.

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The next weekend, Conlon left his house at dawn and drove through Milton and Oakville, sneaking into abandoned homes and taking pictures with a Nikon D50 camera that he already owned but barely knew how to use. His trips kept getting longer: he travelled hours north to Cochrane and Kirkland Lake to snap the insides of bygone-era houses; rode through Quebec, Buffalo and Ohio to roam derelict monasteries and hotels; and even spent four days in Saskatchewan last summer to take pictures of forsaken churches. Now, he’s preparing for his most ambitious trip yet: a visit to northern British Columbia and Canada’s largest ghost town, Anyox, which neighbours the Alaskan border and is accessible only by jet boat or helicopter. He plans to set out this summer. “It just fascinates me how much of our lives we can leave behind,” he says.

abandoned industrial graffiti factory
Dave Conlon, an urban explorer from Ontario, follows a strict code of ethics as he photographs deserted sites

Conlon gets a rush trying to avoid being caught sneaking onto private property. In 2019, the Ontario Provincial Police charged him for breaking and entering into an abandoned house in Warkworth, Ontario, after the homeowner saw photos of the house posted on his website, Freaktography.com. When Conlon heard the news, he asked the owner if she would consider dropping the charges if he helped her clean up the property. “She took the deal,” he says, “and we are friends to this day.”

Conlon follows a strict code of ethics while exploring. “If there is anything I fear, it’s karma,” he says. “So I’ve created some hard rules.” He never steals or uses force to break into places, and he always removes photos from his website if the building’s owner asks him to. In 2014, at an abandoned house in Beamsville, Ontario, he and another explorer found $7,000 in cash behind a mattress that they returned to the homeowners. Then, six years later, he found two sets of war medals and Nazi party pins from the Second World War in a deserted basement. Conlon contacted the family, who wanted nothing to do with it—or him—so he gave the medals to a collector friend. “I want to keep exploring Canada, but I want to do it in peace,” he says.

Abandoned Luxury Hotel Ballroom

Hotel ballroom (New York, 2024): “This is a 13-storey hotel in a busy part of town. It would be as if no one had checked into the Fairmont Royal York or the King Eddie in Toronto for a few decades, but the city still kept it there. Frankly, I think the room looks better this way than it probably did when it was a ballroom. The graffiti gives it character.”

Abandoned Neo Chateau Mega-Mansion

Toronto mansion (Ontario, 2024): “This vacant mansion is in a wealthy neighbourhood in Toronto, and I heard from other urban explorers that it was about to be demolished. I couldn’t believe it: it was just built in 2005 and has massive bedrooms, an outdoor tennis court and this indoor pool with an overflowing waterfall. I have a one-bedroom condo, so it fascinates me to see how some people think they need that much space.”

Abandoned and Condemned School Board Headquarters

School board building (Ontario, 2017): “This place is part of a heritage district and was once a school board headquarters. But over the last few decades, a series of developers has bought the building only to abandon it. One of the sections here is completely trashed and filled with mould and asbestos. But, when I walked through a door, I saw these beautiful archways and a marble staircase that led to an ornate meeting room.”

They Just Left and Never Returned – 20 Years Abandoned Time Capsule House

House frozen in time (Ontario, 2023): “This house is just off a major road in Prince Edward County, but it seems like no one has touched it in over 20 years. The calendar on the wall is from 2001. Apparently, somebody died, and the family left the place in a hurry. I can’t believe nobody has broken in to steal things: there are pictures on the wall, furniture still set, and even dishes in the sink. It is one of the best-preserved abandoned houses I’ve ever seen.”

abandoned industrial graffiti factory

Montreal hangar (Quebec, 2023): “This place is hidden from the main road, which makes it a perfect canvas for graffiti artists to practise their craft. In fact, most art here was not plain graffiti of kids tagging their names, but intricate images with many colours, elaborate signatures and cartoons. This photo captures only a part of the hangar—it’s massive, and the graffiti walls go on and on.”

I Had the Police Called on me at an Abandoned School

Abandoned school (New York, 2023): “I check out abandoned schools because nobody usually cleans them out after they close down. This one in New York state still had writing on the chalkboard, desks and globes in the classrooms and ceiling tiles falling onto the floors.”

Abandoned Ukrainian Catholic Church in Saskatchewan

Ukrainian church (Saskatchewan, 2023): “I did a four-day photography trip to Saskatchewan last May and immediately noticed that there were many abandoned Ukrainian Catholic churches across the province. The stained-glass windows and remaining pews told me this was once beautiful; but as soon as I peeped my head through the doors, I thought, what a waste.”

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bethel church-8

Abandoned church, 10 years apart (Ontario, 2012 and 2022): “In my 10th year of urban exploring, I returned to some sites to take the exact same photos and see how things had changed. This one shows how people steal things. It’s funny: I enter buildings discreetly and people still notice me. But others will show up with a pickup truck, walk out of the building carrying furniture in broad daylight, and are never caught.”