140 years ago, a 4 1/2 story grist mill was built in our town. It was one of the first of its kind in the United States. It majestically sat along Main Street and overlooked the placid Allegheny River. That is, it did so until Thursday night.
The Emlenton Mill was lucky to have lived a few lives and its vibrant history included a recent stint as a restored mill which hosted families, weary travelers, musicians, artists, shoppers, and historians. Most of us enjoyed sitting on its deck overlooking the river with generous portions of cold ice cream on warm summer evenings. The original owner would be surprised at the gentile life this historic working building ended up knowing. Musicians entertained small crowds on Saturday nights upon its deck. Bike trail and river travelers found respite in its bunk house after long journeys. The community flocked to the mill on special occasions for treats and old-fashioned games for the children and we always received the most pleasant greetings from the Newbury family.
On February 5, 2015, a fire started overnight and quickly took the massive frame building down. Sadly, it did not have a fighting chance. Multiple adjacent buildings were damaged, including Amy’s Closet, the home and clothing business of another treasured resident. The fire was battled by 50 fire companies in sub-zero temperatures. Townsfolk and business owners rushed to help with food and hot coffee. The inferno towered over this little river town as its people watched helplessly. The frozen river would not provide enough of its treasured fluid to help the cause and tankers were called in from all over. The fire hoses stubbornly froze throughout the night. Still, it is amazing the threatening flames were eventually stopped from taking any more from us. Over 200 prized firefighters risked their lives to come out victorious in so many ways. Heroes as they are, the result would have been much worse 140 years ago when bucket brigades from the river were often the only way.
As I walked our dog the following morning, the sunrise highlighted the billowing smoke still rising from the heap of embers. The foot or so of snow blanketing the town was, and is, speckled with the ashes that could be occasionally be seen silently falling upon the roofs and ground around us. It is all that is left. As I write this well over twenty-four hours later, a layer of smoke hangs in the valley. A veil covering a town’s grief.
I walked among the burnt wood chips and ashes that cover the ground as the snow threatens to melt and take these charred pieces of history into the ground and river. Ironically, the buildings we have lost will become part of the town forever in that way. Upon returning a home, a scrap of paper catches my eye along our front steps. It is a charred piece of paper that was once a page from a book. It disintegrates between my fingers, but not before I can read the typed words:
“For one thing …”
For one thing, no residents (nor pets) were lost to us.
For one thing, our town is more than its buildings and material possessions.
For one thing, our town is its people and natural resources. Those aspects, along with its history, need to be celebrated and not mourned.
Many, myself included, have used the word “tragedy” to explain this dire event. In various ways, that word is accurate. Regardless, all you can do is move forward courageously in the face of a so-called tragedy as you count your blessings. It is of resiliency we are all made and this core attribute is what makes the residents of towns and cities across our great country face challenges and new beginnings with vigor.
The sun rises as usual behind a sad reminder.
This blog was written by guest blogger Dana Weber.
Visit her blog, “Life of Riley: Living the Good Like in Emlenton, PA“