1981 Welles Mill Fire Revisited
Publisher’s Note: This column was written on May 27, 1981 the day after Wyalusing’s Welles Mill was destroyed by fire late Tuesday night, May 26. It’s late Wednesday afternoon, way past the usual deadline for this column. The weather is unusually sticky for this time of year and outside the stench of last night’s catastrophe at Welles Mill hangs heavy in the air.The fire continues to smolder, though 19 hours have passed and smoke slowly drifts through the town like a creeping fog. For those who’ve momentarily forgotten about the fire, it takes only a step outside and a few breaths of the air to jolt them back to remembering what took place last night.I find myself in the unenviable position as the current editor of this newspaper, for all of my predecessors have lived most of their lives in sight of Welles Mill, yet none was given the sad task of writing the mill’s obituary.My first realization last night that something was wrong came when my concentration was broken by the sound of a fire engine with lights flashing and siren wailing as it pulled onto Route 6 just outside my office window. It was 11:15 p.m. and I wondered why I hadn’t heard the main siren. Perhaps I was just too deep into writing this week’s Jester Hill, I told myself as I walked toward the fire hall to see what was happening.The location board at the fire hall read, “Welles Mill.” I asked one of the firemen what was going on and he responded: “it’s burning.”I felt totally helpless when I first saw it. A small group of onlookers had gathered near the back of the mill. I noticed Suky and Dave Burgess were among them and I’ll never forget the horrified look on their faces. Suky tried to help me arrange some of the cameras I was carrying, but it did little good, I was confused by the wild scene taking place in front of me. I started to take photos, Polaroids, while in the background I could hear Wayne Felter hollering instructions to the firefighters. My first photo was totally black.At first it seemed like there might be some hope. The fire was in one of the rear buildings, a warehouse I believe, and though burning fiercely, the flames still hadn’t reached the main mill building.I ran to the front to shoot more photos and when I got there, I could see the main mill had started to burn. A lot of people were now gathering at the scene, and I noticed that some of them had tears in their eyes.More firemen arrived. Lights were flashing red and blue and the whole area was soon covered with a fine mist from the spraying hoses.It was going. That was clear now. The heat became more intense and the flames broke through the roof of the main mill. Firemen began to back away because of the heat, and I noticed that I was standing next to a gas pump and quickly moved to a safer location.Welles Mill employees were beginning to move trucks that were parked across Route 6 from the mill. I discovered that I’d used up all my film, so I ran back to the Rocket office to get more. I returned with two 35mm cameras and plenty of film for both.The walls of the main mill were now glowing, and I could see the huge timbers supporting the structure were now exposed. A brick chimney collapsed, sending a shower of sparks and debris flying into the air.Each time I took a Polaroid photo, I placed it near a fence near the new mill office and farm store building. After I’d taken 15 or 20 shots and returned to place my last photo with the others, I found they were gone. I looked all around and they were not to be found. Someone apparently walked away with them.In an hour and a half it was over. Nothing remained except for a few glowing timbers and a huge pile of rubble. It had happened so fast, it was hard to comprehend what had taken place.The firemen began the tiresome task of sorting out and picking up their equipment. Paul Reynolds, manager of Brick’s Market, was passing out soft drinks and offered me one. I hadn’t realized how thirsty I had become.As I walked back to the Rocket office, Linc Welles mentioned he was looking for the sign that had indicated the high water mark from the 1972 flood. I looked where it had once been on the side of the building, but it was gone.
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