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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Chester Resident Named for Child Killed in Old Mill Fire 1915

The Old Mill at Rock Springs Park (top left) and the Old Mill at Kennywood Park (bottom right) share a similar design as is evidenced by these two postcard images. Kennywood’s dark ride still thrills park visitors while Rock Springs’ burned to the ground in a tragic fire on June 5, 1915.

In November 2009, just before the book’s due date, I traveled to Chester, West Virginia, to give a slide show talk on Rock Springs Park at Peachtree Inn, an independent living community on the grounds of Fox Nursing Home. It was my hope that by showing pictures and reviewing the general history of the park with residents, I could glean some interesting stories and firsthand accounts of the trolley park from those who remembered it while growing up in the area during the Great Depression. They did not disappoint.

Many of their memories have been captured in the pages of Images of America: Rock Springs Park, Including Evelyn Fersch’s mother’s tale of traveling to Rock Springs Park by horse and buggy from New Cumberland in the 1890s (page 11). Sadly, Evelyn passed away just months after inviting me to her home at Peachtree and never saw her story in the book, but her memory, often shared with family members, is now shared with hundreds of readers. Just 3 sentences long, her humorous anecdote beautifully encapsulates the joy and excitement felt by young children at the end of the 19th Century when on their way to “Nature’s Beauty Spot” with a picnic basket in their buggy.

As I mentioned before on this site, one of the reasons I began researching the history of the park about 5 years ago, was to flesh out a middle grades novel I was writing entitled, “Rock Springs.” In one scene, Joey and Muna, two children growing up in Chester in the 1970s, attend a church prayer meeting in which parishioners, like the residents of Peachtree Inn, share their memories of Rock Springs in a public forum. Here is an excerpt:

“My memory is bitter-sweet, you might say, but I have a real connection to that park that most of you don’t know about,” Miss Abernathy stood, leaning on the back of a folding chair for support. “Most of you are too young to remember, but you’ve probably read or heard about the fire that burned down The Old Mill in 1915. It was such a tragic fire; so many children were in the park that day. It was the annual school picnic day.”

Muna and I stopped writing and exchanged looks.

“The Old Mill was a dark ride with boats and historic scenes. It was never called the ‘Tunnel of Love’, but my mother told me that a lot of young teenagers got their first kiss on that ride.”

Someone giggled in the back.

“The cause of the fire was never determined. The park blamed it on a patron’s cigarette and the public, well they blamed the park, of course. Witnesses said it started in the dynamo used to power the big paddle wheel. The sad thing, of course, is that three youngsters died in that fire, and a fourth, Hyacinth Mackey, passed away two weeks later from burns sustained from the accident.”

“But Miss Abernathy,” Bert Langston called out. “Hyacinth’ is…”

“Yes, Bert. Hyacinth’ is my name. My mother was pregnant with me that summer and named me after Miss Mackey.” Miss Abernathy closed her eyes as she continued. “As a child I didn’t like my name. I thought it too old-fashioned, and, of course, when I found out I was named after one of the children who died in the fire, I was haunted in my dreams. Terrible nightmares, in which, the children tried to make me ride with them.” Miss Abernathy shuddered. “Many nights I would wake up screaming. It seemed so real. My mother let me sleep with a light on, even though the Depression was still going on.”

After my talk at Peachtree two elderly twin sisters came up to introduce themselves. They were Ina and Nina France, longtime Chester residents. They asked about park owner Virginia Hand and were sad to hear she had passed away. They spoke fondly of Bob and Virginia Hand and told a story about how Bob helped their father when a bad rainstorm and mudslide destroyed their home in the Thirties (page 67). But they also told me a story that sent chills down my back.

This house, at the eastern end of Indiana Avenue was moved just like the Rustic Log House to avoid the “Path of Progress” when Rock Springs Park was razed to make way for Route 30’s approach to the Jennings Randolph Bridge. The home was the residence of Ina and Nina France. Their father was given permission to build the house on park property by owner Bob Hand in the 1930s.

Here, the France Home is being leveled on a new basement foundation in 1974.

Ina said that her mother named her after one of the girls who died in the Old Mill fire. It was an eerie example of life imitating art, or so I thought. I questioned the sisters about their account as the only girls who were reported dead following the fire were named “Eva”, “Glenna,” and “Hyacinth”. They were confused about the details, but were firm in their conviction that their expectant mother had been friends with one of the young mothers who lost a child that day in 1915 and so named one of her twin daughters in her memory, almost the exact account of the fictional Miss Abernathy in my novel completed four years earlier.

Then, when reviewing Roy C. Cashdollar’s History of Chester: The Gateway to the West (Part II) recently for a blog post, I was reminded of another story, perhaps one that had been lodged in the back of my mind and resurfaced as Miss Abernathy’s tale. Roy wrote:

Here is an interesting and full account of the fire that swept the “Old Mill” ride at Rock Springs Park on June 5, 1915. The fire hit at 7:00 taking three lives; Albert Raymer [sic], age 12 of Chester, Eva Dales, age 14 and Glenna Stout, age 17 of Newell, West Virginia. I was given this account by Glenna Miller of Chester whose mother named her after one of the victims. Mrs. Miller was born a few weeks after the fire.

I don’t claim to be psychic or even necessarily believe in that sort of thing, but there have been more than a small number of unusual coincidences involving my work on the book and subsequent experiences sharing the history of the park. Keep checking back for MORE!

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