It was a slightly chilly morning in downtown Cumberland, Maryland when I awoke to my alarm and the passing locomotives chugging along the former Western Maryland rail line through the heart of the city. I enjoyed listening to the trains throughout the night as it had a calming effect upon me, something that I recalled during my tenure at my parents house which was next to the massive Russell, Kentucky railyards. Feeling refreshed, I packed my gear and headed to my car and pointed my compass westward to Frostburg and then south to Lonaconing.
I happened to be the first guest at the mill that morning when I showed up at 9:00 AM prompt. I didn’t note any other vehicles around, but it was within a matter of seconds before Herb Crawford, the owner of the mill, popped out of an aging swing door at the top of a staircase and smiled.
“You’re back,” he exclaimed, motioning me to the top of the steps.
I hurried up the two flights and walked into the mill and caught a glance to with the owner, clad in gray hair, a plaid shirt with blue jeans and a truckers hat.
My voice was upbeat as I began reminiscing about old times with Herb, except those old times were only months old.
“We had a good group the last time,” he mentioned, crinkling his eyes to catch a glance outside. A car had pulled up with out-of-state plates.
“Well, I’ve got a group of Canadians this time that are anxious to see this old mill,” I proclaimed. Herb was surprised at photographers and historians from other countries driving down just to see a relatively small three level mill in the middle of the mountains in western Maryland. His wonder was similar of when people scurried down to Maryland from as far as Massachusetts and North Carolina on the first trip inside a few months back.
“People came this far to see this?” Amused, he showed a list of individuals who visited the mill in the past year which was growing with each month.
He knew the building was special. It is one of the last remaining silk mills in the United States that has remained all but unchanged from the time it closed over a half-century ago. But Herb did not realize just how many people were willing to fish out cash to see the inside. After all, he has owned it for over three decades and has been paying taxes and completing basic maintenance just to keep the property stable, but had not thought of the idea of opening the property up for self-lead tours.
“I should have done this years ago,” he conceded. “The money goes towards paying the taxes.” Unfortunately, little else goes into the building because of that, although temporary repairs have kept the roof from caving in throughout the years. He motioned up at the corner of one room. “That will go either this winter or during the next year.”
Indeed, there was a bulge pointing downward. The roof was stabilized with some temporary wood supports mounted on buckets, but a heavy snowfall could spell the end of those shaky apparatuses.
He sighed and mentioned that he may get some state money in the upcoming year to complete some additional repairs to the building. After a flurry of activity when Herb threatened to sell the mill to a scrapper from the west coast, local politicians pledged to find some money through grants and other state preservation resources. But that was months ago. I did not sense any defeat in Herb’s voice as he talked about what was needed for the mill, but he conceded that he was in his 70s and that sooner rather than later the mill would be passed onto another person.
What if they do not care about the mill’s future?
After concluding our discussion, I set up my camera gear and began wandering around the lobby and first floor. It was not long before other photographers showed up, and within 20 minutes, the mill was crawling with bewildered facial expressions.
“I cannot believe this mill is so pristine,” I overheard, which was followed up with, “this mill is very much photogenic and worth the trip down.”
I had not explored much of the basement on the first trip due to a lack of overhead and side lighting. Discovering that much of the basement had electricity, I spent much more time on the lower level poking through manuals, walls of fuses and the storage bins.
I then headed back upstairs and focused my remaining time on macro photography. I figured that I had photographed enough of the wide and exhaustive views of the mill and focused my efforts on the minute and detailed.
Afterwards, we all said our goodbyes to Herb and thanked him for his courtesy in allowing photographers to breathe in the aura of one of the last intact silk mills in the United States. Herb handed each of us a souvenir bobbin and shook our hands as we left. We headed down the staircase for our vehicles and departed for Cumberland for lunch at the junction of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Trail and the Great Allegheny Passage.
A few departed from the group after lunch, and after a lengthy drive along scenic Interstate 68 through western Maryland and Toll Road 43 through West Virginia and Pennsylvania, we made it to Brownsville, Pennsylvania’s General Hospital. It was not without incident, however, as a wrong way driver by a very much stubborn and drunk elderly driver on the toll road had nearly caused a serious accident by which we had resolved by forcing her into the correct direction. Unfortunately, we were not able to take her keys nor were the police able to catch her.
By the time we made it to Brownsville, I was exhausted, partially because of the drive but also because of fatigue. I opted out of going inside the former hospital and satisfied myself with exteriors that were only marginally acceptable due to a heavy overcast sky on the last trip.
We finally made it to Pittsburgh after coming through the change bucket for toll money and traveling the torturous Pennsylvania State Route 51, and celebrated by climbing to the top of an abandoned commercial building, enjoyed a spectacular sunset view from Fifth Avenue towards the Monongahela River.
This article is part of a series covering the Lonaconing Silk Mill in Maryland, and a glass factory and hospital in Pennsylvania: