Beacon burning

Wednesday, Sept. 4, 4:35 a.m.

My husband wakes me at 4:35 a.m., his voice quiet but intense: “The mill is burning.” We step out onto the porch to watch the flames. I live in Grovemont, above the houses built to shelter the hundreds of Beacon Manufacturing employees who came to Swannanoa for well-paying jobs.

We hold each other; we are not praying people, yet we pray — that no one is inside the building, and that the houses down in the mill village are safe.

I try to sleep but can’t. I keep seeing this image in my mind of the entire population of Swannanoa gathered in the darkness to watch their history go up in smoke.

5:30 a.m.

We decide we have to walk down and bear witness. We snake our way down Old U.S. 70 from Grovemont to Whitson Avenue in the dark. There are no sidewalks or shoulders, and we have to hug the guardrail every time a car goes by.

Down below, some men lean against the hoods of their cars, arms folded; a woman has her hand pressed against her mouth. We stand at the intersection of U.S. 70 and Whitson Avenue.

“That’s a lot of history going up there,” a woman says to me. She and her daughter, who live in the upper village, are taking turns with the cell phone.

The woman says they’ve been standing on the corner for about an hour, watching the fire spread from building to building, seeing the smoke change from white to black. Then there’s an explosion, and the fire bursts through the upper windows of the old brick structure facing Whitson Avenue. Even though we’re a block-and-a-half away, we step back.

“The fire wasn’t there before,” the woman says.

Part of the roof caves in, then a wall. The flames are rolling now, leaping, feeding one another, reaching into the black sky. If there was any hope of getting the blaze under control, it’s gone now.

I talk to a man who worked at Beacon for 44 years. His daughter worked there, too. “I never thought I’d live to see the day when it would come to this,” he says. This is so much more than just a building burning down — it’s the end of a whole way of life.

In its heyday, up to 2,000 people worked at the mill. They moved it down from New Bedford, Mass. — brick by brick, some say — to avoid unions. They brought some of their managers with them and began hiring locally. It was the Great Depression, and word soon got around that there were jobs in Swannanoa.

Thanks to Beacon, Swannanoa thrived. Businesses popped up all around the mill: the home store, a grocery store, a dime store, a feed store, a candy store, a newsstand, several restaurants and cafes, a clothing store and the old movie theater. None of them survive today.

Wade Martin moved to the mill village as a child after his father got a job with Beacon in the ’30s. His daddy heard there were jobs, hopped a freight train from Gastonia, and was hired on. When Wade got older, he and his brothers got jobs at the mill. “They was five of us boys, and all of us at one time or another worked for Beacon,” says Martin. “The mill — the way I thought of it was the big, red, thumping heart of Swannanoa. In other words, when it beat and it was pumping and working good, then the whole community was good.”

But what happens when a community loses its heart?

The mill had changed hands and downsized a number of times before closing its doors in the spring of 2002. And though most people now know that textile mills and industrial jobs are a thing of the past in Western North Carolina, as long as the building stood, there was still hope.

Recent transplants like me might have envisioned converting it to artists’ studios or even a museum. But I think most folks in Swannanoa still hoped that somehow, it would reopen as a factory — a place where they could work for decent people for a good wage for 30 or 40 years without having to worry about being laid off. A place where the owners were invested in the community. Beacon’s original owners, the Charles B. Owen family, treated their employees “just like family,” says Martin. Everyone I’ve spoken to who ever worked at Beacon had nothing but the highest praise for them.

9:35 p.m.

It’s still burning. All day, people have been parking by the side of the road and getting out to look.

10:10 p.m.

I go back. The crowd is much larger now. I feel like we’re part of some prehistoric tribe that’s just hunted and trapped a giant animal, and now we’re here to witness its demise. The building groans and snaps; the walls are charred and blackened. The thing is so huge — like a great, hulking dinosaur dying in the dark.

The fire-followers are here now. The people who were down here before dawn came because it was Beacon; these folks seem to be here because it’s a fire. A man in a baseball cap who’s smoking clove cigarettes tells me his friend, who works at the gas station, was here at 6 a.m. His friend said he’d never seen anything like it. The man seems disappointed that the fire is smaller now. There’s a hunger behind his questions that strikes me as a little bit creepy, yet I feed on it — giving him details of how it spread.

A fire is a strangely beautiful thing. When I was 12 years old, an arsonist torched our house. When a policeman woke us up at 2 a.m., the first thing I noticed was the light: Half awake, I briefly wondered what it meant. Was it the Second Coming? An alien abduction? I stood inside the burning building, mesmerized, looking out. So I guess I do understand about folks who show up to watch anything burn.

A guy at the Crown station says they called in more than 20 different fire units. Rumors and bits of information are being traded everywhere.

The corner-gossip consensus is that it was definitely arson. Several people swear they smelled something like a campfire much earlier that night. There’s also speculation about who the culprits might have been. Vagrants? Punks? Someone wanting the insurance money?

On the drive home, I hear a crash and see a fireball licking the sky. Back on my porch, I watch the eerie light.

No one was killed or hurt in my community’s tragedy — only buildings were destroyed. I think of the destruction of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, the collapse of the twin towers in New York, the recent bombing in Iraq. I feel stupid comparing this event to those catastrophes, but I can’t help it. I’m amazed at how much watching Beacon fall has shaken me.

I try to figure out what it means. What is stable in a world like this? Where factories close and skyscrapers fall, where we drop bombs and televise wars? Where stores close down and jobs go away and a whole thriving community disappears? Where even a monument like Beacon can burn?

Photographs copyright 2003 by Tom Bridges. The Black Mountain photographer can be reached at 669-6877 or at tommybridges@msn.com.

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