One year later,
reflecting on the mill fire
By Michael Butler
It was early Thursday morning, sometime shortly after midnight when the phone rang. You know the feeling of "what's wrong?" when the phone rings in the wee hours of the morning.
It was my father-in-law, Delmar McCaig.
'The mill's on fire,' he told my wife, Leigh Anne.
After their brief conversation, I was told that there was no family emergency.
I didn't think much of 'the mill fire' and opted to go back to sleep. Leigh Anne "took one for the team," and took off to take photos for this website. She had no idea of the nature of the blaze.
The east side mill closed its operation in 2004. The structures totalled nearly one milliion square feet on the premises.
After I was back in a slumber, Leigh Anne returned.
'You won't believe it!' she exclaimed, or something like that.
Of course I had to see it for myself. I got up and headed out. We live in East Tallassee. I could actually see an orange glow in the pitch black darkness from our driveway.
At the scene, a crowd of onlookers had a bird's eye view. The Benjamin Fitzpatrick Bridge was their perch. It was like having a 50-yard-line seat in the upper deck at a football game.
Leigh Anne was right. I really couldn't believe it. The mill has always been the centerpiece of Tallassee, the dividing line between east and west. The east side structure was built in 1897. Now it was going up in flames.
Mount Vernon Mills in Tallassee was the longest continuosly operating textile mill in the country until it closed its doors. Its history here dates back to 1844. For more than 150 years it has been the backdrop in our town - a "mill town" originally.
I've driven over that bridge a thousand times where below it, inside those walls, my grandparents made a modest living working to raise a family living in an East Tallassee house that they financed through the mill.
I found my spot against the iron railing on that early May 5 morning. There was a chill in the air, but even from several hundred feet away - there was a warmth from below. Then you'd hear a rumble, like thunder, as another wall would collapse from the intense heat.
Firefighters from several local agencies braved those high temperatures - fighting to extinguish the inferno that was fully involved and threatened the water filtration plant just steps away. What if the city lost its water supply? What would happen if a chemical explosion was triggered? Would the structural integrity of the 1940 bridge be in jeopardy?
The number of specators continued to grow as word spread. Just think what the numbers would have been like if this had happened during daylight hours?
Those watching the scene unfold reflected on the mill and its role in Tallassee. 'My parents worked there.' 'I worked there in the summers,' they said. Just about everybody in Tallassee has some connection.
As the night waned, I got the pictures I needed and called it a night. The first responders continued their duties.
With the advent of a new day, the damage was clearly visible. The old stone textile mill was in ruins, still smoldering in smoke. It looked like a scene from post-WWII Berlin.
There are a several landmarks in Tallassee. The mills are among them. The Hotel Talisi was one of them. Since its 2009 fire, it has yet to reopen.
What will the future hold for these sites? The mill is in Tallassee's most scenic location adjacent to the Tallapoosa River.
With the one-year anniversary of the tragedy, hope is that like the Phoenix - we'll "rise from the ashes." The potential is unlimited.
Tommy Hudson Interview
Travis Jones Interview
Mill Fire Video 1
Mill Fire Video 2
Mill Fire Video 3
Mill Fire Video 4
Mill Fire Video 5
Mill Fire Aftermath Video (Courtesy of David Lawrence)
Landmark Mill Destroyed by Fire
Tallasseeans React to Mill Fire
Mill Owner Comments on Loss