ELIZABETHTOWN — A cornerstone of the community — and the birthplace of many local people — burned to cinders Tuesday.
The historic Hubbard Hall, former residence of a U.S. congressman and the original Elizabethtown Community House hospital, was consumed into a column of thick, gray smoke that roiled 150 feet into the blue morning sky.
Ashes and soot fell back down like black snow, and by midmorning a hazy layer of smoke drifted through the streets of the county seat.
"We're just standing here mourning, looking out the window," said Essex County Historian Margaret Gibbs, whose office is just up and across Court Street from where Hubbard Hall had stood for nearly 171 years.
"It's just such a loss to the community. I was at the Post Office earlier, talking to many of the people, like Mike Morris and Claude Turner, who were born there. It was central to their lives."
Essex County Emergency Services Director Don Jaquish said Essex County Building and Grounds Superintendent Dave Decker reported the fire at 6:59 a.m.
"He said there was smoke or steam coming from the second floor of the attached section in the back," Jaquish said.
Jack Hanby, first assistant chief for the Elizabethtown Volunteer Fire Department, was one of the first firefighters to arrive.
"All the lights were still on when I got here," Hanby said.
"You could have walked in and gotten a cup of coffee if you wanted to."
But William "B.J." Wright, second assistant fire chief for Elizabethtown, said the fire had crawled through much of the building's interior structure by the time they arrived in full gear.
It spread quickly through the balloon-frame, wooden building, which also had a shaft for an antique, hand-pulley elevator in the center that once served the hospital and its second-floor maternity room.
By 10 a.m., Hanby said, firefighters were working in earnest to get the attic fire out.
The slate roof on the historic structure threatened collapse as fire tore through the upper floors and out the dormers.
Blasts from powerful fire hoses sent chunks of slate crashing to the ice-coated ground, as firefighters steadily worked to keep fire away from the Court Street power lines and buildings nearby.
Air temperatures broke the zero-degree mark by 10 a.m. and crept slowly to single digits.
Sheets of water froze on firefighters' helmets, coating their bunker gear and the hose-strewn street.
'A REAL LOSS'
Elizabethtown Supervisor Noel Merrihew, whose office is next door, said Hubbard Hall, also known as the Kellogg House, was one of the cornerstones of local business enterprise and an important community interest.
Some five or six businesses had offices in the building, including KK Ranch, a gourmet deli, gift shop and café; a division of Essex County Mental Health, with extensive records; an abstract search firm; and St. Joseph's Rehabilitation Center.
"I was waiting to see if they could save it," Merrihew said shortly after crews began battling the smoky blaze.
"But it doesn't appear that can happen. It's going to be a real loss."
MANY BORN THERE
Lifelong Elizabethtown resident Ralph Hathaway stood near Aubuchon Hardware across from the fire early Tuesday and paused as though searching for words.
He was born in the building in 1935, he said, and all three of his children were also born there, in 1959, 1963 and 1965, just before the new hospital opened.
"It means a lot; it's sad to see it go. There it is right there, you can see the flames," he said, as firefighters chased fire creeping through the framework of the front door.
A wooden sign denoting Hubbard Hall swung ice-covered on the front porch.
Elizabethtown Councilman Phil Hutchins, a lifelong resident, said the building meant a lot to the community.
"We were born there," he said. "But the main concern, at this point, is that the fire doesn't spread to the other buildings and that everyone stays safe fighting this. You can think about the other stuff later."
Bernard Duso Sr. watched the birthplace of his oldest child slowly collapse in smoke.
"There's a lot of memories, you know what I mean. I was 5 years old when I had my tonsils taken out there."
The woodwork inside was hand-cut oak, he said, remembering the sculpted staircase.
"It's just too bad," he said, shaking his head.
Firefighters from Lewis, Westport, Wadhams and Mineville were called in first. Within the first half-hour, Keeseville firefighters arrived with a ladder truck, with Willsboro and, later, Essex fire crews called in for additional crews and equipment.
Throughout the morning, fire personnel surrounded the building, dousing flames that leapt through fancy wood-trimmed dormers and cornices around the three-story building.
By 10:30 a.m., with Elizabethtown's water reserve drawn dramatically low, fire crews set a 5-inch hose into the Boquet River by laying it the entire length of the village hill.
Hanby said they started with 110 pounds of pressure, which dropped to 40 pounds within just a few hours.
Hubbard Hall, though three stories tall, sprawled with several additions made throughout the years.
Its back windows and rooms formed a border to the Essex County Complex parking lot.
Jaquish expected firefighters would be at the site in the frigid winter air for most of the day Tuesday.
Hanby said they would not mop up or douse hot spots until they ascertained the roof was safe.
UP FOR SALE
County records show the building is currently owned by Jeffrey Langford and is assessed at $346,000.
The property was put on the market sometime in June and was listed by Adirondack Country Homes Realty at $329,000.
Agent Doug Le Vien said Langford lives near Arroyo Grande, a Pacific coast community about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
At the Adirondack History Center before noon, Gibbs and her staff kept a gruesome watch as what can only be described as a foundation stone of this community burned slowly under careful watch of about 90 firefighters.
"You can't replace it. I'm still at a loss," she said.
"In the 1990s, there was a major effort to save the building. So it was an effort by the town to bring it back. It's actually the connection to the people that make the building what it is, that gives it its history. That's what's hardest for me right now, in addition to my whole staff just looking out the window and not knowing what to think."
Fire investigators were waiting to begin their work once the fire was completely out.
— Staff Writer Lohr McKinstry contributed to this report.