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.