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Every town has a story, some have a story that needs to be told...
Brownville is like many other small towns in the US. A community with an interesting history, good people, but struggling to thrive. I came upon the town by accident, passing through one day looking for interesting things to photograph. What I found both intrigued and upset me deeply. A town fighting against the impact of change and time resulting in significant decay, loss, and disinterest from the rest of the region.
After spending a few hours in town exploring and taking a few images, I drove home not thinking too much about my experience in Brownsville that day. However, it didn’t take long before I couldn’t get Brownsville out of my thoughts, something captivated my desire to know more about this community. I started doing research in earnest and discovered that Brownsville was and is more than just another small town under daily stress to survive. Brownsville had a rich story, one that needs to be re-discovered. Brownsville at one point was the gateway to the west (first water routes westward). Where Nemacolin, an Indian Chief, helped mark the pathway west through the Allegany mountains. The town that became the epicenter for boat building including keelboats, flatboats, and eventually steamboats. Boats that helped launch Lewis and Clark’s westward adventures or recognized for building the first steamboat powerful enough to travel up and down the Mississippi river.
Brownsville is a part of the National Road, first road paid by the government (e.g., approved by Thomas Jefferson), which includes the first cast Iron Bridge in the US. A strong association with the Underground Railroad, and one of the key towns that helped drive the industrial development off Pittsburgh through its coal, coke and train yards. Brownsville is also home to the unofficial prototype for the flatiron building to the famous versions in New York City. The town could even inspire a song as it is noted that “what I say” was written by Ray Charles during an after-show jam in Brownsville during the late fifties.
This is just a sample of the town’s history and importance the town played not only to the region, but to the nation. Questions permeated my consciousness. How can we let this town be lost to time and change? Why can’t we make it a proud, vibrant town again? What would it take to make it a success story, not a story of regret?