The area may be known for its sour name, but the dedication for the new stairwell leading up Vinegar Hill received a sweet reception Friday at Indiana’s IRMC Park.
Amid a little wind and occasional bursts of sunlight, a crowd gathered for a ribbon cutting that officially welcomed the completed project to the community.
The 69 newly rebuilt steps leading to the top of Vinegar Hill lie just beyond IRMC Park along Water Street. They are marked by street lighting, fencing and plaques dedicated to the businesses, families and loved ones whose donations helped make the project possible.
Carl Kologie, Gazette columnist, acted as master of ceremonies for the event, which he opened with an explanation of where the hill got its curious title.
One explanation is that a farmer by the name of Repine once owned a barn at the top of the hill where he made vinegar, thus leading to the name Vinegar Hill.
But, a more in-depth explanation lies with an Irish immigrant who, upon seeing the hill, simply claimed, “Sure enough, that’s Vinegar Hill.”
In an attempt to find out what that term meant to the Irish, Alex Stewart, father of famed movie star and Indiana staple Jimmy Stewart, wrote to the Irish government asking what it could mean. In a reply letter, it was explained that Vinegar Hill was the location of a battle during an Irish rebellion in 1789. The hill was defended by an army of Irish and Scot citizens against the invading English army, who eventually swept over the rebels.
The event has been likened to the Battle of Bunker Hill, in which British troops seized an area of Charlestown, Mass., during the Revolutionary War.
“It’s probably impossible to document which Vinegar Hill story is the right one,” Kologie said. “They both might be true, but mythology is often as important as fact.”
Several prominent figures of the Indiana community were in attendance to give their remarks on the occasion.
Sean Howard, director of Downtown Indiana Inc., expressed the honor he felt to be taking the position of director in time to oversee community developments such as the opening of IRMC Park and the dedication of the Vinegar Hill steps.
“It’s amazing to find out how many people have stepped up and put so much energy, financial contributions and taken the time to make Indiana a true, vibrant downtown,” he said.
Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, commented that it was “a glorious day,” and praised the abilities of those who stepped forward to make it possible.
“Traveling the state in this particular profession, I get to see a lot of downtowns,” said Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, who was also in attendance, “and there are very few downtowns and small rural communities that are as vibrant and exciting as we have here in downtown Indiana. That’s a testament to the dedication of the folks of Downtown Indiana, the borough council, the county and everybody else working together.”
Kologie thanked Reed and White specifically for their work in Harrisburg in helping to acquire the funding needed to complete the steps.
“We are very fortunate to have people like Sen. White and Rep. Reed working for us in Harrisburg,” he said.
Indiana Mayor George Hood related a story that, as a young boy, he used to ride his bicycle down the old steps of Vinegar Hill.
“Thank goodness, Chief Sanford never got me,” he said.
“I have to applaud the efforts of the borough council, Downtown Indiana, the Jimmy Stewart Museum committee and the public-private partnership that has been formed with the state to bring credibility and interest to vibrant downtown Indiana,” said Indiana County Commissioner Rod Ruddock. “We as county commissioners are proud to have Indiana Borough to host the Indiana County seat here in Indiana.”
Ruddock also reminded the crowd to remember those who dedicated their lives to their country this Memorial Day weekend.
County Commissioner Patty Evanko explained that areas like Vinegar Hill and IRMC Park are the heart of Indiana.
“You have accomplished something to be proud of by the completion of the steps,” she said. “This adds one more thing to make Indiana County a place where people want to live and raise a family.”
Fellow commissioner Mike Baker expressed the importance of the project in connecting Indiana’s present with the past, and how fortunate he is to live in a community that respects its past.
“The revitalization of the Vinegar Hill steps project is representative of the commitment this community and all the people of Indiana County have made,” he said.
Michael Driscoll, president of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, expressed how alumni of IUP build strong connections around Indiana and how “renewal is a wonderful part of what this community is about.”
“It’s wonderful to see us keep this place vital,” he added, “to keep things moving ahead, but also to remember all the great memories that relate to this.”
Tim McQuaide, president of Downtown Indiana Inc., touched on the uniqueness of Indiana. With hobby shops, book stores, bakeries, art galleries, jewelry stores and 25-plus restaurants, he said, you’re not going to find another downtown like Indiana.
“I can’t express how proud I am of (the project),” he said after the ceremony. “Downtown Indiana has worked with the borough and our state representative and senator to achieve a lot here. All of Indiana has a lot to be proud of.”
The stairs have been closed for almost 10 years, according to McQuaide.
“The nice thing about it is it’s something that the borough could maybe not have afforded to do,” he said, “but with the help of the state and the people behind it, we got that accomplished.”
The next project slated for completion is a revitalization of Philadelphia Street between Fifth and Eighth streets, according to McQuaide. That project should see completion sometime in 2015.
Plaques that mark the risers on each step were $500 each, according to Howard. Several stairs were still open for purchase at the beginning of the ceremony, but by the end, only one remained.
Live acoustic music was provided by the Luckenbach Penna Pickers, composed of Brian Visnosky and Ted and Jen Frumkin.
“It’s nice to have arts and music brought back into this community,” Jen Frumkin said.