Cathy McCollom’s timing was impeccable, though unintended.
The emcee of the Pennsylvania River of the Year award ceremony was one of several speakers Saturday to extoll the recreational and commercial virtues of the Monongahela. And the attributes were many.
Two watercraft bobbing 75 yards from the Brownsville wharf podium throughout were ideal props for the recreation. Then, as McCollum spoke near the conclusion, three coal-filled barges – as if on cue – quietly emerged, pushing northward.
The coincidence drew laughter and served as a fabulous merge point of the past, present and future of a town trying to revive itself, and of a river that has.
The Mon – once maligned for its industrial pollution and perceived homeliness, and now praised for its water quality and beauty – was honored officially as the 2013 River of the Year in the state. It edged the Schuylkill, near Philadelphia, in online voting of Pennsylvania residents, a triumph that was announced Feb. 1.
The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers sponsor the competition, which strives to raise public awareness of waterways and to recognize conservation efforts.
McCollom kicked off the spirited event, scheduled on the first day of what Gov. Tom Corbett has proclaimed “Pennsylvania Rivers Month.” It attracted a crowd of about 40 and featured speakers, state senators, an accomplished teenage vocalist, the unveiling of a colorful river of the year poster and the reading of a proclamation from Corbett.
Joshua Karns, program coordinator for the watersheds organization, praised Brownsville and the Brownsville Area Revitalization Corp. for their roles in promoting the Mon.
“This little town nominated a big river that serves so many communities in so many ways,” Karns said. “The Mon is a model of what rivers across Pennsylvania should emulate.
“This is the time of year that people use boats, kayaks and other watercraft, but there is a schedule of events that will go until December. This shows you can appreciate our rivers year-round.”
This includes a paddle series on the Mon that began last weekend and will continue with events June 8 (Rices Landing to Fredericktown), Aug. 17 (Brownsville to California) and Sept. 7 (Charleroi to Monogahela).
Terry Hough, Pennsylvania River of the Year coordinator for the DCNR, said there are 83,000 miles of streams in the state that offer ample recreational opportunities.
“We want the rivers to connect with people,” he said.
Democratic state Sens. Tim Solobay of Canonsburg and Rich Kasunic of Dunbar stepped to the mic together with a legislative citation honoring BARC and the Mon.
“This was long overdue,” Kasunic said of the waterway that served the coal and steel industries so well for generations. “This river was a highway, a pathway to the west. So much has come out of this valley. We’re proud of its ties to the past and are excited about its future.”
Solobay said, “We’ve had a great mix of industrial and recreational use of this water. It’s a clean, healthy river that’s important to us.”
It’s important to Brownsville, Mayor Lester Ward said early on. Acknowledging that his town has dealt with tough times, he spoke optimistically about his town thanks partly to the river that runs through it.
“We are trying,” he said. “We are in a partnership with a number of organizations and communities to move Brownsville ahead.
“We have broad shoulders. We are going to revitalize and be proud to say, ‘We ARE from Brownsville.’”
Vocalist Christian Sesek, a junior at Brownsville Area High School, enhanced the bookends of the celebration with “Moon River” near the beginning and “God Bless America” to close.
The Mon, in close proximity, was glistening in the sun. It wasn’t a mile wide, but on this day, it seemed that way.