Some days, it might be easier if Mary Ellen Ramage simply left her right arm constantly in the air in a waving position. As the perpetually cheery borough manager of the small river town of Etna, Pennsylvania, the stream of greetings and hugs simply comes too quickly to allow time for a break. Often, the shouts of “Hey, Mary Ellen!” fly past from passing pickup trucks before she can identify the voices. But being able to patch together who they are from the back of a vehicle is one of the perks of “literally knowing everyone in town.”
So when Ramage calls Etna a “tight-knit community,” it doesn’t feel like the kind of thing people always say about small towns. Rather, it’s an assessment based on empirical evidence—data collected over decades of observing how this town of 3,500 residents has, in fact, come together. Indeed, if tough times help bind a community together, Etna has had its share of opportunities to grow close.
“We’re a community of survivors,” Ramage says with some heaviness in her voice. Etna, like many western Pennsylvania “river towns,” is an old steel mill town whose economy imploded in the 1980s with the collapse of the industry. Later, eminent domain claimed valuable land as the state built highways connecting nearby Pittsburgh to what were seen as its more viable suburbs. But Etna’s biggest battle has always been with water. Situated at the bottom of the suburban North Hills and bordered on three sides by rivers and streams, it is topographically like the narrow end of a funnel. Every time it rains, against its will, Etna becomes saturated with runoff stormwater from the neighboring hillside communities. Decades ago, it was something that was the constant source of grudges against its neighbors. Now, most people in Etna realize it’s just a conspiracy of geography—an unfortunate fact of living in a town where a full third of the community lies in what is technically a flood plain.
The running joke, Ramage says, is that Etna should be renamed ‘Wetna.’