I am no stranger to the after-effects of heavy mining on a community and its environment. I was born and raised in a worn down old coal town, about an hour away from Centralia, called Wilkes-Barre. Abandoned coal breakers, culm banks, mine subsidences, and scattered mine fires are the backdrop to my childhood as a "coal cracker." I thought I had seen the worst before I drove into the tiny town of Centralia.
The day that I visited Centralia was a comfortable 80 degrees, (roughly 26 degrees Celsius.) Driving on Route 61 I unknowingly passed Centralia several times, not recognizing any landmarks from my first visit in the early 80s with my parents. My memories of Centralia were of streets of mostly abandoned and condemned row houses, and vents in the ground from which smoke billowed into the overcast sky.
What I saw today was nothing, interspersed with a few lonely row houses and numerous driveways that led a short path to nowhere. Apparently, a large section of Route 61 had been indefinitely closed due to fire damage. Tremendous smoking cracks in the route's pavement had appeared since we'd last visited. I stopped at the intersection of Route 61 and 54 where a little green common, which held an obvious clue that I was already in Centralia, was located.
The common consisted of a congregation of elderly men sitting before a red heart shaped sign with big white lettering saying, "WE LOVE CENTRALIA," and an American flag waving proudly from a large flagpole nearby. I approached the gentlemen intent on finding out the town's current situation and if I was indeed in the correct town of Centralia, perched precariously above a raging pit of fire. I greeted the gentlemen politely, uncertain if they'd be receptive to questions after the barrage of media attention their small, and steadily decreasing, town had received. Upon closer inspection the men numbered about seven or eight, roughly a third of the total town if the 22 phone listings for Centralia are accurate. All of these men appeared to be members of Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" neatly dressed, some with baseball caps. A few of them were asleep, the rest shooting the breeze and listening to polka music emanating from one of their nearby cars. I asked the first man I made eye contact with where exactly Centralia was located, hoping that the confused-outsider-in-need-of-help tactic would put him more at ease with my upcoming questions. "You're standing in it." he said with a chuckle and a kind smile. I replied that the town looked totally different than the last time I had visited in the early 1980s, recounting my memories of rows of abandoned houses and smoke billowing from pipes in the ground. He told me that since that time about 90 percent of the ghostly homes and businesses I most likely remembered had been demolished by the government. I asked him where the damage would be most visible and he directed me to the scene with some hesitation, adding that parts of the town were blocked off or unreachable. He became quiet and I sensed that the conversation had suffered due to my lack of social graces. I thanked him, gave a smile to anyone of the group who was interested, and went on my way.
I followed the man's directions and came upon what can only be described as a no man's land. The contrast is striking when gazing at the smoking, desolate remains of what used to be a prosperous town of approximately 1,100 people and seeing the lush rolling green hills of Pennsylvania surrounding this scene of total devastation. This was a landscape reminiscent of post eruption Mount St. Helens in Washington state. I foolishly drove my car past the end of the pavement onto the dirt trail littered with sinkholes and subsidences providing a roller coaster like ride. I left the car behind and brazenly strolled up to the lip of a hill, which could have been the rim of an enormous sinkhole upon further reflection. A wave of sulfurous air swept over me and I could feel the heat emanating from underneath my flipflopped feet. It was no longer a comfortable 80 degrees, I suddenly felt like the sun had decided to relocate to just feet from the earth. Patches of bleached, naked skeletons of what were once probably maple trees stuck grotesquely out of the ground. The parched ground was covered with small pieces of slate, gravel and dead twigs and vegetation.
Here and there were reminders that humans had once inhabited this place: blackened kitchen utensils, a couch, broken slabs of concrete, tires, scraps of carpet, and what may have been aluminum siding, among other things. The town had been reduced to a pile of rubble worthy of occupation in a redneck's front yard. The ground was hot to the touch and some rocks were simply too hot to pick up. I attempted to follow the treacherous path in several directions, but quickly decided against it for the sake of my car's health and possibly my own. I toyed with the idea of an impromptu scientific experiment, of leaving one of my cheap Target flipflops on the ground with my name and contact information. Fellow visitors could keep me updated on the progress of melting of the martyred footwear. I decided against the notion when I realized that if the flipflop melted totally, anything written on it would be illegible. Besides, I paid an entire $3.50 for those beauties.
The devastation felt so all-encompassing, so hopeless, so evil. It almost seemed impossible that this could have happened without some kind of malignant supernatural force bent on destruction. It almost seemed as if God had laid his wrath upon Centralia along with Sodom and Gomorrah. Apparently, I wasn't the only one who felt that way. According to local legend, a priest in Centralia had been severely beaten by a gang of vigilante Irish miners about 100 years ago. Legend holds that he cursed Centralia to eternity in hellfire from his pulpit because of his mistreatment.
I asked several current and former residents of the town about this legend, and have gotten no response. The legend has an air of truth to it, if you are familiar with the history of the "King Coal" region and time period. There was a group similar to the one in the legend, called the Molly Maguires. The Maguires were an Irish band of rebel miners who fought back violently against their ill treatment at the hands of mine bosses, and any other opposition. As a descendant of one of the Maguires Welsh victims, I find the report of this legend fascinating, but ultimately suspicious. The first and only time I read about the story was in an article about Centralia by the London Times. The relationship between the English and the Irish is legendary in itself, to say the least. (Update: I received one response from a former resident of the town. She told me that she believed the legend, and that Centralia is paying the price today.)
The town's story is heartbreaking, a legion of rumors run amok. According to one account that I read on a Centralia message board (http://www.offroaders.com/album/centralia/messageboard.htm):
"When the mines around Centrailia [sic] were active, the mine foremen did not choose to mine the abundant coal located underneath the town because of the widespread collapsing of buildings in so many of the other anthracite communities. Although they kept their homes from collapsing, they couldn't shelter their community from greed. As the story has been told to me so often, the fire was supposedly started on purpose to create the urgency and publicity to urge the residents to new homes. By evacuating the town and buying their land as they left, the coal mine owners could begin a strip operation to open the veins to the surface, put out the fire, and capitalize on the tons and tons of coal still usable.
Versions of this story float about Centralia. The government is believed to be the villain in some threads. In this version, the cause of the fire was accidental, but the government's ultimate motive in relocating the remaining residents is the millions of tons of coal which still exist underneath town. The present day coal companies could theoretically benefit from this also, if the government took bids from contractors to do the coal removal.
In 1984 Congress appropriated $42 million to buy out willing residents and relocate them. In 1962 there were 1,100 people, and 545 families and businesses, as compared to 1996 with a population of 46, and 20 families. According to Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, the cost of relocation was approximately $51,500 per family/business plus $8,700 in administration costs. The grand total for all the relocation costs is $35 million plus dollars. The costs for attempts at extinguishing and controlling the fire are astronomical, with limited results: $40 million. The population for the year 2000 appears to be even more dismal, even without an official count. There are 22 listings for Centralia in the white pages today.
Residents of Centralia let their opinion be known when then Governor Casey ordered condemnation of the remaining 53 properties in 1992. The residents filed legal objections to the condemnation processes in 1993. In 1993, the borough of Centralia, as owner of all the minerals in its land, filed against the de facto taking of coal by condemnation. Fire damage caused a section of Route 61 to be closed down indefinitely the same year.
The courts disagreed with the Centralia property owners. Columbia county court denied the owners' objections to condemnation in 1993, as well as the borough's in 1994. The State Supreme Court also turned down the owners'; and borough's bids to stop condemnation in late 1995. The U.S. Supreme Court also denied the property owners' actions, ending any hope for future appeals. Pennsylvania owns the remaining homes, and the residents pay property taxes.
It is remarkable that there is still anything left to Centralia at all. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania could have forced the last residents out in 1995 after their appeals were denied. For unknown reasons, the commonwealth has been quite lenient with the residents. In an official news release, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection urged remaining residents to accept relocation. "By remaining, you are assuming the risk that subsidence, gases or other events may result in injury to you or your family," the D.E.P. warned. The missive ended by saying, "Their (Centralians) safety is our only reason for urging relocation," as if responding to former allegations.
It seems that Centralians are tired of all the press their dwindling town has been receiving. National attention was first focused on the town in February 1981 when 12-year-old Todd Domboski was in his grandmother's yard, and suddenly the ground fell out from beneath him. A four-foot wide, 80 foot deep hole threatened to swallow the boy who had grabbed tree roots to avoid falling into the fiery pit. A cousin heard his yells, and pulled him out. Cave-ins like the one that happened in that backyard started all over town just days afterward.
Considering the barrage of media attention that was subsequently focused on the town, it really shouldn't have surprised me that I got little to no response to my numerous emails and other requests for information from any former or current residents of Centralia. (I was wondering what company would give Internet access to Centralia. Perhaps the wires simply incinerated before they could check their e-mail.) During research for this article I found articles done by publications around the world. In fact Bill Bryson, one of my favorite authors, recounts his visit to Centralia in his book A Walk in the Woods.
It's impossible to say what Centralia's future will be. One mine fire authority estimates that the fire could continue to burn for another thousand years. Another says that it could continue unhampered for 100 years. Joe Harvey, a local man, says that he doesn't think the fire will continue for too much longer. He cites the observation that the wisps of smoke are approaching a stripping pit from which all the coal has been mined. As for Mr. Harvey, he thinks that Centralia should be turned into a park.
In a time when every town in the United States looks exactly the same, Centralia is one flaming exception. Today you can get on an airplane in one American city and arrive in another, but probably not notice any major differences even if they are on opposite coasts. Centralia might not have too much going for it, but at least it doesn't blend into commercial homogeneity like so many other towns in America.