Centralia, Pennsylvania is readying for its swan song. The cursed borough’s dramatic saga is coming to a close and media giants no longer come calling as they once did. But time’s approaching for an event that’ll be a measure of how deep a meaning the lost town has in the hearts of the people forced to leave it behind.
The story is well known. A fire in a makeshift landfill just outside Centralia’s limits ignited a seam of anthracite coal in 1962. There were repeated attempts to quash the slow burn by drowning it and by digging containment trenches, but nothing worked. Now, more than fifty years later, the ground underneath Centralia is still aflame.
A wasted hillside abutting a couple of the town’s well-kept cemeteries vents steam and gases from the subterranean blaze. Dead trees lie toppled, killed from beneath. Only the hardiest plants scratch out a living anywhere close to the fire. Nobody can say for sure how long the seam will burn, but 250 years is not inconceivable. Abandoned mine workings supply ample oxygen. There are vast reserves of unmined coal down there.
Top: The landscape near the active fire
Bottom: Holes bored to monitor the fire
Almost all of Centralia’s residents have moved away. The federal government bought and razed their homes and provided them with resettlement money because of the danger the fire posed to health and property. There are still a few holdouts, though, folks who insist they’re in no danger, who want nothing more than to be left alone.
For decades the town was deeply divided between those who lobbied for intensive government intervention and others who wanted to go about life out of the watchful eyes of bureaucrats and reporters.
One of Centralia’s few remaining holdouts
The question of what to do with Centralia made it to the highest levels of the federal government. The story was featured on Nightline, in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times Magazine. Three books, Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government and the Centralia Mine Fire and Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire, both by David DeKok, and The Day the Earth Caved In: An American Mining Tragedy by Joan Quigley all trace the sad chronicle.
But for the fire, Centralia would have never garnered much attention. That’s the way many Centralians preferred things. Fires are a part of coal country, they said. Almost half of Pennsylvania’s inactive mines were burning at mid-century. Some chalked it up to a conspiracy by government officials and coal barons to get at the unburned anthracite beneath the town, a theory that has not yet been fully extinguished.
Today Centralia is a ghost town, a grid of abandoned residential streets flecked with the few tidy homes of the diehards who stood firm against government efforts to remove them. Wildflowers bloom in meadows that were once residents’ yards. Weeds have reclaimed buckled sidewalks. There are whispers of human design, a tree-lined driveway, a line of shrubbery–landscaping once planned and tended, now returned to feral overgrowth, competing with other life for mere existence.
Scenes from abandoned Centralia
Before Centralia entered its long decline, however, residents proudly honored their hardscrabble heritage. Descendants of Irish Catholics and Eastern Europeans hosted a spectacular three-day celebration at Centralia’s centennial in 1966. In her book, Quigley describes that Fourth of July weekend: ten thousand people showed up for the fireworks, concerts and parades. Congressman “Dapper Dan” Flood waved to constituents from the back of a pickup truck during one of them.
One of the signature events was the laying of a time capsule, to be opened at Centralia’s sesquicentennial in 2016. Planners wanted to acknowledge the town’s working-class, pious background, so they included a miner’s lamp, coal and a Bible along with other local souvenirs and literature. They sealed the relics in a child’s burial vault and excavated its temporary resting place under the lawn of American Legion Post 608, no doubt wondering what Centralia would be like when these items next saw the light of day five decades on.
Update, October 2014: As if Centralia hadn’t already encountered its share of heartache, the time capsule offered another sad chapter to the town’s unending saga. The vault containing the time capsule Centralians stowed away in 1966 became the victim of looting in late spring 2014, when an unknown vandal tried unsuccessfully to dig it up. Officials decided to remove the vault for safekeeping and discovered to their dismay that groundwater had seeped inside, ruining most of the time capsule’s contents.
A crowd of about 75 Centralians and their families gathered in October 2014 at an unveiling of the salvageable contents: the miner’s helmet carbide lamp, a pair of ladies’ bloomers signed by townsfolk, coins and a bonnet. After a brief period of public reflection, the items were returned to the original donors and their descendants.
Though the waterlogged time capsule drowned the prospect of a joyous reunion with Centralians from a half-century ago, there remains the sense that continuing story of this dauntless town is far from over.
Top: The time capsule in the foreground, what’s left of the war memorial at left
Bottom: The stone wall that once guarded the American Legion Hall
Back in 1966, they couldn’t have foreseen that the fire that had been burning on the outskirts of town for four years would still be ablaze fifty years later, or that the smoldering flames, then just a nuisance, would prove the end of the town they were glorifying.
The Centralians of 1966 couldn’t have imagined that this sacred site, in the shadow of the pink cinder block American Legion hall, would one day surrender as a forsaken shrine, that the war memorial within arm’s reach of the time capsule would be moved, like so many residents, a couple towns over.
And now that Centralia’s 150-year anniversary is upon us, the question is, will people return? Will residents who parted ways with their burning town, willingly and otherwise, come back to commemorate Centralia’s life and death? Probably so.
It wasn’t easy for people to leave Centralia. Those who bade farewell did so painfully. Third-generation Centralians clung to their property because they had known no sense of pride and place anywhere else. The few families still there today demonstrate how hard it is to break the tie that binds folks to their hometown, despite the mystifying convergence of time, place and circumstance conspired to erase Centralia from the map.
Scenes from abandoned Centralia