Laurel Run, Pennsylvania; Fire beneath the Mountain

A fire smolders in an abandoned coal mine deep underground. Gases seep to the surface through fissures in the earth. A blue-collar Pennsylvania town vaporizes, chased away by the blaze. But this is not Centralia, where subterranean seams of anthracite have been burning since 1962. No, this is Laurel Run, a town done in by a mine fire that’s been burning nearly twice as long.

Though Centralia has garnered the lion’s share of attention as the ghost town made famous by a mine fire, the central Pennsylvania borough is not the only place to have been erased from below. Underground fires have come and gone since Pennsylvania’s mines first opened in the 18th century. More than three dozen active mine fires are currently burning in that state. When those infernos were away from population centers, people mostly ignored them. A few times, though, when acrid gases rose through city streets, there was no option but to raise the white flag of surrender and relocate an entire community.

Laurel Run (4)      Laurel Run (21)

Gases escape from the 100-year-old fire in the Red Ash coal mine.

Laurel Run was just such a borough. This was once a thriving hamlet, hemmed in between Wilkes-Barre Township and a high ridge called Giant’s Despair. Laurel Run was in many ways a typical town in Pennsylvania’s anthracite belt, laden with enough working-class struggles to keep life interesting.

Laurel Run also happened to be situated directly above the Red Ash coal mine, which caught fire in 1915 when a miner’s lamp ignited timbers supporting a tunnel through the anthracite. The mine has been on fire for 100 years, fed by ample oxygen in the old workings and an endless supply of fuel. In the 1960s, after failed attempts to extinguish the fire, the government moved every last resident out of Laurel Run and razed every last structure, more than 150 buildings in all: houses, an elementary school, a church, everything.

(Here is the location of the old Laurel Run on Google Maps.)

S Dickerson Looking south PreSep 67     S Dickerson Looking north pre May 64 (2)

Laurel Run at South Dickerson St. before 1967. Courtesy of Joe Gregory

Laurel RUn (12)     Laurel Run (10)

South Dickerson Street, Laurel Run, April 2015

I spoke to a couple former residents of Laurel Run, and the sentiment that pervaded those conversations was the special place “the burra,” as folks once called it, had in peoples’ hearts, even long after it was gone. Patricia Hester based her novel Whispers from the Ashes (available on Amazon here) on life in Laurel Run.

Hester described Laurel Run as “a wonderful place to grow up…As children, we moved freely through the surrounding countryside or gathered on street corners, at the railroad crossing or the schoolyard where every adult provided watchful eyes. We hiked the mountains and explored the ruins left by the mines; ice skated on dams or danced at the community center at Oliver’s Mills. Every Friday, evening dances were also held at the borough school.”

Hester also recalled attending the Giant’s Despair Hillclimb, an annual automobile race up the mountain’s steep grade. The race, which began in 1906, is still held each year.

Laurel Run (16)     Laurel Run

Remnants of Old Laurel Run

I spoke also to Joe Gregory, who came to Laurel Run as a child with his family in 1940 and stayed until he left for college. Gregory keeps a thick binder filled with photos and mementos from Laurel Run.

Gregory is quick with a laugh and is eager to share the memories of all the mischief he and other Laurel Run children got into before his hometown vanished. Though Gregory conceded that Laurel Run was a no-frills town where nearly everyone was related, he recalls a kind of when-life-gives-you-lemons-make-lemonade, happy-go-lucky upbringing.

He recalled simple pleasures: racing makeshift toy sailboats on Laurel Run’s largest body of water, an enormous puddle caused by poor drainage; the thrill of riding in the back of the local bread delivery truck. So fond were Gregory’s memories of his home that he returned to the area after living away during a thirty-year career.

Gregory had enough recollections of Laurel Run to fill a book. So that’s what he did, compiling them into a memoir titled Hometown Gone.

Laurel Run (19)     Laurel Run (5)

L: Looking down on the parking lot that was once “downtown” Laurel Run at East Northampton St.; R: Looking down over Wilkes-Barre from Laurel Run’s northern fringes.

I met Gregory at a parking lot on East Northampton Street. What used to be Laurel Run’s main drag is now open land that’s become an unofficial park popular with dog walkers. His sharp memory served to set the scene, which was helpful, because every obvious trace of Laurel Run has vanished. We walked into the woods along South Dickerson Street where he grew up, but even there, pieces of the past were hard to make out.

“They pushed everything, houses and all, into a big pile and burned it,” he said. Gregory, an avid amateur photographer, captured much of the town before it vanished (the 1960s-era photos above are his).

And Gregory and Hester are not the only ones keeping the memories of Laurel Run alive. Former residents and their families keep in touch on a Facebook page, Remembering Laurel Run Boro.

Cruise North Dickerson Street any chilly morning and you’ll see the reason Laurel Run exists only in memory. Steam heated beneath the surface escapes any way it can: through rusted vent pipes bored long ago, by way of fissures in the broken ground. The burning seam of anthracite powers on, but so does the energy of the people who want to keep Laurel Run’s best days alive.

 

Laurel Run (2)     Laurel Run (6)

Laurel Run (15)     Laurel Run (9)

Laurel Run (3)     Laurel Run (20)

Laurel Run (17)     Laurel Run (13)

Laurel Run (14)     Laurel Run (18)

Scenes from Laurel Run, Pennsylvania, April 2015.

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
This entry was posted in Ghost towns, Mines. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Laurel Run, Pennsylvania; Fire beneath the Mountain

  1. Kristen Olson says:

    Hey Ben! I’m really enjoying your blog! This stuff is fascinating. I think the idea of picking up an entire town’s lives and relocating them, then burning the buildings, seems surprising, but in reality there are so many stories like this one. Cades Cove and other communities in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for example (my master’s thesis – 6,000 people relocated in the late 1920s and early ’30s from the park). A similar story at Shenandoah National Park. In these places, the few living former residents (and many descendants) still return to tend the cemeteries and hold reunions.

    Keep the posts coming – I can’t wait to read your book!

    -Kristen

    • Ben Swenson says:

      Great, thanks. I’m glad you enjoy it Kristen. I’ve heard about the old homes in the Smokies and actually hiked with a writer who documented some of the old homesteads in Shenandoah NP. I suspect it happened much more than people realized. Hope you’re well and talk to you soon.

  2. ja says:

    thx for the post! my parents and grandparents lived in WB, and we would see the smoke from Laurel Run rising up in the distance when we’d go visit. i didn’t realize at the time there had been a town there, just thought it was mine vents. am going to show this to my mother (91 yo) who moved out of WB some 70 yrs go.

  3. Esther Naylor says:

    I found this article very interesting

  4. OP says:

    I used to live near Wilkes-Barre when I was a child, and I remember seeing the smoke rise from fissure in the ground. It’s too bad that this happened. I’m interested in seeing what other “reclaimed” towns you’ve visited.

  5. Michael Kosiba says:

    My family and I used to visit maternal relatives in Wilkes-Barre during the summers in the 1950’s and 60’s. We would often watch the smoke during the day and sometimes a glow at night from the porch of my grandmother’s house on North Meade Street. I never knew about the town of Laurel Run. One of my uncles took me to watch the road race one year. I remember some of the smoke and hot spots along the race course.

  6. Len Gawelko says:

    Wow! Looking at Joe Gregory’s pictures brings back memories. We lived on 33 S Dickerson. 2 houses down from the Gregory residence. The picture with the child on a bicycle at the base of the hill is in front of our house. Strangely enough, that is probably me on the bicycle. I see a 63 Ford wagon across the street and a 56 or so Ford wagon in front of the LaBar residence next to us. We moved to Forty Fort in 1967. No luck again, seriously flooded in Agnes in 1972.

  7. Pingback: Quick Fact: In December 1915 a miner in the Red Ash Coal... - Quick Facts

  8. elizabet bohny says:

    Memories of laurel run. My dad was one of the Crawfords. His mother’s house was there. I was born in 1957 but still remember going out to visit. Pink climber roses all over the porch, big pines in the front yard, and a swinging iron gate. Still remember driving the devil’s elbow and the Indian massacre rock. And if course climbing prospect rock to see the whole valley laud below us. And I remember the smoke coming from the ground along the sides of the road. He told me how the coal underground was on fire and probably never go out. My aunt lived in the house until everyone was forced out and everything was torn down. My dad cried. It was s little slice of Americana and truly missed by thus laurel run coal miners daughter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *