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.
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.)
Laurel Run at South Dickerson St. before 1967. Courtesy of Joe Gregory
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.
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.
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.
Scenes from Laurel Run, Pennsylvania, April 2015.