Fifty years ago, this prosperous Pennsylvania coal town was ripped apart by a devastating subterranean mine fire. Today, the flames still burn in Centralia.
By Anthony Taille
The road is dark, sharp and slippery, winding through naked trees and into the wintry Pennsylvanian mist. Thick layers of clouds are concealing the hills, black rocks and silver birches lingering in the morning’s dim blue haze. The stillness of the early hours hasn’t broken yet. Lonely headlights are striking the highway’s glassy surface when I enter the borough of Centralia.
Rusted street signs are the only hint that a city was ever here. Overgrown curbs run along decaying alleys. Dead shrubs and brown weeds have cracked the blacktop, with snow patches and litter scattered everywhere the eye can see.
Centralia is the ghost of a ghost town.
Almost nothing is left of this former community of 1,400. A few buildings remain, most of them old row houses deprived of their neighbors, needing brick retainers to help them stand up without adjoining structures. The total population here was six people in 2014. Everyone else left after a long-lasting mine fire rendered the place uninhabitable, resulting in a government-mandated evacuation.
I stop the car at the corner of Locust Avenue and South Street, near the Saint Ignatius Cemetery, steps from the landfill where it all started.
I walk to the end of the street in the damp and cold air. An acrid smell drifts with the slight breeze. Sulfurous, it comes from the bowels of the earth — the pungent smell of burning coal. Steam is rising over the bare ground, freezing the grass in thin layers of brittle ice. Smoke wafts are growing between small cracks in the bedrock and I can feel the heat under my feet when I climb up the rubble to get a better view of the place.
Discarded tires and metal parts are mixed with cinder blocks and charred branches, making for an eerie mood in the silent morning. I lift a small rock from the ground and it’s so hot I have to drop it. Heat waves from the fire are clearly noticeable. Vapor seems to stick to everything.
I soon head back east to what was once Centralia’s main avenue, taking a look at the house of the town’s last mayor, Carl Womer, who died in May 2014. The house still stands on a recessed side street, but with its deed held by the state since it was taken by eminent domain in 1992, the property is bound to be destroyed in the near future.
I think of the lost history and forgotten memories as I walk by a long-dead tree, a sign reading FIRE nailed to its bark, pointing at nowhere in particular, as if the FIRE had engulfed the whole land and the world along with it, leaving nothing behind but ashes.
Pennsylvania has always been a leading anthracite coal provider, with more than sixty-eight million tons mined in 2013. Despite the growth of natural gas and renewable power, coal has endured, still accounting for thirty-nine percent of national electricity production and representing one of the largest employment sources in Pennsylvania, with 49,100 jobs and more than $700 million netted in tax revenue last year — even while the industry had to comply with ever-stricter regulations promoting clean energy.
Pennsylvania is also the state that is most plagued by mine fires, with at least thirty-eight recorded cases. Whether sparked naturally or human-induced, those blazes are well-known for being virtually impossible to extinguish. Most of the landscapes of the American West are actually the result of large-scale, ancient underground coal fires. Some, like Australia’s Burning Mountain, thought to have been burning for 6,000 years.
Coal consumption was already in decline when Centralia’s underground fire started back in 1962. Mining operators were struggling to keep profits up, fearing a looming economic crash and slowly downsizing their labor force. Small towns had been steadily shrinking for quite some time, their residents either moving to bigger cities or finding new jobs in different fields.
In spite of this, Centralia was doing relatively good in 1962.
Then all hell broke loose.
It’s slightly past eight a.m. when I reach May’s Drive In restaurant in Ashland, less than two miles south of Centralia. Ed Fuller is a seventy-four-year-old technician recently retired from the mining industry. He is also a former Centralian. He sees me first and waves at me from his table. We shake hands and I’m soon sipping a warm cup of coffee, the waitress scribbling my order on her notepad.
“You should try the French toast,” Fuller suggests.
I follow his advice and we quickly start eating, the windows fogging up as the room fills with regular customers — ladies with walkers, white-haired men in gym slacks, old couples sharing breakfast together.
“Every now and then I see people coming here after they’ve visited the town,” Fuller declares. “Most of them are disappointed. They’re expecting more of it.”
“Ghost towns are popular,” I say.
“I can understand why for some of them. Because they — because you can still see the history. Like abandoned places in the west, with the gold rush and the river dams and whatnot. Those I can understand,” Fuller says. “But Centralia, I don’t. It’s just trees and empty roads.”
Ed Fuller is a man of few words. He gets straight to the point, a habit he took during his years in the army. His stern look and tall build give him the stance of someone who’s lived enough not to care about being judged.
“I was twenty-two when the fire started. I was living with my parents on Park Street. My mother was growing vegetables in the garden — potatoes, cabbage and such.”
“How did everything happen?” I ask.
“You will hear different stories about it. Everyone has his own version. Kids played with fireworks. A truck unloaded live embers. The government secretly did it. But in the end, it probably all came down to one simple thing: the Borough Council didn’t want the town to stink for a Memorial Day ceremony.”
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The road is dark, sharp and slippery, winding through naked trees and into the wintry Pennsylvanian mist. Thick layers…narrative.ly
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