Appalachia is home to many small towns; each of them have special characteristics that make them unique. Centralia, Pennsylvania is a town like no other. One could look all over the world and find no place quite like it. This Appalachian town is nearly a ghost town now, home to less than ten people when, at its peak, Centralia was home to nearly 3,000 people. A handful of people living in the town is not what makes it so special. Centralia is on fire and has been for 54 years. Coal mines zigzagging their way beneath the town are constantly burning and experts say there is enough coal in these mines to keep the fires burning for 250 years. Centralia is the town on fire.
Located in Columbia County, Pennsylvania, Centralia was founded in 1842 as Centreville but had its name later changed to Centralia in 1865 because there was already a Centreville, Pennsylvania. The town started when Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company bought the land and built the Locust Run Mine. Railroads came to town and more mines began to pop up in the town. As many as five mines were open at Centralia’s peak. With the increasing number of mines came an increase in population. Centralia’s population peaked at 2,761 in 1890. Centralia was a classic example of a Central Pennsylvanian and Appalachian town in the 1800s and 1900s, centered around the coal mining business. Schools, businesses, homes, and mines were located all across the town and Centralia remained a healthy town until the 1960s. During this decade, the mines began to close and residents began to leave. The population of Centralia sank to around 1,400 as the town declined. Around the same time, an event took place that would change the fate of the town.
Just before Memorial Day 1962, members of the fire company were hired to clean up the dump located in an abandoned strip mine. The firefighters set the dump on fire but unaware to them, there was an opening in the pit that led to the abandoned coal mines beneath the town. The fire was able to travel from the dump into the coal mines that were still full of coal. As serious as the problem sounds, no real trouble was imminent soon after the fires started in the mines. The first signs of danger came in 1979 when a gas station owner was checking fuel levels in his underground tanks. He felt the intense heat coming out and stuck a thermometer in the tank and was amazed to see the temperature was 172 degrees! The normal temperature is 55 degrees so the temperature in the tanks was over three times the normal temperature. A few years later in 1981, 12-year-old Centralia resident Todd Domboski fell into a sinkhole measured to be 150 feet deep and filled with carbon monoxide. Luckily, he was able to hang on to tree roots and was pulled to safety. Centralia residents were also finding poisonous levels of carbon monoxide in their homes. In what seemed like the final straw, part of the highway, PA 61, going through Centralia began to crack and buckle from the heat of the fire beneath it. Shortly after this, the government turned the lights off on Centralia.
Attempts at the local level as well as at the state level to extinguish the fires were nowhere near successful and the government started taking properties through eminent domain. Buying properties and relocating the residents of Centralia cost Pennsylvania nearly $42 million. Most residents went to nearby Ashland and Mount Carmel where life goes on as normal. In 2002, the zip code for Centralia was removed. After a long court battle, the eight remaining residents of Centralia were granted the right to stay in the town for the rest of their lives and then their properties will be turned over to the government. The state may not have tried their very best to try and save this small Appalachian coal mining town and now Pennsylvania must wait on eight people who do not want the flame to go out on Centralia.
My grandparents have a house less than half an hour from Centralia so I am very familiar with this part of Appalachia. I am also aware of how big an impact coal has had on the area. I have been to Centralia several times, the most recent being last summer. During my last visit, I was able to walk around and explore where this thriving Pennsylvania mining town once stood. When looking at pictures of Centralia’s past and comparing them to how the town looks now, there is no doubt in my mind that coal has not had a bigger impact on any other town in the country.
During this Appalachian Studies class, we read chapters and watched films that described how Appalachian towns often find themselves being built up or being destroyed by natural resources. In Centralia’s case, both of these apply. It was ultimately destroyed by coal, the same resource that jumpstarted the town. When walking around Centralia it was very easy to tell it was a coal mining town. Almost everywhere I looked, heaps of black coal and tailings sat discarded. In the hills surrounding the town, sealed mine entrances keep people from entering the fiery mines below the town. It was very unsettling seeing the mine entrances and knowing what lay behind them. I could imagine the miners entering the mines every morning in order to provide for their families back in town. I also had to imagine what the town looked like, as there are very few buildings left.
Eerie is an adjective that fills your head when in Centralia. The mine entrances, few buildings, smoke rising from the ground, perfectly manicured cemeteries, and abandoned roads all had a creepy feel. The only buildings present consist of a municipal building, church, and the few homes belonging to the handful of people that still call Centralia home. All across town smoke slowly rises from the ground and heat from the fires can be felt as well at the same places. Smoke appears in different places from the last time you have been there, evidence that the fires below are constantly moving. Despite the smoke rising up among the gravestones, the cemeteries appear to be well kept by the locals who are unwilling to let their family members’ and friends’ final resting places be overcome by weeds. Many roads in Centralia seemingly lead to nowhere now. Once busy with cars, these roads now have weeds growing between the cracks caused by the heat underground. This is very apparent on PA 61, the old section of highway going through Centralia. Walking down this graffiti covered road was interesting. The messages written on the road included support for this dying town. It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop as you walked along the huge zigzagging cracks in the road. This once popular highway now lays victim to the silent killer, the mine fires raging beneath the surface.
Feeling out of place in Centralia is an understatement. I do not know how anyone could feel at home there. I wonder even if the few remaining residents feel at home in Centralia. They had to watch as their friends, coworkers, and neighbors left for greener pastures. They had to watch building after building be demolished. They had to watch smoke rise from the ground where they used to walk and play. They had to watch the town they love fall into ruins and become a virtual ghost town. They have real devotion to this place and that has to be respected. They are fighting back as nature tries to take over their cemeteries and poisonous gases try to fill their homes. After visiting Centralia, it is hard to imagine how people still call this place home and I have nothing but respect for them.
Looking at Centralia’s assets as a community is quite difficult because there are so few. The town only has a few remaining buildings and a few streets, most of them unfit for driving. It would be wrong to only look at Centralia’s physical assets because where they lack physical assets, the town makes up for it in nonmaterial assets. The power in Centralia lies in the few people that still call this Appalachian town home. They are the only ones that can build up this town or at least maintain it. The residents already do their best at maintaining Centralia’s cemeteries. They also do their best to maintain their homes and yards. They have pride in their town and if they did not, they would have left like everyone else did years ago. Since no one is allowed to move to Centralia, it is up to the people already there to do what they can for the town. As John Kretzman said, “Communities can only be built by focusing on the strengths and capacities of the citizens who call that community home”. This again explains that the residents of Centralia are the only ones that have the power to build up their town again.
Looking at Centralia’s needs is a different story as there are so many. Basically all physical assets are needed. Centralia really needs to be built from scratch. There are no shops, schools, or unused houses. Before one can even start to think about the needs of the town above ground, the needs below ground need to be addressed. In certain places, the ground is not stable enough to build on. The mine fires beneath the town must be extinguished before life in Centralia can go back to how it was in the early history of the town. Because there is so much coal in the mines under Centralia, the fires will continue to burn long after our lifetime. That means the fires cannot be let to burn until they run out of fuel. The residents will die and the town will be condemned before the fires die out. Measures must be taken to extinguish the fires as soon as possible for Centralia to have any hope. Because of the nature of the mine fires, the measures to be taken must be extreme, as the fires have grown to burn over 400 acres. That much water could only be supplied at the state level and that is a lot of money Pennsylvania will refuse to spend as this would not be the first time they have tried this idea. The state government realized extinguishing the fires would be nearly impossible and that is why they tried to condemn the town. With the mine fires continuing to burn, I see little to no hope for the revitalization of Centralia. The state government controls the faith of this once prosperous Appalachian coal mining town because only they have the funds to save it.
As I was mentioning before, in order for Centralia to have any chance at rebuilding, the Pennsylvania government must put out the mine fires that have been burning for over 50 years. I do not see this task as being feasible but if it were to happen, and the fires were extinguished, the task of rebuilding would fall on the shoulders of the current residents. They would need to plead with the state to allow the town to be rebuilt. However, in reality, this is a mere dream and Centralia is almost all but dead. With organization and outside support for Centralia maybe the government will change its mind but action needs to happen now! Centralia is a perfect example of an Appalachian town destroyed by the desire for natural resources. If mines were not located under the town and entrances were properly sealed, this disaster would never have taken place. Centralia can be a lesson for America and the rest of Appalachia; people’s safety should never be put in danger by natural resource collection. During this course, I watched as towns in the mountains of West Virginia fought battles against big coal mining companies because they felt their health and land was at risk. I could not help but think of Centralia and how it was destroyed by coal and the lack of consideration for the public and the environment. Take from this report the fact that coal can destroy communities. For some communities it is not too late for the citizens to change what is happening but unfortunately for the few residents of Centralia, they are lucky they are even allowed to live in the town they love.
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