Sunday, March 28, 2010

Abandoned Things: ZIP Code 17927 / Centralia, PA

"Wind Turbines above Centralia"
copyright 2010 by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

(Click on images for larger view)

I’ve been hearing about the fire burning under the town of Centralia in Pennsylvania’s northeastern anthracite region for nearly as long as I can remember. I had grown up in a different coal mining region of the state where an old boney pile had ignited and burned for several years just outside the town where I went to school, so the threat of such a tragedy seemed very real to me even as a young girl.

Boney piles, sometimes referred to as gob piles, are big heaps of coal mining waste left behind by the mining companies. On our recent road trip, we were amazed at the size and number of these ugly black hills of industrial waste along highways and surrounding towns.

The area in central Pennsylvania where I grew up had been mined out decades before I was born, but boney piles left from those mined out veins and long gone coal companies still remained. My grandfather and great-uncles had been coal miners as young men in those mines. For most of my childhood and teen years, that old boney pile smoldered outside the town of Mount Union and gave off nasty fumes. I held my breath and pinched my nostrils shut each time we drove past, trying to avoid the sulfurous odor which actually caused a burning sensation in my nose. It was one of those smells that you can’t get out of your nose, even hours later. Pointing at the homes nearby, some of them tidy new ranch houses, I’d ask my parents: How can they stand to live so close to that smell? My parents would say: I guess you get used to it. That fire eventually burned itself out. By the time I was in high school the odor was not as strong and eventually I realized I no longer smelled it.

The situation in Centralia was much more serious. In 1962 a coal vein had been ignited and burned deep below the town where there were labyrinths of old mine tunnels. Accounts of how the fire began vary, but most seem to point to it starting at an old strip mine being used as a landfill dump site. The fire burned for decades while all attempts to extinguish it failed. Town residents had to monitor carbon monoxide levels in their homes and live with the sickening sulfur dioxide smell outdoors. Pipes jutting out of the ground vented gaseous vapors. Fissures formed and released steam. Eventually sinkholes opened up and pavement buckled.

In “Centralia, PA: How an underground coal fire erased a town” (Christian Science Monitor, 2/15/2010), Eoin O’Carroll writes of the 1981 incident where 12-year-old Todd Dromboski fell into a sinkhole in a yard and saved himself by grabbing onto a tree root until he could be rescued. The article includes a photograph of the boy standing outside a fence erected around the hole later that day following his rescue. That incident served as a wake-up call to how serious the situation had become. O’Carroll states, “Two years later, Congress appropriated $42 million to buy and demolish every home in the town. By 1990, only 63 people remained. In 2002, the U.S. Postal Service eliminated Centralia’s ZIP code.”

Fiction writer Tawni O’Dell based imagery in her novel Coal Run on Centralia. When I interviewed her in 2005, I asked about where that imagery had come from, impressed by how she used it to create tension smoldering under the whole story, in the same way that it burned under the town until eventually the earth opened – like hell rising up through the backyards.

Tawni O’Dell responded:
“That’s based on Centralia. I went there with my cousin, Kenny, for the first time when I was a freshman in college. I made a road trip to Centralia just to see this place, and it blew my mind. Part of it was because I was already a writer – it’s the kind of place where you think: Wow, I’ve got to put this in a story someday. I was 18 or 19, and I hadn’t even written a novel at that point, but I knew it was something I was going to use someday . . . I always thought it perfectly summarized the whole Pennsylvania mining experience. What’s under this ground? It was the lifeblood of this community, gave them jobs and prosperity – and now it’s poisoned the place to a point where people can’t even live there anymore. It’s an extreme example of what other communities went through. And it went farther than being about evil mine operators and rich coal barons taking advantage of poor coal miners. It’s about the land. It’s the actual ground on fire. And it’s still burning, and it’s spreading. More and more of the area is being pulled down. And it’s just like I described in the book, a really fascinating place. I’ve been back there two times. As a matter of fact, I was just thinking recently that I want to go back again to see what it’s like now and see if the things I remember are still there. I can still vividly see all the little details – the swing set, the tricycle, and the lawnmower. Are they still there? It’s a ghost town. Not a Wild West ghost town, but a coal mining ghost town. And it smells like sulfur. The image of that town always stuck with me. And the name, Coal Run. There’s a town of Coal Run very close to Indiana, PA. Even as a kid, I loved that name. I always thought, that’s the name of a town I’ll put in a story someday. So, I filed all these things away, thinking – someday I’ll put that in a story.” (“Tawni O’Dell: The Influence of Landscape and the Journey Home” Paper Street, Fall 2005.)

There’s not much left to see of Centralia. Driving along route 61 we were nearly past it before we realized we were there. We drove around the town on what remained of the street grid, on streets with no names. The street signs have been removed, but the sidewalks remain and driveways lead into yards where houses no longer stand and the lots are overgrown with brush and saplings.

"Wood Street, Centralia"
copyright 2010 by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

On a street that was once called Railroad Street, we spoke to a man out walking his dog. He had grown up in the town but moved away as a young man before the fire began. He now lives in the nearby town of Mount Carmel, but comes to Centralia for walks with his dog. He told us there were still five holdouts in the town but that most of the residents relocated when their homes were bought and demolished by the state in the mid-1980s. When we asked if there was still an area where there was evidence of the fire still burning, he directed us to the area below the cemetery on the hillside across the highway and told us to look for the sign tacked to a tree which said “Fire” with an arrow indicating where to turn. He also told us how to get to a nearby section of abandoned highway which had to be closed and rerouted after the hot earth buckled the pavement.

"Sentinel" copyright 2010 by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

A church still stands atop one of the hills, a lonely sentinel above a town now gone. On the opposite hillside below a cemetery, steam still rises from the ground. The hottest area is marked by fallen tree trunks bleached white like tree bones, fissures emitting wisps of steam, and concrete steps that once led to a home. Snow lay on the ground in other areas of the town, but the earth is too warm for snow to accumulate here.

Filmmakers Chris Perkel and Georgie Roland filmed a 2007 documentary The Town That Was over four years in Centralia, showing holdout resident John Lokitis, then in his early 30s, fighting to save and preserve what was left of his town. According to the recent Associated Press article “The Last Days of a Town: Centralia, PA” (2/5/2010), Lokitis lost his battle and his home was bulldozed.

Journalist David DeKok, author of Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire, describes the Centralia mine fire as “a direct legacy of the environmental devastation of that era and the failure of either the government or private industry to face up to the damage that had been done and the risks that remained.” He sums it up best with this statement: “Centralia and its mine fire symbolize the folly of the notion that man can abuse the environment without consequence.” His photograph below, which was taken in 1983, shows the view of Centralia as it once was.

"The View" copyright 2008 by David DeKok,
all rights reserved, used by permission

The landscape of Centralia is forever altered – an environmental disaster equal to that of New York’s Love Canal. Wind turbines now line the hilltops, generating energy from a cleaner source – albeit too late for this town destroyed by coal. The landscape from my own childhood has also been altered, but for the better, with most of those old boney piles now gone, many of them removed at great cost during a highway expansion project. They’ve been gone long enough that I’d nearly forgotten about them, until our road trip sparked those memory images – where it always seems to be nighttime and I’m sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car as we drive past that nasty smell and I ask once again, How can they stand it?

"Steam Rising, Centralia"copyright 2010 by Kevin Scanlon,
all rights reserved, used by permission

Photo credits:
  • “Wind Turbines above Centralia” copyright 2010 by Dory Adams, all rights reserved
  • “Wood Street, Centralia” copyright 2010 by Dory Adams, all rights reserved
  • “Sentinel” copyright 2010 by Dory Adams, all rights reserved
  • “The View” copyright 2008 by David DeKok, all rights reserved, used by permission
  • “Steam Rising from Fissure, Centralia” copyright 2010 by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved, used by permission


Readers who comment on this post are eligible to win two free passes to the Carnegie Museum. Passes are courtesy of Pittsburgh Budget Cars, a company that deals in used cars in Pittsburgh.

To enter, post a comment below. Names of entrants will be placed in a hat (maybe that Levon Helm Band souvenir hat I bought at the Ramble on our road trip!) and the winner drawn at random. Deadline for entering is Saturday 4/3/2010 at midnight. The winner will be announced in next week’s post, Sunday 4/4/2010. Be sure to include your name with your comment and check back next week in order to claim your prize.

Around the Blogosphere:
  • Read “W. Eugene Smith and the Jazz Loft Project” by Jeffrey Scales at Paper Cuts and be sure to click on the link to the audio slide show of Smith’s images (narration by photographer W. Eugene Smith recorded in 1971). According to The Jazz Loft Project website, “the exhibit is now on view at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and will run through May 22, 2010. The exhibit will travel to the Chicago Cultural Center (July 17-September 25, 2010), the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University (February 3-May 22, 2011), the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego (May 19-Oct. 7, 2012), and the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona (late 2012, early 2013). There will also be an exhibition of projected images at the Monterey Jazz Festival September 17-19, 2010.”

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Edd Fuller said...


I enjoyed your post today and it brought back some memories.

By the time I came along, my grandfather had retired from the mines, but my uncle worked in the mines in Beckley, WV and I used to go and stay with them in the summers. My uncle worked the second shift, and my aunt, my cousin and I waited up every night until after midnight for him to come home. We would hear his car in the driveway, and the shower running in the basement. Then he would come up the stairs, scrubbed clean, and settle at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee. It was the sweetest time of the day.

Less than ten years later, my uncle died from black lung disease.

It was not only the land that was poisoned inside.

Dory Adams said...

Edd, glad you liked this post and thanks for sharing your own memories. Good point about the land not being the only thing poisoned inside! My grandfather and great-uncle also developed black lung disease.

Renee Jacobs said...

Hi Dory. You might be interested to know my 1986 book, "Slow Burn: A Photodocument of Centralia, Pennsylvania" has just been reissued by Penn State Univ Press. Best, Renée

Dory Adams said...

Renee, this is great news about your book!

Readers, please check out the Penn State University Press website for more information about Renee Jacobs and the reissue of her book at the following link:

cynthia newberry martin said...

Dory, thanks for posting about this. Troubling that it's a part of our world.