Thursday, September 3, 2009

More Local History: The Town That Was

I just did an article about this place, and I'm having my classes watch the movie and comment on it in the not-too-distant future, sooo...let me share it all with you, as well!

First, I live in a pretty unique location, geographically speaking. I'm literally an hour (or thereabouts) north from the Chocolate Capital of the World (Hershey, PA), and I went to college about 10 minutes from there. I'm an hour south of Scranton (yes, as in Scranton-where-The Office-is-set-Scranton), and my work is a block away from Yuengling Brewery. Plenty of people are envious when I tell them how close I am to any of these locales.

Second, there's a downside to where I live. I'm right in the heart of coal mining country, which has posed more than a few dangers over the years. This is important for you to know, because another small town in the heart of mine country has virtually been wiped out because of the region's biggest commodity--coal.

If you've never heard of the Centralia, PA mine fire, let me give you the abridged version: In 1962, a routine controlled garbage burn in an abandoned strip mine has turned into one of the longest-burning, most dangerous mine fires in the country. As the town's firemen burned the refuse, flames from the burn accidentally made their way to a coal seam, igniting it instantly. Though efforts have been made to extinguish the fire over the past forty years (some funded by the federal government), all of their attempts have been unsuccessful. The fire has continued to burn underground ever since, causing dangerous carbon dioxide and other poisonous gases to seep into people's homes. The heat from the fire caused an irreparable crack down the middle of the town's major highway. Back in the 1980's, most of the town's residents voted to relocate, leaving their homes and neighbors. As residents moved out, the government razed the homes. Nothing remains of the once-active small community besides grass-covered lots where homes once stood, a few sidewalks, and two cemeteries. Many of the town's residents may have left, but they return to be buried in their hometown.

It's a creepy place, no doubt about it. I remember passing through it years ago, when more homes were still standing but were in various phases of demolition. So sad to see boarded-up windows of otherwise perfectly good houses, destroyed for no other reason than they were in an unfortunate location.

Want to see how bureaucracy handled it, and how the town became divided? Read The Day the Earth Caved In by Joan Quigley, or watch the documentary The Town That Was. The book gives some excellent background on the fire, a 12-year-old boy's near-fatal tumble into a sinkhole that opened in his grandmother's backyard, and the steps taken to preserve what was left of the town. The Town That Was picks up a bit where the book leaves off, focusing on the town's youngest resident and how he has fought to remain in his home and look after his few remaining neighbors.

1 comment:

  1. The novelist Tawni O'Dell wrote a fictionalization of the Centralia story called "Coal Run." It is absolutely fabulous, and while the Centralia fire isn't the main theme of the story, it is definitely a looming background character.