I’m not sure what to label this post. Its a hike, in a sense, as I did get out of the car and walk. But I didn’t go very far. Its not a “scenic place to visit”, nor is it a “walk.” And its a place I didn’t plan on visiting – I passed through it on the way back from a camping trip in Elk County, and until I saw a sign I didn’t know I was there.
What it is, is Centralia. Tucked into a valley in the Pennsylvania ridgelines is, aside from the land around Chernobyl, the hottest ghost town in the world. As the borough of a thousand residents dwindled to a dozen the town faded from headlines and memory, so I’ll give a brief recap of the past five decades in the next paragraph. I’m basing this summary on David DeKok’s Fire Underground, the best book on the disaster.
The exact date varies, but sometime in 1962 the mining town of Centralia authorized the burning of trash in its dump. The fire ignited one of the abandoned coal seams running through the area. By 1969 the fire was releasing gasses into homes and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was exploring innovative containment techniques as it faced an environmental disaster unlike any known before. At first their stopgap – building ash barriers to prevent the fire from spreading further under the town – held, but by 1981 the fire had breached them. The town’s gas station’s underground tanks showed a reading of 150 degrees. People were passing out in their homes from carbon monoxide. A sinkhole opened up and swallowed a boy – he climbed out, but the steam alone could have killed him. After the usual wrangling and buck passing between the residents, the borough, the state, and the federal government, relocations began in 1984. The town of eleven hundred people was reduced to 63 homes by 1990, when the continuing spread of the fire forced Pennsylvania to start emiment domain proceedings against the remaining owners. Aside from the remaining diehards, Centralia is gone. A poster to the Centralia Facebook group was kind enough to send me this shocking before and after photo:
Or its not gone entirely. It still exists as a metaphor for whatever you want to read into it. Hubris, irresponsibility, man’s inability to control the elements, the dangers of mining, environmental damage, even libertarianism – DeKok notes that in the early years of the fire private contractors twice said they could dig out the blaze in exchange for any coal they recovered, but people deferred to government.
But a town is more than just buildings. Its people. And people are not metaphors or debating points. So while I was fascinated to see the overgrown lots that two decades before were nicely maintained homes, I couldn’t help but think of the residents of those homes. The hell those people went through because of the hell beneath them, and the hell of having their lives uprooted. On this Friday afternoon the ruins of the town were quiet. But I heard ghosts everywhere.
If you visit Centralia, on Pennsylvania Route 61, you can walk to the fire. Its not a Disneyfied Dante, but some smoke coming up through broken pavement on the stretch of 61 that was abandoned and rerouted. I didn’t go. I’d seen enough. I’d seen broken lives, I had no need to see broken roadway.