An (Almost) Empty Town

I love abandoned places. Urban Exploration photography is one of my favorite things. As a person who values solitude, the absence of people appeals to me, of course. But it’s more than that; the decaying structures where humans once existed and the traces left of them are fascinating, even beautiful. Especially really old ones, and especially ones that are left largely as they were when in use. Like the Biblical rapture suddenly happened, leaving every inorganic thing to be swallowed up with dust, mold, and vegetation.

“Ring” at The Ladd School, Photo © 2005 Tom Kirsch, opacity.us

I like to imagine who the last person to set foot there was, and what they were doing. I come up with detailed backstories for these imagined people; little lifetimes play out in my head. I don’t really believe in “ghosts,” but I’m highly charmed by the idea that people leave some trace of themselves, their energy or something, when they spend time in a place. I think many of us are comforted by the notion that we are never really gone…

Got my fingers crossed that this applies to you, Luke

There used to be an abandoned complex of buildings, formerly an “asylum,” in Foxboro, MA that my friends would sneak into to explore. It has since been repurposed, which I only came to know through Tom Kirsch’s amazing web site, which is full of incredible urban exploration photography (I highly recommend checking it out!). On these excursions, some of us played “po-po patrol,” (i.e. Looking out for security so that we could call those inside, letting them know they have to sneak back out), while the rest entered and explored the buildings. When it was abandoned, there were boxes of files, records full of names, papers strewn about. Tangible evidence of the humanity I’d imagined.

“Hallway” at Foxboro State Hospital Photo © 2004 Tom Kirsch, opacity.us
“Facade” at Foxboro State Hospital, Photo © 2005 Tom Kirsch, opacity.us
“Distortion” at Foxboro State Hospital, Photo © 2005 Tom Kirsch, opacity.us
“Day Room” at Foxboro State Hospital, Photo © 2005 Tom Kirsch, opacity.us

Not surprisingly, I also love the video game franchise Silent Hill, in which an abandoned town is the setting. If you’ve played it and you didn’t find it scary, what you must do is 1.) Play by yourself, 2.) Use headphones, and 3.) Turn off the lights. That should do the trick!

It’s accepted science that Silent Hill 2 is the best one, right?

There were a couple of movies based off of these games, and, at least the first one (I have not seen the rest, personally) is heavily inspired by a real-life almost ghost town. The town that sits on top of a fire that will likely burn for over a century: Centralia, Pennsylvania.

Centralia

Smoke rising from the ground in Centralia, Pennsylvania, site of an underground coal seam fire.” Personal photo Flickr. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
“Centralia PA Then and Now” by dfirecop, Retrieved from Flickr

Like many towns in Pennsylvania back in the old days, Centralia made its fortune in the coal mining industry; this small portion of the United States is chock-full of anthracite coal deep beneath the surface. This was the main industry until around the 1960’s, after-which only bootleg miners and a few mining companies remained. In 1962, trash being burned in a landfill on the outskirts of town ignited the underground coal in an abandoned strip mine through a mine vent.

The fire has been burning down there ever since. Apparently, anthracite coal burns especially long and especially hot, meaning this fire is not likely to burn itself out anytime soon. According to one resident, there have been times that the fire was burning so close to the surface, and the ground above was so hot, that you could see the glow at night. Sometimes the glow looked blue, like the flame on a stove or blowtorch, from the gases burning off.

“Sign warning of the dangers of trespassing on the abandoned section of highway 61 near Centralia, PA.” Retrieved from Flickr, Lyndi & Jason.

There are mixed opinions on the attempts to extinguish the fire; while some say that everything that could be done was done, others suggest that stopping the fire would have been simple, had the government simply funded the correct measures from the beginning. Indeed, underground coal fires are not a terribly unique phenomenon, and they have been extinguished before. Large amounts of water had been sprayed into the mine vents, and when that didn’t work, fly ash was poured in to attempt to seal off the oxygen feeding the flames. Finally, there was an attempt to dig a deep trench to cut off the coal at some point, stopping the spread, but the fire had apparently already passed this point.

As the fire continued to burn and spread, the gas station in town was losing gasoline from its underground tank; the temperature change was causing the gas to expand and overflow. Indeed, the gas being pumped into vehicles was hot. Obviously, not the safest thing in the world; most people won’t even smoke a cigarette while they’re pumping gas!

The ominous plumes of smoke and steam that poured from the sinkholes and large fissures in the earth apparently contained dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. Detectors reflected this even in people’s homes, meaning toxic fumes were seeping into structures. Since carbon monoxide is odorless, poisoning can occur without warning, and is extremely deadly.

There were such thick plumes of smoke and steam on a part of highway 61 (now dubbed “graffiti highway,” see why that is here at around 14 minutes) that the road had to be closed. At times, drivers could not see a foot in front of them when attempting to drive through.

Highway 61 in Centralia, Retrieved from “The Town That Was”
“Smoke emanating from a fissure in the road on the abandoned section of highway 61 near Centralia, PA.” Retrieved from Flickr, Lyndi & Jason.

Residents did not begin to clear out en masse until the effects of the fire became impossible to ignore. It seems that many residents were hoping for the fire to be extinguished, eliminating the problem rather than relocating everyone. The sense of urgency increased, though, when a 12 year old named Todd Domboski was nearly swallowed into a sinkhole that opened the earth beneath him in his grandmother’s backyard in 1981. In Todd’s account of the incident, he relates:

“I was just covered in mud. From the intense heat…I had heavy pants, heavy shirt, a heavy coat…it was baked on, I mean you couldn’t go to a car wash and blast me off, it was just baked on.”

Domboski, “The Town That Was
Retrieved from “The Town That Was”
Todd Domboski looking at the sinkhole that opened beneath him, 1981; Retrieved from Christian Science Monitor

If it hadn’t been for Todd’s cousin helping to pull him out, he easily could have died from either asphyxiation from the toxic fumes, being severely burned, or falling many feet to the bottom, possibly into the burning mineshaft. And it happened, literally, right in the backyard. This fact would basically bring about the death-knell of the town. People’s homes and properties were bought out by the state, first by choice, and then by mandate; the vast majority would resettle elsewhere.

A small handful of residents were not so keen to give up their homes. In 1992, the governor of Pennsylvania declared eminent domain over the rest of the privately owned properties, but they refused to leave and litigated the issue. There were several families there back then, but, as far as I can tell, there are fewer than five people living there as of 2017, according to this site

…Although, a google search suggests that there were ten residents in 2017; I don’t know which is more accurate and up to date.

So, let’s just say that there could be around 5 to 10 residents at this point. If anyone knows for sure, feel free to let me know in the comments.

(By the way, if you’d like to see some cool, fairly recent aerial drone footage, check this out.)

Remaining residents battled the state in court for several years, eventually earning the right to stay for the rest of their lives in 2013, with the caveat that they could not sell or transfer the properties since the state owns the deeds.

“They would be paid for their properties and could stay there as long as they lived. That said, they could not sell or transfer the land as the state held the deeds. So, while there are still several inhabited homes in Centralia PA, the people who live in them are not the lawful owners. They have been permitted to stay there by the deeded owner – the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

Centraliapa.org

They insist that the fire below has burned out or moved on, and that the air quality is not so bad now. But when these last holdouts eventually pass away, the final remaining homes will be demolished, and Centralia will officially melt back into the forested landscape. Imagine, paved streets running in grid patterns in the middle of a forest?

At this point, perhaps you’re wondering, as I did, “Why would anyone fight so hard to continue living in an abandoned, potentially dangerous, and toxic town that sits on top of a massive coal fire?” I watched a documentary called The Town That Was on the subject to try to figure this out.

John Lokitis Jr. was the “tour guide” of sorts in this documentary, which was made in 2007. In 2009, he was evicted and his home seized by the state, who later demolished it. Even if you don’t understand Lokitis’ devotion to staying put in Centralia as long as he possibly could, it’s hard not to feel a bit sad for him after witnessing his deep desire to stay.

“A rowhouse whose neighbours have been bulldozed.” by Sue. The brick pillars are for support since the attached neighboring house was demolished. Retrieved from Flickr

John mowed empty lots, kept the local cemetery well-manicured, and even repaired the town’s old Christmas decorations, putting them up himself during the Christmas season. At night, the pitch-black darkness would be slightly illuminated by these cheerful, if rather dated, ornaments. He remembered his neighbors by name, pointed out the empty lots where they used to live, and where all the shops and businesses used to be. He made an hours-long commute to Williamsburg to work each day, when it would have been so much easier to just move there, or at least closer than he was.

The holdouts had a complex combination of reasons for why they remained, generally speaking. First, they felt that the dangers have been exaggerated.

“I hate to go as far as to call people liars, but I guess there’s not much else, ya know, not much else you can do sometimes. I just think they really highly, highly overplayed that carbon monoxide issue. I mean, naturally, in the combustion of coal it is a byproduct, but I don’t believe it was coming into as many homes as they said it was. I just can’t, I can’t envision that. And now, no one that lives in Centralia now has any problems whatsoever with it.”

Lokitis, “The Town That Was”

Officials, however, clearly did not agree.

“The danger, of course, is, that mountain is honeycombed with coal seams, and if that fire somehow finds its way into those other seams it could continue burning for hundreds of years. And coal is porous, the gases seep through. And so the houses are on top of the coal, and those gases are seeping up through the ground and into the houses.”

Tom Rathbun, Department of Environmental Protection; “The Town That Was”

Todd Domboski, who was almost killed by a sinkhole as a child, shares this basic sentiment.

“There is no downplaying it; I mean, it’s a mindset. You can live in denial and think what you want to think, but, the smoke is there, the danger is there.”

Domboski, “The Town That Was”

But some of the holdouts had their reasons for doubting the warnings of danger; it has been suggested by some that the state consciously allowed the fire to continue unabated because they wanted to evacuate the town and get access to all of the coal beneath it. The theme of mistrusting the government pervaded their rationale. At the very least, they seemed to feel that Centralia was written off. They felt that there were only half-measures taken to save the town that they loved, their home. Some have suggested that a trench should have been dug at the outset; that the wasted time trying other methods allowed the fire to spiral out of control. Money-driven priorities have left Centralians feeling abandoned by their government. Because of this belief, there was an air of indignance to those who remained; they resented the fact that their town was destroyed due to mistakes and inaction from the government.

It’s not a stretch, in my opinion, to assume that “giving in” to that same government would certainly feel like defeat.

And finally, perhaps most importantly; the history of Centralia runs deep for people like Lokitis and the other remaining residents. One former resident explained that his ancestors had immigrated straight from Europe to Centralia; his forebears had never lived anywhere else in America. Lokitis’ grandfather had worked in the coal mines, a profession that he himself had not been successful breaking into. If he had been able to, perhaps his desire to preserve the town wouldn’t be so strong, because he’d be paying homage to his predecessors in that way.

The notion of the town being utterly wiped off the map, being overgrown and absorbed into the surrounding forestation, was hard to accept for people who associated so much of their identity with this place. There aren’t even many abandoned buildings left; the streets, concrete walkups, and driveways lead to nowhere, since almost every trace has been demolished and disposed of. As if so many lives lived there had never existed at all.

“The breaker plant. The St. Clair Coal Company, St. Clair Colliery, St. Clair, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania,” 10 October 1946; U.S. National Archives and Records Administration; Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons

Those in the coal mining profession, and likely those raised by them, place tremendous value on the ability to persevere through difficulty.

“I think there’s a certain spirit of being able to tough it out. Of being able to stay where others can’t. You know, the anthracite mining is historically a very tough business. Miners do a job that others wouldn’t want to do. And they wouldn’t do anything else; they’re proud of what it takes to do a job so difficult, and they’re proud of that toughness, they’re proud of their independence, and I think they see it as, some of them see it as a badge of courage, and they don’t see a need to leave.”

Tom Rathbun, Department of Environmental Protection; “The Town That Was”

Coal mining is one of the most dangerous professions in the United States to this day. Getting the job done amid physical dangers and health hazards has always been a hallmark. This deeply held value goes a long way in explaining the resistance to “give up” from people such as Lokitis.

“Anyone that has adamantly defied the unfortunate circumstances that happened in 1980, and will still be here, if they’re allowed, in 2010, you’ve got to admire that. You really do. You don’t have to agree with it, but you’ve got to admire that fortitude.”

Domboski, “The Town That Was”

At the time that the documentary was made, a tradition was still going on (I’m really not sure if this still happens or not): former and current residents alike would gather at the cemetery on Memorial Day for a remembrance service. Some elderly people came in their military dress uniforms. Centralians, current and former, would use this time to catch up. Indeed, many who have died throughout the years have been buried in Centralia as per their wishes, even the ones who had left. Deceased residents vastly outnumber living residents in Centralia.

I think that the “why” is summed up nicely with Lokitis explaining the design he chose for his grandparents’ headstone:

“I put what I felt were the three most important things on it; home on the left side, and then a picture, an image of St. Ignatius Church in the center, and my grandfather’s coal mine on the right.”

Lokitis, “The Town That Was”

Although I can’t see myself choosing to live in a place where I could be swallowed into the fiery ground at any moment, or a place where only a handful of people reside, I think I have something in common with these Centralians who refused to go: the pull of remembrance. The belief that losing all trace of those memories is tragic. The desire to look upon physical traces of the people who were, tethering their existence to some tangible reality rather than relegating it all to our minds.

References

The Town That Was, directed by Chris Perkel and Georgie Roland

https://www.centraliapa.org/

https://www.cracked.com/personal-experiences-2537-i-live-in-centralia-pa-its-americas-creepiest-ghost-town.html

https://www.earthmagazine.org/article/hot-hell-firefighting-foam-heats-coal-fire-debate-centralia-pa

JPVideos

https://slate.com/human-interest/2015/10/in-eastern-pennsylvania-the-town-of-centralia-has-been-on-fire-for-53-years.html

One thought on “An (Almost) Empty Town

  1. chwp2019

    Excellent article, of particular interest to me, having grown up near Centralia. A periodic curiosity to visit or pass through while driving between two more vibrant locations.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s