The Vanishing of Centralia

“After you’ve been there, send me an email, let me know what you think.”

The words of Georgie Roland, one of the directors of the documentary about Centralia, Pennsylvania.

I’m about to write that email, as a few days ago, my brother and I spent the day finding Centralia and exploring the town that has been on fire since the 1960’s.

A town that has been on fire for more than 40 years. Lots of visuals come to mind eh? Of course, that fire is underground, so now those pictures in your head have probably changed somewhat. But still.. coal mine fire.. underground.. over 1000 residents have left with only a handfull remaining in scattered houses. Pockets of coal-fire smoke dot the landscape, usually measuring no higher than my chest. A town with more people residing in its cemeteries than on its streets. You develop alot of pictures in your head about a place like that.

You know you’re near Centralia when there are less cars on the road. Less signs telling you how close you are to it. Sometimes you come to a clearing that looks as though someone has scalped the mountains, revealing a once secret treasure of neverending piles of dark shiney anthracite coal.

After a brief stop in nearby Ashland, for lunch and a very exciting yet chilling tour of the pioneer coal mine, we finally made it to Centralia.

The first sign we had arrived was the mile or so of highway to our left, blocked off with a big warning sign “Warning.. fire burning underground.. danger of death.. bla bla bla”. And as we arrive at the top of the hill, we notice some coal mine-Centralia tourists doing pretty much what we wanted to do.. walk around and snap pictures of the smoking ground and the few remaining indications that there was once a real town here.

We pull over near one of the cemetaries. I scan the area enclosed by a chain-link fence, searching for the exhaust pipes I had read could be found in the cemetary. As I look, Im distracted by the scorched earth beside it. A roughly paved road surrounded by sink holes filled with garbage, scraps of coal, and those famous gaps in the earth which spew carbon smelling smoke.

We park the car and for a brief moment wonder if some nonexistant police officer is going to have it towed. A quick glance at the area around and we realize, parking is not really an issue when your town has population 8. So we make our way around the sink holes, stopping to touch the ground and feel the heat coming from the ground. Snapping off pictures like tourists who think every piece of garbage is some how “cool”.

My brother warns me about walking over a big pile of stone and dirt, which seems to indicate that we shouldn’t pass. Dark fantasies of us sinking into a smoking hole in the ground run briefly through our heads. But nevermind that, I’ve come all the way from the Netherlands AND New Jersey, to see this… no warning sign will stop me from falling into a hole.

Eventually we walk down the hill, passing the famous house occupied by a guy who I think is named Mike… the main character of the new documentary about Centralia. We look around the house to see if by some chance he’s outside and we might wave. My next thought is to stop looking at the man’s house and respect what is left of his privacy, the town pretty much speaks for itself anyway without having to disturb him any more than some coal fires behind his house already do.

The amazing thing are the little streets with nothing on them. This nothing shows very little signs of having ever been something. The only reason I know there were houses all along these streets is because I saw a photo from 1940 where it looked like a bustling coal town. Also because as we continue down these streets, overgrown with weeds and trees, you can see the entrance way to what was a front door, or a driveway. The telephone poles line the street yet nothing is connected to them anymore. We manage to read an inscription in the curb, a house number, its a pretty big number and we start to imagine how many house numbers there probably were and how odd that must have been to know on the day the post office revoked the town zip code.

After visiting all the cemetaries, including the exclusively Ukranian one. (i think that writing was Ukranian), we head back towards the closed highway. Taking another glance down the hill at the would-be town, we again discuss how pretty it must have been and where the biggest houses must have been located. Not that you can see any of that anymore… just roads that lead to nowhere with occasional stairs leading up to nothing.

Then we walk the famous walk, down the closed section of highway 41. It is a surreal and creepy hour.. as we walk down the middle of a 4 lane highway, in near silence. After 15 minutes of walking, I see what I had only seen in photos… the huge gash in the earth, with smoke billowing out of it. The closer we got the more smoke came out, most of it disappearing into the wind so that only we standing there could ever see it.
We again put out hands to the ground and feel the heat of the fire somewhere down there below us. I stand on one of the cracks in the earth, and let my feet be warmed by a fire I can’t see.

Like good tourists, we take our photos, discuss how it all must have unfolded when the highway was closed, and tell an occasional joke to ease the obviously somber feeling you get after seeing the sad reality of this place. Eventually heading back to the car, back through Ashland and coal country Pennsylvania.

What do I think of Centralia? I think its a beautiful place. Beautiful and tragic, a symbol of the suffering that so many people on this earth have endured in the name of gathering and controlling resources, not to mention earning a living in the service of some industry. And yet, like so many sad things on earth, there is great beauty.

You could say there’s nothing there, but when I looked I could see the houses in my head. Children going to school. Coal miners heading to work. I may not be able to hear them, and the physical evidence may have become hard to locate… but I saw it… and I see it still.