Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ghost Town

I'm in the middle of reading Bill Bryson's outstanding travelogue, "A Walk in the Woods", picking it up whenever I need a brief break from Barack Obama's "Dreams from My Father" (also excellent but not necessarily lighthearted bedtime reading). At one point along Bryson's summer-long encounter with the Appalachian Trail, he finds himself in Centralia, Pennsylvania, a modern day ghost town.

Centralia, like so many other towns, sprang up around the anthracite coal deposits upon which much of eastern Pennsylvania rests. Due to its high carbon content, anthracite coal is difficult to ignite and once it's lit, even harder to extinguish. Sadly for the residents of Centralia, they received a first-hand education on this particular fact in 1962 when a fire at the town landfill ignited a vein of anthracite that extended beneath the town. Efforts to staunch the fire failed and as it penetrated farther underground into an estimated 24 million pounds of coal, it was simply allowed to burn.

While authorities didn't realize it at the time, they'd signed Centralia's death warrant.

The fire continued to spread and the evidence of the subterranean destruction eventually made its way to the surface. Carbon monoxide from the underground fires seeped up into homes resulting in illness. A 150-foot deep sinkhole opened beneath a 12-year old boy who was only saved from death by grabbing exposed tree roots and being hauled out by his cousin. Additional sinkholes appeared as the town, bereft of the coal that had served as its foundation, began to collapse in on itself in areas. The temperature in underground gas tanks rose to more than 170 degrees while the ground only 13 feet deeper reached 1,000 degrees. Roadways cracked and collapsed, with steam and smoke rising from the asphalt equivalent of volcanic vents. In time, sections of the town became what Bryson describes as "an extensively smoking landscape, on possibly no more than a skin of asphalt, above a fire that had been burning for thirty-four years --- not, I'm bound to say, the smartest place in North America to position oneself."

By 1984, the government realized that it would be more affordable to just relocate everyone than to try and extinguish the expanding fire which had grown to encompass more than 350 acres of underground coal veins. While a few hardy (ummm...obsessed? foolhardy? stupid?) souls remained for a few years, eventually they were all forced to relocate. In an ultimate symbol of the community's eradication, the Post Office revoked the town's zip code. Centralia, by all reasonable measures, had ceased to exist.

I find myself absolutely fascinated by the story of Centralia. Fires threatening communities is old hat in a tragic way. Every year, the national news is filled with stories of wildfires threatening and sometimes destroying parts of communities in California and other points west. These conflagrations sweep across the landscape, visible to all, lighting the night sky, as courageous men and women fight to slow and then stop the destruction. But the concept of a fire steadily eating away at the ground upon which you walk, your children play, your house rests, immolating the literal foundations of the community slowly and inexorably and with no hope of stopping it? That's the stuff of horror stories I think.

I wonder how the residents who stayed could have slept at night without worrying if they would awake to the rending and tearing sound of their house collapsing into a burning chasm. Dedication to one's community is an admirable thing but I'm reminded of the story of Harry Truman (not the president) who refused to leave his lodge near Mt. St. Helen. Thankfully for the residents of Centralia, none of them perished as a result of the fire or their refusal to leave, unlike poor old Harry who died when the mountain blew out its guts on May 18, 1980.

I expect that in reality, Centralia wasn't quite that bad though I certainly wouldn't have wanted to trade spaces with Todd Domboski, the young boy who almost fell to his death. Looking at the photos here, clearly Centralia (or what's left of it), hasn't devolved into a hellish landscape of fire. However, there's no denying the grim fascination of the collapsing, smoking Route 61 or the images of steam and smoke rising from otherwise innocous fields and yards.

Call it Mother Nature's revenge for decades of strip mining and other environmental desecration or simply bad luck that brought about the ruin of a small rural town. Either way, after 130+ years of habitation, Centralia itself died a slow, lingering death at the hands of the coal the town's residents had come to claim.

By the way, if you're planning a visit anytime soon, there's no need to rush. The Centralia fire is expected to burn for at least the next 250 years.

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