Smoke from Underground

A coal town at the end of history

Coal mine drainage in Centralia, PA | © Jeremy Blakeslee
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Until the 1980s, it was possible to ignore the fact that Centralia was on fire. By then, the mines in this Pennsylvania coal town had been burning underground for nearly twenty years, but there was no roaring blaze, no Biblical conflagration. What you saw was mostly steam spouting from the ground, gassy and sulphurous—more like the farts of hell, really, than the flames of an inferno. The easiest thing was to hold your breath and pretend not to notice, and often enough, you didn’t have to pretend. Sure, sometimes tomatoes would grow in midwinter. Sometimes snow would melt off the smoldering ground before you could shovel it. In places, the earth glowed blue from methane, like the hills themselves were suffocating. But if you were a resident of Centralia, this was all you had as evidence of the supposed facts: that you and your neighbors were slowly roasting and that the ground you lived on was trying to kill you.

Only once did anyone come close to dying. That was twelve-year-old Todd Domboski, who in February of 1981 was nearly eaten alive by his own backyard. He stepped out onto the lawn where a former mining shaft had collapsed and the lawn swallowed him whole, opening a scalding-hot cavern full of carbon monoxide. When his cousin hauled him out forty-five seconds later, the mud on his clothes had hardened, baked as though in a kiln. But the Domboski cave-in was one of few traumatic episodes in Centralia’s half-century of seething anxiety. With the fire underground, the most immediate danger—carbon monoxide seeping up into people’s homes—was liable to put you to sleep; the disaster, for the most part, was drowsy and undramatic. Women tracked the arc of the story by pasting articles about the fire into special scrapbooks. There were tense town hall meetings and tense visits from elected officials: the endless tedium of bureaucratic incompetence and government neglect. Lured by the promise of small-town conflict, People came to town in 1981 and took a famous photograph of a man frying an egg on the smoldering asphalt. A picture implies an instant, but in truth it took more than a half hour for the yolks to set.

The Centralia fire is a human crisis unfolding in geological time—some estimate that it could burn for another 250 years. It has already burned for fifty-seven, a length of time that feels both supernatural and sweetly geriatric. The fire is around the same age as my mom, who lives about three hours away from Centralia in the Philadelphia suburbs. You can imagine the fire growing old alongside an entire generation of boomers, cashing out its retirement savings and turning up every Billy Joel song that comes on the radio. But the fire will outlive them all, and me. It will outlive my grandchildren and perhaps the human species. It has been burning for so long that it’s possible to forget that it started at the town dump. Centralia is the site of a disaster that sounds too stupid to be real, a trash fire that will inherit the earth.

Here’s an irony: though the exact cause of Centralia’s undoing now has been largely forgotten, it all began on a national day of remembrance. Some say that the dump fire of Memorial Day 1962 was accidental; others claim that the township set it ablaze intentionally so that the smell of rotting garbage wouldn’t linger over the adjacent cemetery on a high-traffic holiday. Either way, the fire never went out. Centralia’s landfill was located in a former strip-mining pit atop a network of abandoned coal veins, and although the township had reinforced the bottom of the pit with incombustible material, workers had neglected to fill a fifteen-foot-long trench at the base of the wall that bordered the cemetery. Fed by the coal beneath, the landfill kept burning for days despite firefighters’ best efforts. It spread underground, pulled throughout the network of mines by the oxygen in the abandoned tunnels, fanning out beneath the town.

Those tunnels, some of them more than a hundred years old, had been the wellspring of Centralia, which first began as a string of mining outposts in Pennsylvania’s densely forested anthracite coal region in the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1865, a mining engineer named Alexander Rea named the place Centralia, meaning “center of commerce,” and laid out plans for what would eventually become the town. By then, five mining companies were operating there, and the population of Centralia would balloon to nearly three thousand before the end of the century. But World War I, the stock market crash of 1929, and the advent of fuel oil took a toll on the hard coal industry from which it would never recover. By 1950, the demand for anthracite had all but vanished. Mines across the country shuttered, and in 1960, two years before the Memorial Day fire, Centralia’s workforce had dwindled by 93 percent.

Mine fires were breaking out nationwide during this period, born of the intensely combustible conditions in the abandoned tunnels. Coal companies weren’t required by law to extinguish them, and the funding allocated to the federal and state agencies tasked with managing America’s mine fires was woefully insufficient. It wasn’t until 1983, catalyzed by the cave-in at the Domboski backyard, that the federal government offered to buy Centralia and relocate its residents; the land thereafter would belong to the state. Most residents accepted, and Centralia began the slow work of vanishing from the annals of civic life. In 1992, Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey Sr. invoked eminent domain and seized what remained of the town. The handful of remaining residents were permitted to stay (by the terms of a lawsuit settled in 2013) in their homes until death. When they die, their properties, which officially belong to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, will be demolished.

People call Centralia a ghost town, but today there’s hardly a town left for haunting: just bits of foundation sticking up out of the weeds like old bones in a shallow grave, remnants of the houses the state has already demolished and backfilled. There are now less than ten people still living in Centralia and just a few buildings still standing. The whole place seems two-dimensional, like a board game cleared of all its pieces. Besides the fire, all that remains active in the town is the cemetery, St. Ignatius, where people still come to visit their buried loved ones and to be buried themselves. Stories have circulated of the fire licking the vaults of the dead, cremating the remains of those inside. These are urban legends, really, but it’s still odd to imagine people who lived here committing their bodies to that toxic ground.

It seems odd, anyway, until you walk through the cemetery and see that four generations of Centralians are buried in it. Even if there were nothing left in those graves but ash, that poisoned land would still be precious to their families. It was here before these people were born, and it will remain long after they’re gone.

Last Man Mowing

It never occurred to me that I might be moved by the image of a man mournfully riding a lawn mower, but that was before I watched John Lokitis in Chris Perkel and Georgie Roland’s 2007 documentary The Town That Was. Lokitis was one of the few holdouts against relocation. A soft-spoken man in his mid-thirties, he was still living in Centralia in the early 2000s, the youngest resident by several decades. In those years, he had taken it upon himself to maintain what was left of the town, stringing up Christmas lights in its depopulated and largely demolished town center, repainting its now-revoked zip code on a historic bench. In The Town That Was, he leads the filmmakers through what remains of Centralia, standing underneath the gray emptiness of a Pennsylvania sky and surveying the green emptiness where his childhood used to be. Then there are those long, somber shots of him mowing the lawns where his neighbor’s houses once stood, quietly resisting their return to wilderness. Watching John made me feel faintly unreal to myself. It was as though he had stumbled out of a nuclear bunker at the end of the world, and I was watching him perform those solitary rites in the aftermath of my own extinction.

A photograph by Jeremy Blakeslee showing a reddish brown creek filled with coal mine tailings in the snowy woods of Centralia, PA.
Coal mine tailings in Centralia, PA © Jeremy Blakeslee

I learned that Lokitis had finally been evicted in 2009, so I wrote to him, curious what his life had been like in the intervening decade. Nowadays, he lives a few miles from Centralia and sixty-three miles from his job. He often passes through the town on his way to church, and he still visits the St. Ignatius cemetery regularly to tend his parents’ graves. There’s so little of the place left, and what remains, he writes, has reverted to “Mother Nature,” while the land itself has reverted to the state. But he remembers his childhood there as something out of a Norman Rockwell painting or a Frank Capra movie, as the kind of place where neighbors would walk into your home without knocking. That kind of community, he believes, isn’t possible anymore. Families are so scattered now, he reflects, and kids spend all their time worshipping before the “Digital Deities” of Facebook and YouTube. Centralia is gone, and so is the childhood he enjoyed there, the kind of childhood he’ll never be able to give his son.

Like most former residents, Lokitis comes from a long line of Centralians. His grandfather operated his own colliery, and he was one of the residents who believed, as Lokitis himself does, that the mine fire never posed a serious threat to the entirety of Centralia. “Because of naturally occurring rock faults and the water table where coal seams plunged beneath the ground water, there is NO way possible the fire could ever go to the North Side of Town,” Lokitis wrote to me. “But they moved the whole town” all the same. His grandfather tried in vain to educate and persuade “Harrisburg officials” against taking drastic measures, only to have his expertise ignored and dismissed; the effort, John writes, was “like telling everyone the sky is blue, but someone from Harrisburg kept trying to convince you it was a different color.”

Outsiders and Harrisburg folks didn’t understand the complexities of the mines or particularities of anthracite coal the way a Centralian could. But they did understand, Lokitis says, that the town sits upon one of the largest and most valuable veins of anthracite coal in the world; Centralia was unique in that it “retained OWNERSHIP to the Mineral rights under the Borough, and still does to this very day.” In 1954, while Congress prepared to vote on legislation that would require coal companies to help finance firefighting efforts in Centralia, the collieries sold the mineral rights to the borough for a single dollar. The government’s eventual seizure of the town, Lokitis believes, was a plot to steal and sell off those mineral rights for profit. “Mark my words,” John wrote. “It might not be in my lifetime, but sooner or later, when the last holdouts die and the borough ceases to exist, the whole place will be strip mined and someone will make a royal fortune.”

Lokitis is not alone in this belief. In the 1980s, the mine fire divided the town into two camps: those who believed that the fire seriously threatened their health and safety, and those who believed that government officials—acting on either ignorance or malice—had wildly exaggerated the scale of the crisis. But it is hard to square the latter claim with the many accounts of former residents that Joan Quigley collects in her 2007 book, The Day the Earth Caved in. Quigley interviews a family whose asthmatic daughter was so sickened by the carbon monoxide in her home that she required an oxygen tank to breathe; she recounts the story of another man, John Coddington, who passed out in his house from oxygen deprivation and woke up in the hospital. “If any of you have trouble sleeping,” he later joked, “come up to my apartment and you’ll be asleep.” One woman bought a parakeet for her home, just as miners once brought canaries into the mines. The parakeet died. Although not every home in Centralia was affected, Quigley’s book sheds little doubt on the reality of the fire and its hazards. But it’s possible to understand the fire as both deeply real and wholly manufactured—a crisis produced as much by coal and carbon monoxide as by corporate plunder and government neglect.

The Centralia fire is a human crisis unfolding in geological time: some estimate that it could burn for another 250 years.

In the two decades that elapsed between the start of the fire and the subsidence that swallowed Todd Domboski, the borough made several unsuccessful attempts to contain the underground blaze. Those which weren’t ill-conceived or inadequate from the start ran out of money before completion. As Quigley writes, Reagan’s secretary of the interior was James Watt, who, while Centralia burned, worked tirelessly to dismantle environmental protections that had been implemented by the Carter administration. Most famously, Watt fought against the establishment of national parks; in a memo, his staffer Andrew Bailey once described environmentalists and anyone “who opposed developing mining resources” as “ideological eunuchs.” Though Watt’s department could have allocated funds sufficient to fight the fire, he let Centralia languish. And as the fire spread, the cost of extinguishing it grew exponentially. The eventual buyouts offered by the federal government were, above all, a cost-cutting measure: saving the town would have cost at least $100 million, more than twice the $42 million expense of demolishing it.

So the government seized Centralia for the sole purpose of destroying it, and in its emptiness, the town has become a monument to its own destruction. The waste of it all is what impresses John Lokitis. Centralia was obliterated, quite literally, for nothing; razed to the ground for nothing; condemned so that nothing could ever be built in this place. Normally, John writes, eminent domain is enacted to create something of lasting public value—a freeway or a bridge. But it’s hard to see the public value of this vast green vacancy, a magnet for teen vandals and YouTubers with handles like DeathbyVlog and The Wandering Woodsman. Harder still to understand how the state could decide that the site of your childhood is too worthless to preserve.

Growing up, Lokitis writes, the hills outside his house were scattered with lumps of anthracite coal that gleamed in the grass like handfuls of “black diamonds,” as anthracite is often called. Whereas bituminous coal is coarse, dull, and dirty—the proverbial prank gift—anthracite looks too beautiful to burn: a dark, jagged crystal with a silver sheen, talismanic and strange. You can more easily imagine it powering a spaceship than heating a home. Lokitis has the word “anthracite” in his email handle, and so I asked him if it had any special meaning to him. “I guess not many people could consider coal beautiful,” he wrote back, “but it’s always had a special allure to me.” His family had a small coal-burning heater in their house, and John would go out to “pick pieces of coal from the mountainside to use.” Even now, he writes,

If I’m out walking somewhere and see a little glint on the ground reflecting sunshine, I can’t help but to stop and bend over and pick up the piece of coal even though I don’t use it to heat the house I currently live in. . . . I guess since my family was involved in the mining business for 3 generations, it just has always been a part of my life and important to me. . . . A real good piece of pure anthracite is very shiny indeed and just looks so rich, and some pieces sometimes referred to as peacock coal for the colors streaked throughout the coal from the gases contained in the anthracite.

When John’s grandfather died in 2002, he searched for granite black enough to resemble anthracite coal and used it for his gravestone.

Common Wealth

It is natural to wonder how people can love a place in spite of the fact that it could kill them. But maybe it’s easy to love a place because it could kill you—because you’ve staked your life on it.

To describe Centralia is to exhaust most prepositions: people there lived not just on the land but through it, in it, under it. Even for men like Lokitis who never worked in the mines, that work—performed by their fathers and their fathers’ fathers—still shaped them, attuned them to the quirks and angles of the land, drew their eye to a sudden glint in the hills. It kept their houses warm, their families together. To say that the land could kill them is to state something both obvious and only half true. Of course the mine fire was too dangerous; the mines had also been too dangerous. Working in Centralia always meant risking your life to make a living.

A photograph by Jeremy Blakeslee showing smoke rising behind bare trees in the snowy woods of Centralia, PA. A set of footprints winds through the snow.
Smoke rising in Centralia, PA © Jeremy Blakeslee

But Centralia also exemplified the notion of a commonwealth, a place in which every kind of value, from the moral to the mineral, is shared by those who live there. In his recent book This Land is Our Land, environmentalist and legal scholar Jedediah Purdy defines the commonwealth as a community established on a shared concern for the land and the people on it. At the same time, it is also an ethic, one born from a recognition of our reliance on each other for survival, of our place in a complex web of interdependence. In some ways, it’s easy to see how a mining town could foster such an ethic: it’s a place where you depended on the land to make a living and on the other miners to make it out of the pit alive.

For Purdy, the commonwealth also offers a way forward from our destructive, extractive relationship with the earth—a model for repairing our planet and our politics through environmental stewardship. It is strange, perhaps, for me to see a condemned former coal town as an embodiment of such a civic ideal. John Lokitis, for one, assigns little blame to the coal industry for Centralia’s demise; he also believes that global warming is a “manufactured hoax.” But, paradoxically, his commitment to the town suggests that an attachment to a place can outlive the forms of geological violence that produced it. The Centralia holdouts, however few, were a community born out of solidarity rather than any continued opportunities for extraction. The mineral rights now belong to the state, and despite what Lokitis claims, the coal beneath the town is likely worthless anyway. Even he doesn’t use anthracite to heat his house any longer. But he still finds it beautiful.

It is customary to think of Centralia as somewhere awfully and irrevocably past, as Perkel and Roland’s documentary calls it, the town that was. But Centralia is both the aftermath of a disaster and a disaster that has no after. Much of what happened there is happening still. In its way, the crisis itself is a perverse triumph of human industry. The collieries might have closed, but the mining of Centralia never stopped; for many former residents, government buyouts felt more like plunder than protection, and the town has been stripped again and again for its imaginative resources, turned into narrative grist for the Silent Hill movie and video game franchise or repackaged as content for listicles with titles like “America’s 12 Spookiest Ghost Towns.” There are many ways to despoil a place, and one form of violation begets another.

Now that Centralia belongs to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, it has ceased to be a commonwealth in any meaningful sense. This land which nominally belongs to everyone is land unfit for anyone, given over to the commons precisely because it has gone to waste. It is customary to treat Centralia as an object lesson in political and bureaucratic failure, but it is just as accurate to describe Centralia as an immiserating ideological success. James Watt was forced to resign from Reagan administration in 1983 after making an antisemitic joke at a press conference, but Centralia is nonetheless a tribute to his vision: a strip of thoroughly devastated public land, heralding an era of abdicated responsibility and further extractive land use. Erased of its history, Centralia offers a glimpse of an eventual world in which the only land we’ll share is no man’s land.

People call Centralia a ghost town, but today there’s hardly a town left for haunting: just bits of foundation sticking up out of the weeds like old bones in a shallow grave.

And yet by condemning Centralia, the state has dulled its sense of danger. When a place is written off the map, it’s easy to believe that what’s happening there has also been written out of the future. You can drive through Centralia without even knowing it. There is no clear line demarcating where the good land ends and the poisoned land begins, nothing to separate the polluted and the pastoral: just flat green monotony all around, with the occasional strip of driveway trailing off into an empty field. To wander there is to feel a sort of delusional reassurance. You can stand in the middle of such a slow-moving catastrophe and entertain the illusion that the harm wrought upon the earth has been reversed, or could one day be—that we need only wait a little while for our wastelands to be made good again. Scanning the land for the parts polluted by human industry, you can forget that there’s hardly any land, anywhere, that hasn’t been.

If Centralia itself, as John writes, has been overtaken by Mother Nature, Centralia’s so-called Graffiti Highway seems taken over by Mother’s Nature’s Juul-addicted delinquent son. Warped and ruptured by the fire beneath, Graffiti Highway is an abandoned stretch of Route 61 adjacent to the town that’s covered now in more lurid scrawls than a dive-bar bathroom stall. It looks like a skate park in purgatory or, as one of the teenage students at the Pennsylvania high school where I taught described it, like Rainbow Road in Mario Kart: a mile-long feat of technicolor vandalism. As a spectacle, it is both obnoxious and oddly poignant. The road is one of the few features of the built environment which is too ruined, ironically, to be destroyed. Damaged beyond repair, it will never be dug out or repaved, and so it has become strangely indelible—a rebuke, however unintended, of the government’s wholesale erasure of Centralia. Besides the gravestones in St. Ignatius cemetery, Graffiti Highway is Centralia’s only remaining monument. At least on this deserted road, people have been able to leave some sign that, however briefly, they were there.

Emily Harnett is a writer and teacher living in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Atlantic, Broadly, and Lit Hub.
 

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