Perspective

We are back from a relaxing week spent in eastern Pennsylvania’s Blue Mountains. Yes, folks, it’s the heart of coal country, which means lots of towns that appear on the surface as if time has forgotten them, but we were in a resort area that defies its surroundings and instead features all the advantages of the natural beauty of the region.

The kids slept late each day, giving me the opportunity to awake before them and dig into my latest novel, Ken Follett’s World Without End. It’s set in 14th century England and I’m 400 pages in, about halfway through. It’s been a while since I had time to read like that. I’m fascinated now and can’t put it down.

One day we decided to explore some of the towns in the coal region. We decided the boys would get a kick out of seeing Pennsylvania’s modern ghost town, Centralia. Remember Centralia? It used to be a small mining town of about 1,000 residents. It looked similar to any number of adjacent towns in the region.   However, the subterranean coal caught fire in the 1960s, and burned unnoticed until the 1970s:

The fire remained burning underground and spread through a hole in the rock pit into the abandoned coal mines beneath Centralia. Attempts to extinguish the fire were unsuccessful and it continued to burn throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Adverse health effects were reported by several people due to the byproducts of the fire, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide and lack of healthy oxygen levels.

 
 
 
 

In 1979, locals became aware of the scale of the problem when a gas-station owner and then mayor, John Coddington, inserted a stick into one of his underground tanks to check the fuel level. When he withdrew it, it seemed hot, so he lowered a thermometer down on a string and was shocked to discover that the temperature of the gasoline in the tank was 172 °F (77.8 °C). Statewide attention to the fire began to increase, culminating in 1981 when 12-year-old resident Todd Domboski fell into a subsidence four feet wide by 150 feet (46 m) deep that suddenly opened beneath his feet in a backyard.

(Thanks, Wikipedia!)

Centralia in 1906, its heyday
Centralia in 1906, its heyday

At that point, most residents were bought out and relocated to nearby towns, all but a stubborn few who refused to leave. Today, there are fewer than 10 residents, and the borough’s zip code was revoked by the US Postal Service.

We went up the mountain and checked out the steam vents. The rocks are hot, and you can’ t put your hand there for more than a second. But what fascinated me even more was the town that was once the size of my hometown is GONE. Erased.

Check out these before and after photos, taken from Offroaders.com:

E. Centre Street, 1986
E. Centre Street, 1986
E Centre Street, 2006
E Centre Street, 2006
North Paxton Street, 1986
North Paxton Street, 1986
North Paxton Street, 2005
North Paxton Street, 2005

 The photos don’t do it justice though.   The “center” of town was a busy crossroads of state routes 54 and 61. Now it’s a four-way stop sign that’s eerily quiet.  Most of the buildings are gone. We stood on the hill and the wind whistled by and we drove on streets and looked at what used to be cross-streets, long since overgrown. Mother Nature has all day to reclaim what Man puts in her way.

We had lunch in Ashland, which I’m sure looks much like what Centralia did in its heydey:

Ashland_PA_looking_Downtown
Downtown Ashland, PA
And we drove through Shenandoah (emphasis on the first syllable in this neck of the woods):
Shenandoah, PA
Shenandoah, PA

and I was sooo wishing I had a camera with me because these towns just beg to be photographed. Their main streets truly look as if time stopped in the 1960s or 1970s – much of the business signage appears to be from that era, as do the storefronts. That is, the ones that are occupied.  “For rent” signs outnumber “open for business” signs.

I grew up not far geographically from these areas – a couple of hours at most – but economically it really was a world apart. I am from a farming community; the good folks in the mountains lived off the land in a much different way.  The topography is different, too:  Last week we navigated winding hills and steep grades into and out of the towns. Where I’m from, it’s rolling valleys between small ridges, perfect for farming.  I imagine at one time, the coal region towns were bustling, thriving areas where people wanted to raise their families and grow old together.  Now, with populations dwindling, median age increasing and jobs becoming ever more scarce, they appear anything but.

So that was our dose of perspective.  Despite Curt’s recent layoff and our increasing economic challenges, we are still in such a good position. We live in an area that, while touched by the recession, won’t be wiped out by it. There’s much hope and promise here. We have so much to be thankful for.

17 thoughts on “Perspective

  1. Touching post … sad but in a neat way that you were able to duplicate those street photos .. keeping good vibes for some smart employer to find Curt!

  2. My “pretend grandparents” (family friends who filled in for my lack of grandparents) were from Ashland. If you saw a man in his 50’s riding around town on a motorized wheelchair, you’ve seen his nephew. I’ve been there several times. Did you go to the coal mine and take a ride on the Lokie – the steam train that goes around the mountain? How about Knobel’s amusement park – one of the best parks around.

    1. Hi Ellen – thanks for your comment! We did not do the coal mine tour but I wish we had. Have been to Knobel’s a few times in the past – excellent food for sure!

    1. Because everything was condemned. Part of the emminent domain deal with the devil, I mean the government. Freaky, isn’t it? There’s like one or two homes still standing and the rest have vanished as if they were never there.

  3. CBW: The thing is, they tore the buildings down because the land is utterly unlivable. The houses closest to the fire were in danger of combusting, it is that hot right below the surface. My friend up there tells me we haven’t even seen the eeriest thing of all – in the winter, after a big snowstorm, there is never any snow on that part of the mountain, no matter what.

    Lastly, Meg didn’t mention the ALL TIME IRONY of this fire: it was started accidently by the Volunteer Fire Department (!) when they were “burning down the town dump” back in the day when such things seemed like a good idea. The dump was next to an open mine shaft. Bad, bad idea.

  4. Wow… I didn’t know all that.

    Irony: My husband’s name is also Curt.
    And there’s a Centralia, Washington. It’s just a few fast food joints off the main freeway between Canada and Mexico. Oh, and a few farms!

    I kept thinking, she came to Centralia and she didn’t call me?!

  5. It really is interesting, and welcome home from your trip.
    I had no idea that the fire department had actually started this fire!

  6. Now you make us want to go visit Centralia. We haven’t been there.

    P.S. We do use the computer at Eagle Rock thanks to our neighbors wi-fi. Maybe it was good you didn’t know!

    1. Seth said he tried but it didn’t work. Maybe ignorance was bliss though…

      Do go check out Centralia! Everyone ought to.

  7. I am fascinated with Centralia and the history behind the town. There have been a couple of really bad “B” movies made that were loosely based on the area as well as a uber-popular video game (I can’t recall the name, but it’s the soundtrack for the game that always interested me anyhow), that have just piqued my interest. It’s awesome to actually read your account of being there…someone I actually know vs. just another account from anybody else.

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