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Centralia, Pa.

The price we paid for "cheap" energy.


Beneath the peaceful rolling hills of Eastern Pa. lie some of our nation's largest deposits of high quality Anthracite coal. It is also a place where one can study the evolution of the coal mining industry and it's affect on our enviroment. It is an area that is steeped in history. My attention was drawn to Centralia some years ago when I first read about the tragedy. So, on April 10th, 2001 we visited this now deserted mining town. A community which was both built and destroyed by the coal industry.

Since 1962, the fire has silently smouldered. In recent years, the ground has cracked open in places and sank dramatically in others, allowing poisonous gasses to escape and scarring the face of the land. The U.S. Government has relocated most of the residents but a few refuse to leave.

If you're going to "tour" Centralia, it won't take a lot of time because there just isn't much left to see. It's what isn't there that is so distrubing. It's the deserted, empty feel of the place. Empty lots offer a mute testimony of displaced lives and broken dreams.

We spent two days there, taking pictures, strolling around and trying to imagine having lived there fifty years ago. The morning we left, clouds hung low in the sky and rain fell softly on the heated earth. This caused a wispy fog to rise which blanketed the ground. We drove slowly one last time along the deserted streets, sipping our coffee. No words were spoken. And to the rhythm of the windshield wipers, we said our mental good byes.

Must See:We visited the Anthracite Coal Mining Museum in nearby Ashland. There I spoke with Robby Flowers, a certified coal miner with many years of underground mining experience.

He and a group of his friends, (all certified miners) explore some of the area's forgotten mines. They take pictures and collect artifacts to be displayed in the museum.

When they go underground, they take with them many modern safety devices that were unavailable to their predecessors nearly a century ago. They carry monitors that sample air quality as well as oxygen breathing equipment for emergencies. But their most valuable asset is their collective years of underground experience.

Exploring abandoned mines is no hobby for the neophite explorer. They can be unforgiving death traps. Cave-ins are but one of many hazards that lurk in the darkness.

But these hazards were faced daily by those who made their living there so long ago. These were poor people, (mostly immigrants) and the coal company's bottom line was not safety or employee welfare. It was money, and the coal company literally had the workers where they wanted them.

If those mines could talk they would have many tales to tell. They are time capsules that contain important bits and pieces of a past that will in time be forgotten. Robby told me of seeing footprints left in the dust deep underground, undisturbed for decades. Picks, shovels and other mining implements remained undisturbed, left by those who labored there. One mine site had an old coal car sitting there full of coal, waiting. It remains today, lost and forgotten.

While Centralia is an interesting place to visit, it can be dangerous as well. As the fire burns away the coal supporting the surface, the surface heaves in places and sinks in others. Fissures that sometimes appear overnight warn that this is no place to be walking. After completing my trek along this road and talking to some of the locals, I learned just how dangerous it really was. There is indeed a good reason for all the warning signs.

If you're in the area, I highly recommend visiting Centralia. The people are really down to earth and friendly. And if you want to delve a bit deeper into their prolific history, be sure to visit the Anthracite Museum in nearby Ashland. So much of the area's past is kept alive there. Chip Klingerman, who also works at the museum is extremely knowledgeable and can talk at length about any of the many displays. A visit here is an education.

Good Bye: After visiting the Centralia area, I am left with a sense of both wonder and melancholy. I don't believe anyone can visit Centralia and leave, without feeling a sense of loss.

As for the fire, it will continue for as long as it has fuel, and there is no shortage of that. The window of opportunity for extinguishing the fire has closed. The costs to put it out now would be extremely high. "Out of site, out of mind" as they say. Only when the fire burns under a large city and starts doing what it did to Centralia will the powers that be start talking about extinguishing it.

I would like to believe that mankind learns from disasters such as this, but I doubt it. I am not quiet that naive.

Thank you for your visit.

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(1) Pennsylvania Highways:

(2) On Centralia

(3) on Centralia:

(4)  Exploring Modern Ruins:

(5) Here is The Official Page For Abandoned Coal Mine Research.

Doug Thompson

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