Friday, 23 October 2015

23/10/15 - Centralia

Where are you going on holiday this year? Somewhere warm and peaceful? How about the leafy splendour of eastern Pennsylvania?

In the early 1960s, the bustling mining town of Centralia, PA was preparing to celebrate its centenary. Such events are always big news in a country with as little long-range history as the USA, where anything over fifty years old is considered a venerable antique – “surely no-one was alive then?!” – and there was much excitement: parades, sideshows, parties, it was to be a big day for the residents. But this is not what people remember about Centralia – what they remember is that, one day, everybody decided to up sticks and abandon the town. A busy community of thousands rapidly diminished, leaving just a handful of residents scattered here and there in the remnants of, by local standards, a fair amount of history. As people left, their homes were demolished, leaving the town as little more than a huge, flat, empty space, surreally punctuated by road signs and fire hydrants, with just the odd house here and there occupied by the very few that decided to stay. So why did this happen?

The answer, bizarrely, is that Centralia was on fire. And not in an obvious run-and-fetch-a-hose sort of way, but underground, in a manner that was unnervingly impossible to extinguish.
Centralia’s blessing, and also its curse, is that it sits on a colossal seam of anthracite. This is a particularly sought-after variety of coal given that it has a much higher carbon content and fewer impurities than, say, lignite or bituminous coal. Being so hard and dense, it’s a bit of a bugger to get it lit, although once it is ignited it’s pretty tricky to put out – and therein lies Centralia’s problem. You may be able to see where this is going.

A thriving industrial community, Centralia had been happily mining anthracite and doing rather well for itself for generations until one unfortunate day, May 27th 1962, when a refuse fire on the edge of town managed to ignite the anthracite seam beneath the ground. The problem was identified pretty quickly and the fire department pumped gallon upon gallon of water down there, but the glowing core of the seam just kept reigniting – and as the fire spread, so the whole town became incrementally and unstoppably consumed by eerie wisps of smoke that were licking up from the earth. The US Bureau of Mines was brought in to assess the problem and formulate a solution, although everything they came up with was either unworkable or unaffordable. (Rerouting the fire with explosives was one particularly madcap idea that was seriously considered, as was digging a vast trench through the centre of town to divide it up into the safe zone and the dangerously hot bit.) But no-one was able to agree on a solution, so nothing happened, and the fire just kept burning on. People got on with their lives, aware of the subterranean inferno but largely unconcerned by it. It became a curio, an interesting story to tell. “Yeah, I’m from Centralia, the town that’s on fire.”

Seventeen years later, in 1979, a petrol station owner spotted that the temperature in his underground fuel tanks was worryingly high. A little investigation revealed that the earth around a dozen feet or so below the tanks was registering over a thousand degrees Fahrenheit. People’s homes were becoming nauseatingly rich in carbon monoxide, and their increasingly hot cellars were causing concern. The roads grew warm to the touch. And then, in 1981, a boy playing in his grandma’s garden was almost swallowed up by a sudden, terrifying sinkhole opening up in front of him; he saved himself by clinging onto tree roots and calling for help, and he was lucky to have had such quick reflexes – the hole turned out to be a hundred and fifty feet deep.
Further sinkholes started appearing all over town. And at this point, the authorities suggested that perhaps it was time for the townspeople to start taking the fire seriously. A mass evacuation was ordered, the bulldozers clearing homes as the people fled. Deep, smoking gashes appeared in the roads as the inhabitants ran from the hidden blaze like some sort of weird and unbelievable action movie. In seemingly no time at all, a town with a rich tradition of industry was reduced to a featureless plain shrouded in a creepy, noxious haze.
The 2000 census registered just 21 inhabitants. By the 2010 census, this figure was down to ten, the median age being 62.5 years. Today there are even fewer, stubbornly clinging to life on top of a bonfire.

There’s enough anthracite underneath Centralia to keep burning for another two hundred and fifty years – or possibly even a thousand, no-one’s quite sure. So that’s another place that we humans can file alongside Chernobyl as ‘places we broke and probably shouldn’t ever go back to’. That said, the residents buried a time capsule in 1966, and there are plans afoot for a number of former Centralians to return to the town in 2016 to dig it up – although it’ll be a brave fellow who consciously decides to plunge a spade into what could well be an inch-thick crust of earth over an unimaginably large bowl of fire…

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