From the Issue: Centralia, PA

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If you didn’t get a chance to pick up a copy of the May issue of The Blue & White on campus, you can still peruse the highlights. You’re still reading Bwog after all, June be damned! This Last month’s Measure for Measure, the magazine’s literary section, features an essay from first-time contributor Diana Clarke, telling of a trip deep into Pennsylvania coal country.

Centralia, PA

Centralia, Pennsylvania isn’t the center of anything, not even itself. The conjunction of Highways 42 and 61 is an open expanse of scruffy grass that almost manages to hide the cracked driveways and sidewalks leading nowhere. If you stop (though you wouldn’t think to if you didn’t know what to look for) you’ll see a lilac bush in the distance, incongruous as a Christmas ornament. People used to live here.

The town is surrounded by hills—there’s a Ukranian church up on one, and fleet of wind turbines on another—so when your gaze shifts west and the hills go dark it takes a minute to realize that you’re looking at piles of coal. The necks of cranes rise up, lifting nothing.

Centralia used to be a mining town. It sits on top of a deposit of anthracite coal, the hardest, hottest-burning, and most expensive kind in the world. It’s sometimes called crow coal, or black diamond. It burns so well that in 1962, when a fire started in the town dump, a finger of coal near the surface caught, and let the flames burrow down into the mines.

For a while, nobody knew. We kept visiting the VFW, the dance hall, the ice cream parlor. Then the air got bad, the mines closed down, and people were out of work. Soon afterward the government stepped in, worried about the health of those of us still living there. Most stayed; Centralia was home. In 1979 the owner of a gas station found that the underground fire had heated the fuel in his tanks near to boiling, and in 1981 12-year-old Todd Domboski’s back yard opened up underneath him, 150 feet deep.

Then people started accepting the buyouts, drifting away, leaving the mines to burn. The Pennsylvania government couldn’t stop the coal from burning, or didn’t care to, but ripped away the buildings at their foundations, skinny row houses tucked up shoulder-to-shoulder, then scattered the empty town with grass and wildflower seeds, so it’s hard to see what was there.

About five houses remain, with less than a dozen residents between them. There’s also a drab little box just up the hill from the crossroads, grandly labeled Municipal Building, Borough of Centralia, Columbia Co., Pennsylvania. It holds one police car, one fire truck, one ambulance. The original Highway 61 is blocked to traffic, split open and leaking smoke. It’s covered in spray-paint and scars.

The day we drove into Centralia was cloudy, and the trip had taken longer than we’d wanted; it was six o’clock. The streets—“streets” doesn’t express the emptiness of those tar strips cutting through Appalachia—should have been deserted. Instead they crawled with slow-moving beat-up cars full of teenagers looking for a story to tell back home.

The locals know it. They never come out of their houses, but a couple of signs in shaky block print are posted right by the mines. One reads: “THESE RESIDENT’S WANT NOTHING FROM OUR GOVERNMENT THEY WANT TO LiVE WHERE THEY CHOOSE! PLEASE CALLAND DEMAND THEY BE LEft to LiVE IN CENTRALiA,” providing phone numbers for the governor, senator, and state representative. The other sign asks Governor Rendell to help “American Citizens” instead of illegal immigrants.

Even the nearest town, Ashland, is no happening place. It’s got a main street full of Victorian row houses painted like Barbie clothes, one bar, and about six pizza places. People hung out their windows to watch us drive by because there was nothing else to do. The weekend we were there, a sign announced an upcoming submarine sandwich-eating contest. Down the side streets the color seems to peel off the houses. Things need repairing.

Today the ground over the mines is full of holes, hot to the touch and spouting white smoke with a faint odor of rotten eggs. It’s a little like how you imagine hell when you’re six. People cook marshmallows over the steaming holes and try to coax the rubber soles of their shoes to melt a little so they have some kind of proof. They take pictures of the mines and leave. The smoke never shows up right on film.

We rolled out into the dark, all the way to Frackville, the big town nearby. The man at Motel Granny’s stumbled out of a back room, TV blaring, with a carpet of thick, straight, white chest hair filling the deep V of his t-shirt. We took whatever key he gave us and bolted before the situation could get any more b-movie. The room was cinderblock, painted bathroom-pink. We sat on the floor and ate cold baked beans from a can because we’d planned it. When we were done eating we couldn’t think of anything to do and went to bed.

Burning bush via Wikimedia

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  1. Anonymous  

    Fascinating -- thank you for this.

  2. Anonymous  

    Sometimes the dainty and dumpy should remain dainty and dumpy

  3. Diana

    clarke is one of the people i'm most sad to leave behind after graduating.

  4. Anonymous

    Saw a show on this once. The coal mine fire could take 1000 years to burn itself out. Hooray for industrial disasters.

  5. Anonymous

    These people are not your art, Diana. As someone who has had a parent suffer from cancer that was caused by the toxic waste produced by Pennsylvania coal mining industry, I find it shocking that anyone would so presumptuously assert that Pennsylvania mining towns are not the “center of anything.” The effects of coal industry’s mistakes in this region have long been the “center” of my life, as well as the “center” of the lives of many others from the region who have suffered and passed away from similar health problems. As someone who once lived in a Pennsylvania mining town, and whose family history lies in one, I find this attempt at an authoritative and artistic reflection, (produced by an outsider who visited for a single weekend), unbelievably ignorant and offensive.

    • Anonymous

      The point of this piece is to have an outside perspective on a traditionally intimate place. The fact that you have a different opinion proves that Diana succeeded bringing her own voice to the piece.

    • Well  

      you can go to hell. I don't understand how you can survive in the world if you cannot tolerate people having opinions about places they do not know intimately. If this were presented as a definitive or anthropological account, I may agree with you. But it's not. It is the impression of one person who is not intimately familiar with the area. To criticize Diana for writing about a place that she is not from is to discard the entire tradition of short essay writing and journalism. Either no one can write about a person or place or group if they are not best friends with that person, residents of that place, or members of that group—or you accept that people can write about how they feel as an observer.

    • the annoying thing is

      hearing cosmo-centric columbians diss more provincial locales as boring, unstimulating wastelands. it would be nice to hear someone appreciate the richness of struggling rural america and wonder how to resuscitate it rather than simply marking it as a stop along their path to self-awareness.

  6. alum

    having myself descended from a line of pennsylvania coal miners, this piece is spot-on in its description of the quiet desperation.

    also Ukrainian not 'Ukranian'

  7. Anonymous

    Impossible, Centralia has been running an insurgent campaign in the Highlands of Quantico for the past several decades.

  8. Anonymous

    "We sat on the floor and ate cold baked beans from a can because we’d planned it."

    How typically seething in post-post-post modern hipness.

    Did this last weekend in my backyard Bushwick bash where only flappers, confederate generals, nancy spungen and hobbits were invited.

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