Monday, February 18, 2008


We had a hot time in the old town on the night of Valentine's Day. Andrew and I took our Valentine (Mommy) into Atlantic City to a new steakhouse with an odd name; RUTH'S CHRIS.

Ruth's Chris is an elegant chain restaurant that is truly excellent...pricey but excellent. Their main gimmick is to serve the entrees on plates that are supposedly 500 degrees. Whether or not that's really important or even true is secondary--but I know my dish was still radiating long after it was set down.

The harsh reality is, for the same money, I'd rather eat off the cold plates at the OUTBACK three times, than go back to Ruth's Chris once.

After everyone fell asleep that night, I settled into an evening of hot entertainment that included the double feature, "THE DEER HUNTER" followed by "PLATOON." Nothing warms the soul better than five hours of flame throwing action and napalm hi-jinx.

I had never seen either one all the way through, so when it was all over at 3:AM, I was unsettled and in a bit of shock. While channel surfing, I came across the History Channel's tribute to the states. They were discussing Pennsylvania and the weird story of the small town of Centralia.

Centralia Pennsylvania is in the mid-eastern part of state, about 120 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The closest I ever got was thirty miles east when I was at Jim Thorpe PA.

Deep in the heart of coal territory, Centralia was literally built on top of the mines. But now, nearly everyone has left this once a thriving community. At first, the residents moved away voluntarily. Those who opted to stay were eventually forced out.
The town's woes started warming up, in May 1962 when five volunteer firemen were hired to clean-up a landfill, located at an abandoned strip mine.  The accepted practice was to set the dump on fire, allow it to burn and professionally extinguish the blaze.  Their standard operating procedure went according to Hoyle except for one minor detail...they couldn't put out the fire.

The fire remained burning in the lower depths of the trash and spread...down through gaps in the rock pit and into spent mine shafts below Centralia. The amount of coal left behind was meager on a commercial level but there was enough down there to sustain the fire and allow it to grow.

In the next few years, many attempts to put out these fires continued throughout the 60's and 70's, but failed. More time went by and the fires below were largely ignored until residents began experiencing adverse health issues from the carbon dioxide being produced.

In 1979 with the fires still spreading, the seriousness of the situation was made more apparent when a filling station owner reported the temperature in his underground tanks at 172 degrees. Large amounts of people evacuated the town.

Centralia received national attention in 1981 when a young boy got sucked into a crater filled with noxious fumes. Luckily, his cousin saved him from the sink hole. This incident helped propel a new campaign to re-settle the straggling townspeople elsewhere.

In 1984, Pennsylvania began buying out the remaining residents. Despite warnings from the state, some Centralians still refused to move. These people cited a conspiracy to evict them from their property in order to steal the valuable mineral rights, (the town's mines boast deposits of rare anthracite, which makes up 2% of all coal).

The fires were still blazing in 1992. So, Pennsylvania claimed eminent domain on the whole town. All the buildings were condemned, the deteriorating main arteries to town (Pennsylvania highway 61) were detoured and Centralia died. In 2002, the town's zip code (17927) was revoked by the US postal service.

So whenever you think of the phrase; burnt out, please consider the 46 year (and counting) plight of Centralia Pennsylvania and its FOUR remaining residents (according to 2007 tax records). Because there are no solid plans to attack this fire and experts are certain that the 3700 acres of coal reserves beneath the town is enough to continue feeding the flames for between 250 and a 1,000 years.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read your informative, "BURNT-OUT IN CENTRALIA PENNSYLVANIA," blog. We were nearby and went to the Yeungling brewery and other local "hot-spots." But sadly, we didn't see any smoke and the ground was cold to the touch. --- JERM