Monday, March 21, 2011

Burnt Bricks

What happens when the earth beneath the ground catches fire and an entire town is forced to evacuate? You get the loose inspiration for the 1991 comedy, Nothing But Trouble: Centralia, PA.

Former State Highway 61 was rerouted when it began to succumb to the pressure below ground.

In 1962 a fire was started in the landfill of this Columbia County coal mining town, igniting an exposed anthracite coal vein and the earth beneath the town. As repeated attempts to extinguish the fire failed, the ground throughout the town of 1100 continued to smoke.

Trees line a street once lined with row homes.

Concern for the potential danger culminated in the late 70s and early 80s. An underground gas tank was found to be 172 degrees. A couple years later a 12 year old was nearly killed after the ground open up beneath him exposing a 150 foot deep sinkhole filled with carbon monoxide. He managed to hang to a tree root before his cousin pulled him to safety.

A stone wall along Park Street is lined with staircases leading up to what were once homes.

Domestic trees grow wild, tearing apart the manufactured remains of this abandoned town.

These incidents drew national attention and in 1984 U.S. Congress provided $42 million to relocate all residents to nearby towns. While the current census shows that seven residents remain, legally all remaining properties are condemned and as of 2009, all remaining residents have been formally evicted.

Centralia's South Hill shows the most obvious signs of the underground fire. The smoking ground is hot to the touch, releasing toxic carbon monoxide.

A lone staircase on Centralia's South Hill.

Besides the few hold outs on the town's small grid, signs of a once thriving small town can be found throughout Centralia's footprint. Trees have taken over sidewalks, faded stop signs mark intersections, and fire hydrants peek out above the overgrowth. The most significant sign of its former life is perhaps the stone wall with staircases marking the row homes that once lined Park Street.

Modern wind farms like the one west of Centralia can be found all around the region, perhaps signifying a new era in Pennsylvania power.

The only remaining street sign in Centralia is at the corner of Locust Avenue and Park Street.

State Route 61 takes you into Centralia. A bypass has been constructed around the original divided highway. Having succumbed to the earth settling into the burning coal mine, scarred with cracks and sink holes, highway 61 looks like it was destroyed by an earthquake. Smoke billows from its large crevasses where graffiti aptly tags it the "Highway to Hell".

In a small park at Locust and Park, a stone wall and time capsule marker are maintained.

Along Locust Avenue, or Highway 61, a stone wall is maintained surrounding a time capsule to be opened in 2016.

Centralia's blocks are marked with rows and rows of concrete and stone foundations, domestic hedges, spring flowers, and large trees that once divided lawns. At the hill on the south side of town is the heart of the underground fire. Smoke pours from vent pipes and cracks in the ground. Hot to the touch, the polluted air makes the area inhospitable to any sign of life but a bright green moss that seems to thrive in the acrid stench.

The Centralia Municipal Building houses emergency services supported by volunteers from neighboring towns.

Servicing the lone residents who have stayed in their homes, emergency services are provided by volunteers from neighboring towns, using the former municipal building to house an ambulance and fire truck. Atop the surrounding landscape are a strip mined mountain top to the west and modern windmills to the east; Centralia's forgotten contribution to powering America's early industry wedged in a small valley may continue to burn for the next 1000 years.

On the hill to the north opposite the smoke and poisonous gas, a small church watches over the few residents who choose not to leave Centralia and their homes.

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