The Ghosts of Centralia

The story goes that in 1962, residents of the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania were tasked to clean up mounds of trash in preparation for the Memorial Day weekend celebration. Piles of cut brush, wood and old furniture were pushed into an old abandoned mine opening and set ablaze in a controlled burn by the town’s fire department. Several days later, residents noticed that the fire was still smoldering. The fire department returned to the site only to find that the fire had spread deep into the mine and had set the veins of anthracite coal on fire. Today, over fifty years later, the fire continues to burn and the town of Centralia is no more.

Located about 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Centralia was a mining town. Built along the ridges and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains, it epitomized what central Pennsylvania was at that time – an area built upon coal.

Mining began in Centralia in the mid-1800s and thrived as mining camps sprung up in the woods and mountainsides surrounding the town. Once the railroad was completed through this quaint and picturesque community, massive amounts of anthracite coal began pouring out of the region destined for manufacturing centers in the Northeast and beyond.

But even then, Centralia was not without its controversies. A group of Irish-American miners, who became known as the Molly Maquires and disliked the way the Anglo-Americans were running the mines, engaged in several criminal acts, including murder, in an attempt to bring about changes in the mining industry. Eventually this movement was crushed but the stories of this group still lives in the folklore of the region to this very day.

By 1900, the town was vibrant, boasting movie theaters, hotels, banks, churches and nearly 30 saloons. With the outbreak of World War I, however, many young men of the area were sent to war while strikes in the mine led to a reduction of coal output. Adding to this problem, new and more efficient forms of energy appeared and the demand for anthracite coal began to wane. In 1929, the great depression forced closure of some of the mines and Centralia began to change, losing almost half of its population.

With the outbreak of World War II, the mines began to see more work but it was short-lived as Centralia never again reached the level of activity it had enjoyed some 60 years earlier. Although mining continued sporadically it eventually died with the beginning of the mine fire.

Multiple attempts to extinguish the fire were largely unsuccessful. Attempts to extinguish the conflagration included everything from pouring large amounts of water into the mine shafts to piling in massive quantities of fly-ash to smother the fire but were futile. Geologists stated that it would cost nearly $1 billion dollars to mount a serious fight against this fire and even then, could not guarantee success. The only certainty was that this fire could burn for decades, or perhaps longer, given the ample fuel that was present and the number of mine shafts in the region.

The fire continued to burn unabated eventually reaching the population center. In speaking about this town with a friend who is from the area, he told me, “This fire burned underneath Route 61, a major highway through that part of Pennsylvania. I remember driving there regularly in the 1980s and seeing the steam and smoke rising from both sides of the highway and from vent pipes on the hillsides. What was so surreal was the winter, when snow would pile up in one area while other spots were completely dry.”

Eventually, the fire broke through the surface. Blue and orange flames could be seen as open holes belched choking fumes that overwhelmed some parts of the town. Gases from the fire began seeping into basements, surface ground temperatures in some areas reached nearly 140 degrees and parts of the town began to collapse. So dangerous was Centralia that a child was nearly swallowed into the burning mine when a piece of land he was playing on collapsed. Hanging on to tree roots, he was rescued by a friend. Things had reached crisis proportions.

Then in 1984, Congress appropriated $42 million to relocate the town’s residents. Many protested leaving, especially the seniors, who wanted nothing more than to live out their lives in a place which provided them with decades of safety and solace. Arguments ensued among the town’s residents about the actual dangers of the fire and why they had to leave. After court fights and legal interventions, most surrendered what they had worked for all their lives and left. By 2005 Centralia was dead and for many, so were their dreams and aspirations.

Today, Centralia is a ghost town. Once boasting over 500 buildings, only a few structures now remain. What was home to thousands living a throwback mid-twentieth century lifestyle has been reduced to empty fields, collapsed landscapes and graffiti filled streets leading to nowhere.

But a town, after all, is not about buildings but about people. Many of those in Centralia were older and came from a different time. The culture was uniquely old Pennsylvania with massive celebrations of National Holidays, family picnics in the shadows of beautiful mountains, band concerts on hot summer nights in the town park and memories of raising families who would remain and continue the town’s traditions. No one group of people were hit harder when Centralia disappeared than the elderly.

The person who brought Centralia to my attention told the story of a close friend who lived in a nearby town. Here is the interview he did which he wrote in his blog some five years ago.

Charlie lived in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, which was just to the east of Centralia. His parents, born and raised in the town, were forced to leave when the federal government came in. After nearly eight decades living in a comfortable two-story house with a slate roof, they were being forced out. Despite the carbon monoxide alarms sounding daily in their basement and smoke rising just yards from their backdoor, this was their paradise. This was all they knew.

In fairness, the government did pay out well for the property but this was about more than money. The move, according to Charlie, was traumatic for his parents. When the time came, they didn’t know where to begin or perhaps, really didn’t want to start.

“They seemed paralyzed”, said Charlie. “Packing box after box then emptying the box and re-packing again. I watched them sit on the floor and just stare at photos of the kids and grandkids, not knowing where to put them or how to pack them. It was sad.”

“They were coming to live in a small apartment in my town where I could keep an eye on them. I thought it would be a happy time since we would be closer to each other. As we left the house for the last time, my father instinctively locked the door despite the fact it would become a pile of rubble in just a few weeks. As I drove away, both my parents just stared forward, refusing to look back. We took what we could but left a lot behind, nothing of real value monetarily but boy, it was sure priceless to them.”

“Besides the house, we had a garage with dad’s old rusted out 1950s ford. It was worthless and became a home to a raccoon and other wildlife but it was something he looked at every day and dreamt he would refurbish it. There was also our doghouse which hadn’t been used since our beagle, Rex, died in the 1990s. Dad loved that dog and took him everywhere with him. He was buried in the backyard that faded quickly in my rearview mirror. What was strange to me was that there were no tears, no discussion, just silence. A silence as quiet as the town we were leaving. It was far from a happy time.”

“When we arrived at their new apartment, the moving company had put everything into place like we planned but when they walked in, both lost their color and just seemed to be deflated. For weeks, boxes sat on the floor unpacked and both wore the same clothes over and over. To say they were depressed would be an understatement. Eventually they tried to develop routines but the sense of normalcy for them never returned. They were lost in their memories and what would never be. Life just stopped for them.”

About two years later, Charlie and his parents took a ride back to Centralia for the first time since they had left. The house they had lived in was gone. So were the neighbor’s homes and the corner store where his father would hold court with his friends about politics, weather and sports was nothing more than an overgrown lot and the steps which led to where the entrance used to be were the only things that remained.

“This was the only time I saw emotion from my parents”, said Charlie. “I saw tears in my dad’s eyes for the first time in my life. Just the site of that made me sad beyond belief. Shortly after that visit, my dad had a heart attack and died. Beside the overwhelming grief, there was also the practical that had to be addressed. Although my parents had money they received from the government, there existed a will that was never updated after they moved from that town. This created a legal nightmare on top of the stress that already existed.”

Just barely a month after his father’s funeral, his mother suffered a stroke and was in long term care until her death. “We had no idea about Medicaid, no idea about care planning, it was a mess. Who would think about a will when your losing everything that had meaning to you? What my parents worked so hard for was taken away first by a mine fire and then by sickness. Before her death, my mother was still very much aware of what was happening and I’m convinced she just gave up. After all, she lost her house, her way of life, her husband and her money. There was nothing left to live for...and in many ways, how can you blame her?”

“Almost immediately, infighting started within the family – about the money, where they would be buried and who would get their keepsakes. We were never a family that cared all that much about tangible things, we just weren’t raised that way. I’m convinced that the underlying problem was losing everything in Centralia. The fighting wasn’t really about the money but the grief of losing those pieces of our lives. We had nothing to ever go back to. Even today, after everything was resolved legally, our family is still not healed and may never be.”

Charlie’s story was not atypical and played out hundreds of times in this town. Newspaper articles and documentaries about Centralia abound and all seem to have a central theme when talking about the people who lived there – they all wanted to stay despite the fire that burned below them and the acrid, choking fumes that filled the sky above. They were born there and they wanted to die there.

The people of Centralia were not all that much different than the rest of us. We all want to age in place, to live out our final days surrounded by those we love and that which is familiar. Unfortunately, we live in a much different world today where families are scattered and aging in place can become very isolating and dangerous. Centralia, in many ways, is a microcosm of our society today.

It’s important to remember that a house for our seniors is more than just a structure. It is a museum of their lives. It is their history. It is filled with memories – both good and bad – that make up their life story. Every photo, box of papers and even stains on the wall carries meaning to a family who lived there for generations. When the door is closed behind them for the last time, an era has come to an end.

So, what can be done to assist someone who is forced to leave the place where they feel most comfortable? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Discuss the plans to move or relocate with family, friends or professionals. They can offer advice or just simple support at a time when it’s needed the most.

  • If the plan to move occurs because the loss of a spouse or a choice to downsize, don’t wait until the last minute. Being rushed adds to the stress and limits productive and appropriate thought. With time, you can make the decisions and someone does not have to make them for you.

  • Begin with the closets and the attic. There are often many things packed away in those areas that are forgotten about. This will give you time to go through these items and rediscover what may be important to you.

  • Put those things that are most important to you and used most often in boxes to be unpacked immediately. Things you may not use can go into boxes that can be stored elsewhere and eventually discarded.

  • Those things that have the most emotional meaning to you but might not fit into your new housing can be given to a loved one who has the room and will cherish the item as much as you do. Thinking about such an activity takes time so it’s important not to be rushed.

  • Make a floor plan of your new housing and where you want things to go. That way on moving day, there is an organization to the process and some of the stress is alleviated.

The story of Centralia is one of sadness on a massive scale. But I see and hear such stories in my practice on a regular basis. Each story is unique and people are affected differently by the same situation. Families can lose everything in the blink of an eye due to fires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes or other traumatic experiences.

Although we cannot always prepare for the unthinkable, planning is the key to minimizing some of the impact of horrific events. I encourage estate planning not only for the natural transition of life but for those transitions that are not so natural. Having an estate plan is not going to make the sun shine in the aftermath of tragedy but it is one less piece of stress that loved ones need to deal with during such an emotionally taxing time.

Attorney Connelly practices in the area of elder law. This area of law involves Medicaid planning and asset protection advice for those individuals entering nursing homes, planning for the possibility of disability through the use of powers of attorney for the both health care and finances, guardianship, estate planning, probate and estate administration, preparation of wills, living trusts and special or supplemental needs trusts. He represents clients primarily in the states of Rhode Island, Connecticut and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) in 2008. Attorney Connelly is licensed to practice before the Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Federal Bars.

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