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The Ghosts of Centralia

The Ghosts of Centralia - How a Small Rubbish Fire Destroyed Seniors' Dreams

by Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.

Attorney RJ Connelly III

"Seniors are often forced to move out of their homes due to any number of presenting issues," said professional fiduciary and certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "The issues could be an inability to live alone due to health issues, a lack of resources to afford the taxes and insurance on the home, or even a fire or other natural disaster that suddenly changes everything for them."

"Dealing with one senior in these situations is horrible enough, but what happens when an entire community of elderly citizens is affected," asked Attorney RJ Connelly. "We have seen this recently in East Palestine, Ohio, where a train derailment forced part of a community out of their homes; however, in a town called Centralia in Pennsylvania, an entire town and its citizens had their homes condemned and razed, dwellings that they lived in for generations. This is a story worth telling and one filled with lessons. This is the story of Centralia, Pennsylvania."

Generations Destroyed

In 1962, Centralia residents 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. Over fifty years later, the fire continues to burn, and Centralia is no longer.

Located about one hundred miles northwest of Philadelphia, Centralia was a mining town built along the ridges and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains. "The town itself epitomized what central Pennsylvania was at that time, an area built upon the coal mining industry," said Attorney RJ Connelly.

Centralia, Pennsylvania, then and now. Photo from

Mining began in Centralia in the mid-1800s and thrived as mining camps emerged 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," pointed out Attorney RJ Connelly. "A group of Irish immigrant miners, known as the Molly Maquires, disliked how the Anglo-Americans ran the mines and began engaging in criminal activities, including murder, to change the mining industry. Eventually, this movement was crushed, but the stories of this group still live in the folklore of the region to this very day."

By 1900, the town was vibrant, boasting movie theaters, hotels, banks, churches, and thirty saloons. With the outbreak of World War I, however, many young men in the area were sent to war, while strikes in the mine reduced 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 the closure of some of the mines, and Centralia began to change, losing almost half 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," stated Attorney Connelly. "Although mining continued sporadically, it eventually died with the beginning of the mine fire."

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

Out of Control

The fire continued to burn unabated, eventually reaching the population center. Speaking about this town with an individual 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 vent pipes on the hillsides. The winter was surreal when snow would pile up in one area while other spots were completely dry.”

Smoke breaks through an abandoned street. Photo from Business

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 140 degrees, and parts of the town started 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, a friend rescued him. Things had reached crisis proportions.

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 that provided them with decades of safety and solace. Arguments ensued among the town’s residents about the dangers of the fire and why they had to leave. After court fights and legal interventions, most surrendered what they had worked for and fled. By 2005 Centralia was dead, and so were the dreams and aspirations of many.

"Today, Centralia is a ghost town," said Attorney RJ Connelly. "Once boasting over five hundred buildings, only a few structures 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 is not about buildings but about people. Many of those in Centralia were older and came from contrasting times. The culture was uniquely old Pennsylvania, with massive celebrations of National Holidays, family picnics in the shadows of beautiful mountains, band concerts on sweltering 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, however, was hit harder when Centralia disappeared than the elderly, who had hoped to live out their final days surrounded by supportive family and friends in the town and homes they loved.

One Family's Story

"The person who brought Centralia to my attention told the story of a close friend living nearby," stated Attorney RJ Connelly. "Here is the interview he did, which he wrote in a blog many years ago."

Closed streets with venting in Centralia. Photo from Roadside

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 eight decades of living in a comfortable two-story house with a slate roof, they were forced out. This was their paradise despite the carbon monoxide alarms sounding daily in their basement and an acrid smoke rising just yards from their backdoor. 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 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 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. 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, my parents 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 he looked at it every day and dreamt he would refurbish it. Our doghouse 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, which faded quickly in my rearview mirror. What was strange to me was that there were no tears, no discussion, just 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 as planned, but when they walked in, both lost their color and seemed deflated. For weeks, boxes sat on the floor unpacked, and both wore the same clothes repeatedly. To say they were depressed would be an understatement. Eventually, they tried to develop routines, but their 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 rode 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. Just the sight of that made me sad beyond belief. Shortly after that visit, my dad had a heart attack and died. Besides the overwhelming grief, there were also legal issues 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 existing stress.”

Just 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 or long-term care planning; it was a mess. Who would think about a will when you're 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. She lost her house, way of life, husband, and money. There was nothing left to live for...and in many ways, how can you blame her?”

An isolated home sits among the acrid fumes. Photo from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“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 ever to go back to. Even today, after everything was resolved legally, our family is still not healed and may never be.”

Charlie’s story is not atypical and has been played out hundreds of times in this town. Newspaper articles and documentaries about Centralia abound, and all 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.

Breaking Up Families

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

"It’s important to remember that a house is more than just a structure. It is a museum of our lives. It is our history. It is filled with good and bad memories that make up our life story," said Attorney RJ Connelly. "Every photo, box of papers, and even a stain on the wall is meaningful to a family who lived there for generations. When the door is closed behind them for the last time, an era has ended, and for some, so have their lives."

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:

  1. Discuss the plans to move or relocate with family, friends, or professionals. They can offer advice or straightforward support when it’s needed the most.

  2. If the plan to move occurs because of 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; someone does not have to make them for you.

  3. Begin with the closets and the attic. Often, many things are packed away in those areas that are forgotten. This will give you time to review these items and rediscover what may be necessary.

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

  5. 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 activity takes time, so it’s essential not to be rushed.

  6. 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 regularly. Each story is unique, and individuals are affected differently by the same situation. Families can lose everything in the blink of an eye due to fires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, other traumatic experiences, or the inevitable result of aging," concluded Attorney RJ Connelly. "They are experiencing something called Relocation Stress Syndrome, a real psychological issue we will explore in our next blog."

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