23 Aug Appalachia Voices | Centralia the Coal Mining Town
Last year, my sophomore year, I took an environmental studies class, and a large portion of that class was dedicated to studying the culture and science of the coal mining industry and it’s impact on human life. This class included a field trip to Centralia in Pennsylvania.
Centralia used to be a mining town, but it was evacuated by the government over 30 years ago when a fire started burning through the coal veins that ran under that town and many others. The fire still continues to burn through the vein and most believe it will not stop until all the coal has been burned.
Unfortunately the field trip took place on a Sunday morning which meant that the bus that departed at 7 a.m. wasn’t a welcome sight for anyone. Thankfully that meant the three hour bus ride was very quiet as I slept through the ride through the mountains west. The few times I managed to raise my head out my sweatshirt hood, I was greeted by sights of valleys filled with trees that varied from a vibrant green through the yellows and oranges and mostly a vibrant red. The professors at one point said that because that fall had so many freezes that warmed up so quickly some trees had begun turning color and loosing their leaves much faster than others which caused the literal rainbow of foliage that we were seeing all around us.
Our first stop on the way to Centralia, was Ashland mine which had been renovated to be a tourist attraction and had been functioning as such for far longer than it was mined. It was a family owned business, as most things seemed to be around the area, and the man giving the tour was the owner’s son who had worked there since he was in high school. He spoke about the nature of the mining business as if he had done so many times (which he had) but without the bored air that some get when they’ve been saying the same thing over and over again for a large part of their life. If there were any questions he didn’t know the answer to, chances were that one of the more elderly people on the tour (with what I suppose were their grandchildren) could provide some insightful input. The last time Ashland was actually mined was in 1931.
After we finished the Ashland mine tour, we got back on the bus and headed out to Centralia. I knew that the town had been abandoned, but I did not expect what I saw upon exiting the bus. There were piles of broken concrete and rubble and the odd pillar of smoke rising out of some un-locatable place. Farther out there were remnants of streets and buildings that were covered in grasses, bushes and young trees.
We all wandered around; someone found a vent from the burning coal vein, so we sat and ate lunch by it for warmth; we tried to locate what was at one point Main Street but could only guess which one it was. The place was almost completely abandoned except for our bus full of college students and the occasional group of dirt bikers.
If I had just come across this place not knowing its history, I would not have guessed that this place used to have houses, stores, or the community to uphold them. But, not too long ago in our history, a community was built, displaced then destroyed. It can’t even be considered a ghost town because there is no town for ghosts to haunt; just a forest riddled with trails of gravel and and unused roads.