“Overcome by events.” That was the phrase photojournalist Renée Jacobs used to describe how a coal mining fire came to decimate the rural Pennsylvania town of Centralia.
Jacobs’s photographs of the town’s slow decline — and its fight for survival — are currently on display at the Rubenstein Library, comprising the “Slow Burn: A Photodocument of Centralia, Pennsylvania” exhibit. They capture a vibrant small town grappling with its destiny and remind us that even the creepiest ghost town was once very much alive.
The coal mine fire’s origins are as hazy as the smoke that billowed from it. Somehow, someway, an old mine-turned-trash pit caught fire in May 1962, and it hasn’t stopped burning since. Just months after its first flames, the fire spread to the anthracite coal seams that lay beneath the town of Centralia, burning up the ground beneath its residents’ feet.
It was a painful, decades-long death accompanied by chronic symptoms that quickly became mundane, particularly for those born after the fire who knew nothing else. Representatives from the state’s Department of Environmental Resources, locally referred to as “those boys from the DER,” became honorary community members, visiting homes on the regular to check for poisonous levels of carbon monoxide. Nearly 1,800 boreholes soon pockmarked the town’s streets and backyards, eerily rising from the ground to vent the steam and smoke from the fire underfoot. Children began to struggle with respiratory problems. Adults, many of whom worked in the coal industry, suffered from black lung and other diseases.
Perhaps the inability to identify the fire’s cause worsened the ensuing struggle to put it out. Indeed, a 1986 copy of the local paper appears to benefit from the hindsight that follows disaster, observing, “Often there are conflicting opinions and failed solutions in such technical disasters, and that leaves room for confusion and blame.” With no one entity to pinpoint, the anguish pent up within Centralia splintered it in two.
Jacobs’ work documents the town’s sparring factions, each spearheaded by local housewives-turned-activists. There’s Joan Girolami, a homemaker and mother of two captured with her fist in the air at a local town meeting, wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Centralia, the hottest town in Pennsylvania.” In 1979, she and other female residents founded the Concerned Citizens Against the Mine Fire, which brought the tragedy of Centralia to national consciousness and fought ferociously to keep local families safe.
“A lot of it were women and mothers who were leading the push to get out,” Jacobs said. “These women were led to believe that they didn’t have a voice, and they found their voice. They became quite savvy and quite hardy to the political process.”
Perhaps Girolami’s opposite incarnate, Helen Womer, the leader of Residents to Save the Borough of Centralia, was a fierce denier of the fire and the change it represented. As the Residents’ manifesto boldly proclaimed, “THE DANGER OF OUR TOWN HAS BEEN GROSSLY EXAGGERATED!” The tension in the town weighed heavy. When Girolami and Womer were both slated to appear on the same talk show, they refused to ride together on the way to the studio.
Despite its residents’ last-ditch efforts, Centralia finally did fall, and its rapid decline was painful in spite of its inevitability. Government reports on the fire were never encouraging, and the 1980 “Red Book” released by the U.S. Bureau of Mines was particularly damning. The report confirmed residents’ worst fears, reading, “The Centralia mine fire has not been extinguished and is not controlled. The measures ... to control the fire have not been effective and in some cases may have influenced its propagation.”
The Bureau had spent $7 million trying to put the fire out since it first ignited, but the efforts were null. In 1983, Centralia residents voted 345-to-200 for a federal government buyout program that would allow them to sell their homes and move away from the fire. When representatives explained the buyout options, Girolami and her neighbor Fran McKeefery held their heads in their hands. On Dec. 14, 1984, bulldozers started tearing down houses, and by the end of 1986, it was estimated that 370 out of 400 families would be gone.
A once vibrant coal mining town was nearly cleared out within a span of three years, though a small handful of residents remain there to this day. Helen Womer stayed firmly rooted to Centralia until her death in 2001, at which point only 20 neighbors remained to be by her side. In 2017, it was estimated that five people were left.
The tragedy of Centralia seems otherworldly. The town’s destruction by a fire that devoured the very ground it stood on feels like an homage to Hell itself, such that the cultural fascination with its plight, including its inspiration of the “Silent Hill” film adaptation, appears understandable if not guaranteed. But it’s important to remember that the cause of the mass desertion — a coal seam fire — is neither a freak accident nor an indication of malevolent spirits, but a symptom of life in coal country.
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Centralia had a long and hallowed history as a mining town that traced back to 1842, when the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company bought the land that would later burn. Other towns in Pennsylvania shared similar histories and similar outcomes: In 1986, there were more than 40 other mine fires in the state alone; the one in Centralia just happened to be the only one that threatened homes. In fact, there are hundreds of coal seam fires burning right now in the United States, similar to the one in Centralia. These fires are part and parcel with coal mining itself. They lie in both the past and the present.
Renée Jacobs’s photographs and interviews with Centralia residents, taken over the course of six months and starting in 1983, offer a glimpse into the complexities of the town’s social dynamics as its collective sentiment of fierce hope morphed into despair and resignation. She was welcomed by residents who recognized that cooperating with journalists was mutually beneficial.
"One of the best ways to get the word out about what they were going through was to cooperate with journalists who wanted to tell their stories,” Jacobs said. “The only way to hold the bureaucracy accountable was to get stories in the newspaper, to get books out, to get on ‘Nightline’ or ‘60 Minutes’ or the nightly news.”
Jacobs’s photographs of Girl Scouts trooping past boreholes and of village streets barricaded due to an excess of smoke document a town’s drive to persevere even as tragedy lurked beneath the surface. Interviews with children and adults alike reveal a shared devotion to Centralian life, even as residents disagreed on who was to blame or whether or not they should stay.
The photographs from after the 1984 buyout vote are the most aching, as even the staunchest fire deniers were forced to acknowledge that Centralia had undergone a fundamental shift. Government appraisers can be seen measuring the dimensions of homes, symbolically transforming what were once community bedrocks into dollar bills and soon-to-be demolition rubble. On her last day in Centralia, the once resolute Joan Girolami sits hunched in a bath towel, gazing out the window.
Perhaps worse than the fire itself, one of the biggest tragedies of Centralia’s plight is the inability to distill a satisfying moral or maxim from it. There is no point in its story where you can peel back the curtain and reveal the truth of how it all went wrong and who was responsible. Sure, the federal government could have waited less than the 24 years that it did to tell residents that the fire was out of control, but official plans were indeed made to put it out. The fire just moved so quickly that any project became obsolete as soon as it was finalized.
Started inexplicably in an old mining pit, maybe the coal industry or coal itself was to blame. But identifying a more than century-old system as culpable feels less than satisfying, and almost unproductive. If the problem is so large, how much simplicity can we hope for in its solution? The story of Centralia does not (and cannot) incite action through anger. Rather, it’s a reminder of how complicated disaster can be.