Centralia, Pennsylvania: “A Foretaste of Hell”

Photo: Tim Murphy

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Centralia, Pennsylvania—As I’ve mentioned earlier, one of my interests in this trip is reexamining the map—looking at alternative versions of what the atlas of the United States might look like in the past and present. Perhaps nowhere in America is that vision more clearly defined than in Centralia, where, since 1962, an underground coal fire has smudged, if not entirely erased, an entire village from the map.Road to Nowhere: (Photo: Tim Murphy)Road to Nowhere: (Photo: Tim Murphy)

If Centralia looked a bit more bombed out, it might be less jarring. Thick plumes of smoke and dilapidated shotgun houses are in many ways easier to deal with than a disaster you can’t really see. But the town’s impact lies in its modest hold on all the senses: Smoke wafting out of small vents on the side of a hill; roads that branch off the state highway but lead to nowhere; carbon monoxide; potholes, cooked by the fires below, which feel like Easy-Bake Ovens. And the sulphur. I went to Iceland, once, when I was barely a teenager, and remember the smell of rotten eggs when I took showers or passed by any sort of geothermal activity, but all the rotten eggs in Altoona couldn’t accomplish the same level of unease as my 15 minutes in Centralia. It looks, feels, and smells like the day after the death of civilization. Save for Centralia’s last nine residents—who have been ordered to leave by the governor—the only places still showing signs of life are, well, dead: Amid the ruin, the town’s cemeteries are immaculately maintained, with fresh-cut flowers and American flags for the veterans.

I was struggling to properly articulate my thoughts on the town, when a middle-aged woman, visiting from southeast Arkansas, offered an epitath: “I think this is a foretaste of hell.”

That Centralia has attracted a family from Arkansas is noteworthy, but not unusual. We’re joined by a half dozen or so visitors over a quarter of an hour, including a couple from Delaware who have brought their six-year-old daughter, beanie baby in tow. A family of five, teenagers and adults, skampers out of their minivan toward where I’m standing. “Hey, where’s the smoke, yo?” one of them asks.

Centralia represents more than just the death of a community; in the broader context of climate change, subterranean coal fires are a largely uncharted variable. They aren’t even included in many emissions calculations, but there’s plenty of evidence that they contribute a not-insignificant chunk of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year. Which is to say we ignore it at our own peril. Coal fires can occur naturally, but in this case, it was a 100-percent man-made disaster: A combination of burning garbage and an abandoned strip mine was the likely cause of the fire. Now, even as the last residents fight to stay, a coal giant is preparing to take over the town, which still houses about $1 billion worth of precious, unburned anthracite.

Pull your eyes away from the scorched earth, look to the east, and you can see wind-power turbines whirring lazily against the blue sky. If Centralia really is a foretaste of hell, it’s made all the more wicked by the droning taunt of salvation, perpetually out of reach.Tilting at Windmills: Clean Energy in a Town Killed by Coal (Photo: Tim Murphy)Tilting at Windmills: Clean Energy in a Town Killed by Coal (Photo: Tim Murphy)

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate