Tourism reignited for smoldering town

Tourism reignited for smoldering town

11 September 2008

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USA — This old coal town, abandoned because of a relentless mine fire roasting it from beneath, recently has turned into something of a tourist hot spot.

On a recent Friday evening, five vehicles jammed the gravel road to the landfill, where, in 1962, burning trash set off a fire in an abandoned mine shaft. Duke Martin of Fairfield followed the sign Fire posted on the dead tree on Centralia’s main road and pulled onto a path with three children and two barking dogs onboard his SUV. He rolled down the window to ask a fellow adventurer for directions.

“We’re just looking for the smoke,” he said.

In a 2001 photo, smoke billowed from the mine fire along a hillside overlooking the few remaining homes in Centralia. Today, the fire has moved to the perimeter, so haze no longer clouds the heart of the town. Tourists are lured by horrific stories on the Web.
Photo: Scott S. Hamrick

Smoke rises through huge cracks in the town’s old main road – no longer used. “Every year, it gets greener and greener,”
says one resident. “It’s basically like living in the countryside now.”
Photo: Fabian Loehe

Once they were guided to black hills of dark sand and ashes, his blond teenage son was thrilled about the prospect of writing a term paper about the town. “Hey, Dad, come and feel the heat,” another child said after the group had hunted down a hole with smoke.

Meanwhile, Bill Campbell of Cape May, accompanied by his wife, poked in the hot dust and took pictures next to a run-down chair within sight of the town’s neatly kept graveyard.

“I read about it and was fascinated that this could be real. It’s a bit like folklore,” he said. In contrast to nearby Knoebels Amusement Resort in Elysburg, with its roller coasters, miniature golf and kiddie rides, a town with an underground fire offers a unique scene.

“It’s almost a mystical place,” he said.

One of seven houses still standing in Centralia, decimated over decades as fire has burned in a coal mine beneath. “
The Internet gives [tourists] a wrong impression,” said one of the few residents. Photo: Fabian LoeheSulfur-scented smoke climbs through huge cracks in the old main road. A dead tree stretches its seared branches toward the sky. The ground is hot, even through shoes.

Centralia has been almost extinguished in the nearly half-century since the fire began. About 1,100 people lived there before the fire. Today, depending on whom you ask, the town has eight, 11, or 14 people. But now the fire brings a steady stream of people into the town in Pennsylvania’s northeastern mountains, gawking at the calamity – and causing the remaining handful of residents to feel like a human exhibit.

“Within the last five years, the amount of tourists has greatly increased,” said John Lokitis, 38, who lives about a hundred yards from steam, odor and burned soil. “On the weekends, there is a constant stream of cars.”

Taylor Davidson of Arlington, Va., like many others, read about Centralia on the Internet. He came for the thrill.

He cruised the town’s deserted back streets in his black Honda, buzzing with curiosity and a bit of edginess.

“There’s a little bit of discovery for yourself here. If there were 20 cars here, I’d be a little less excited,” he said.

That’s a feeling Lokitis shares – albeit for quite different reasons. Lokitis’ house is supported by brick columns that have replaced the rowhouses that were demolished. Sitting in a purple-red easy chair, watching TV, next to some china fawns and old black-and-white pictures of his family, Lokitis just wants to be left alone.

“They stare at you, and I begin to understand how the Amish feel,” he said. “The Internet gives them a wrong impression: They expect flames coming out of the ground.” Once in a while, tourists standing in the middle of Centralia ask where the town is.

In the 1980s, people began leaving Centralia because of the possible danger from fumes and the fear that burned-out coal veins might cause the ground to swallow the town. Ultimately, $42 million was spent on the exodus. The government legally took ownership of the houses and tore down nearly all of them.

“The people didn’t leave because of the fire, but because of an offer they couldn’t resist,” Elaine Rompolski, 50, said. She moved from Centralia to Mount Carmel in 1981 when she married. Now she works at a post office in Centralia’s neighboring town of Aristes. “There were big fights between movers and stayers,” she recalled. “It turned brother against brother.”

Today, the fire that once burned underneath the town center has moved to the perimeter, so the haze no longer clouds the heart of the town.

And as the haze pulls away, the tourists are coming, looking for Hell on Earth – especially because of horrific accounts posted on the Internet.

“The whole landscape looked as if a meteor or a nuclear blast had hit it,” somebody wrote eight years ago on a Web site called the Centralia Project. “Smoke and steam created a constant cloud that made me cough and my eyes water.”

Expecting to see terrifying things, tourists crowd the place on weekends, driving on every street, vainly seeking the open fire.

This is not the way the residents want their town to be perceived.

“Every year, it gets greener and greener. It’s basically like living in the countryside now,” Lokitis said.

An accounting assistant for the state police in Harrisburg, Lokitis said his town was like any other, just with fewer people. In fact, the inhabitants of the seven houses scattered throughout the town still hold monthly council meetings to pay the bills for the street lights – and, of all things, fire hydrants.

Mayor Carl Worner takes care of a polished ambulance and a fire engine parked in a garage next to the Municipal Building. A black placard reads in orange letters: “Keep Centralia on the Map.” The American flag waves in the wind. One can still stroll along the sidewalks.

But nature has started to take back the town. Weeds and trees have overgrown what is left of the torn-down houses. Some say a bear runs through town every other year or so.

Lokitis grooms the American Legion Veterans Memorial across from his house. A green bench next to the memorial is freshly painted and reads Centralia 1866 – the year it was incorporated as a borough. A time capsule, the Centennial Vault, is to be opened in 2016. Lokitis mows the lawn of this whole block every other week. It takes him five hours.

People in Centralia are stubborn about staying no matter what. Lokitis’ former next-door neighbor, Bernie Darrah, one day some years ago reclined motionless in his easy chair in front of his living-room window. He stayed there unnoticed for some time – dead.

Those who are left – and still alive – cling to a dream.

“I hope,” Lokitis said, “that some day the town can be rebuilt.”

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