From “The Great Centralia Coal Fire,” Harper's
In 1962, outside Centralia, Pennsylvania, remnant coal in an exhausted mine tunnel caught fire. Centralia was an Appalachian valley town of 1,100 people. It had a streetcar, convent, dance hall and VFW post, and the minor idiosyncratic shops of a tailor, shoemaker, electrician, druggist and general practitioner. It was unimaginable at the time that the infant coal fire—a half-mile away, eminently slothful, and bound by natural barriers—would, ultimately, destroy Centralia.
Today fourteen vestigial residents live in eight listingly narrow row houses dispersed across the vast, vaguely numinous vacancy opened up by the devastation of everything else. Greenbriar and mountain laurel and wintergreen have overgrown the faint remains of Centralia’s homes and buildings. Stone curbs and concrete-cast front steps and the long-clotted mouths of storm drains are occasionally visible through a clamor of shock-troop vegetation. Dandelion and clover have colonized and expanded a median strip: the granular asphalt on either side now narrowly borders a lane of bloodroot and dogtooth violet and honeysuckle. Centralia’s valley is moist and nearly silent and framed by oak-black ridges; the streets that oriented its buildings all eventually dead-end in an onrush of new trees. Every year or so a bear runs through town.
The people in Centralia’s estranged row houses were raised there; so were their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. They all want to die there. Established in 1866 in the anthracite region of eastern Pennsylvania, Centralia was a town of miners descended from immigrant Polish and Welsh and Ukrainian and Irish and Russian miners. Hundreds of two-story wooden row houses, each twelve feet wide, rose up the hillsides in parallel lines. The town had five churches, three Catholic and two Russian Orthodox, with plump, gilded domes. There was a polka dance hall.
Centralia’s houses and lawns, amid the greened ruins, are in mint condition. Every winter the Hynoski brothers, Steve and Tommy, who own a coal hauling business, plow the necessary streets. During Christmas they light a fir tree and illuminate a manger scene at the town’s former main intersection. On Labor Day weekend, they host a party in the low, ersatz-modernist municipal building, whose ubiquitous twenty-year-old mildew can be felt in the lungs. The party is attended by everyone in town and many former residents heartbroken by their exile. The Hynoskis hire a polka DJ and the older people dance. Sometimes the floor fills with people doing the chicken polka (you flap your arms). Women cook blinis and pierogies; children play musical chairs.
At monthly town council meetings, which last less than fifteen minutes and concern the payment of tiny fees, Mayor Lamar Mervine—eighty-seven, hearing impaired, occupying his post by default and with extreme reluctance, and having for two decades ignored the diagonal parking only sign in front of his unflanked row house—remains mute until he is asked to give the mayor’s report. When he understands the question, he says, ‘No report.’
Joe Moyer, a retired miner with a truculent silver crewcut who generally spends his mornings training homing pigeons for racing and his afternoons breathing oxygen from a tank, has appointed himself town constable. He patrols Centralia in a black Mercury. Several years ago Moyer noticed Bernie Darragh reclining motionless in his easy chair in front of his living-room window. Darragh, a widower, had died in the presence of no one. Among Moyer’s self-assumed duties is seeking out the unnoticed dead.
Moyer also takes care of the thousands of interred, unlocking the gates of Centralia’s biggest cemetery, St. Ignatius, every morning, and locking them at night. When Moyer is away gambling with his girlfriend in Atlantic City, John Lokitis, who lives a block away on West Park Street, becomes the gatekeeper. Lokitis fanatically grooms the accidental shrine opposite his house: a broad park lawn and American Legion Veterans’ memorial. Lokitis is thirty-three. He grew up on East Park, amid four generations of his family. Now, like Joe Moyer, he is the only person living on his street. Bernie Darragh was his final neighbor.