Centralia’s past is buried waist-deep in weeds. A coal fire turned the once-thriving Pennsylvania town into a ghost town. A few residents, however, are holding out to this day.
A kilometer behind Aristes, the voice on the radio begins to rustle. A man talks about freedom. How she was “killed” in Russia and China and now in the US. The program breaks off when the car rolls into the valley of Centralia.
Clouds hang low over the Pennsylvania site, which is no longer a site after a coal fire erupted below it in the summer of 1962.
It cracked open the streets and turned Centralia into a ghost town in the rolling hills of America’s Appalachian Mountains. 60 years later the fire is still smoldering and will likely continue to do so for decades to come. Almost all the houses have been demolished, roads lead to nowhere, the once full life is overgrown with weeds. According to the latest census, five people are still clinging to their homes. And memories of better times. In front of one of the last buildings, letters form the word «freedom».
A house on Troutwine Street stands like the last tooth in a disused set of teeth. Paint is peeling off a Hollywood swing on the small porch. After the knock, nothing moves at first. Crickets are chirping around the property, and a dog barks incessantly in the distance. You want to turn away, but then something moves inside and the silhouette of a man emerges behind the glass pane.
Harold Mervine was not even a teenager when the fatal Centralalia mining fire broke out. Now he has thinning gray hair and steps slowly out of the half-darkness of the entrance. From the veranda he looks down at the visitor with unfathomable, dark eyes. Yes, he probably has five minutes. “I’m probably the only one in town who still talks to strangers,” he says.
Even “The Three ???” dedicated an episode to the fire
Mervine’s life story, like that of thousands of other people from Centralia, will forever be linked to the coal fire. The most common theory about its origin: On May 27, 1962, several members of the volunteer fire brigade were supposed to “clean up” a garbage dump in a former opencast mine with a fire. From there it is said to have jumped over to other pits and slowly eaten its way through the labyrinth under the city.
Despite numerous attempts, the fire could not be extinguished. Instead, he drove deep cracks in the streets. Plumes of toxic smoke rose from the ground. In some places the ground sagged. Centralia, where little evidence of the fire is seen or smelled today, became a national disaster.
The place also became known in Germany when the radio play series “Die Drei ???” dedicated the episode “The Burning City” to him. In the 1980s, Centralia was finally evacuated, the abandoned houses became state property and were demolished. But a few residents refused. One of them was Mervine’s father. “My father was a tough fighter. He wanted to stay, you know. And he said the fire didn’t matter,” says the 72-year-old.
After a few years away from Centralia, Harold Mervine moved back here in 2014, where he used to romp in the woods and play baseball with his friends as a kid. Today he lives alone in the house his grandfather built over 100 years ago. He says he wouldn’t have been able to see it if it had been torn down. His father used the neighbor’s lawnmower to tame the grass around the property for years. Three, sometimes four days a week. At some point he got too old for it, “things overgrown”. When he died, he left his son alone.
Visit from ghost hunters
Mervine says he has nothing against the fact that onlookers regularly come to Centralia. But people would only drive down the deserted road network, wherever they could go by car. ‘And then they go. They have no idea what they saw. You don’t speak to anyone. They just drive around and drive around and drive around.”
A few weeks ago he heard noises in the middle of the night. They came from the other side of the main road. Mervine went over to check on things. He counted eight or ten cars. A man asked him where exactly the old train station was. Of course Mervine knew, but he asked the strangers why they were looking for it in the dark. They were ghost hunters.
Today, Father Francis DeRosa stands on the pavement across the state road between two overgrown verges just three minutes from Harold Mervine’s house. DeRosa wears a white collar under his black priest’s robes. He’s in transit from Virginia and a little scared of Centralia and its history.
“This is a ghost town,” is the first thing he says, even before he introduces himself. “You get a little goosebumps here.” All the houses are gone forever, the area is damned. ‘I would be careful. I mean I don’t know. But don’t you think you should be careful in a place like this?”
Sign at the cemetery warns: “You are being watched”
Centralia, a three-hour drive west of New York, gives underground visitors little to fear for life and limb. But the possibility of falling into paranoia when night falls is real. One of the three former cemeteries in the south shows how many people once lived – and died – here. Dozens of rows of tombstones bear the names of Irish, Ukrainian and Lithuanian residents. No one is here, but a sign at the entrance to St. Ignatius Cemetery warns: “You are being watched.”
On the way back to the rental car, it becomes clear that even those who are otherwise intrepid can be gripped by paranoia. The door closes, it’s quiet, but looking in the rear-view mirror makes you startle. He must have been disguised. Probably a mistake when getting off. Nevertheless, the view is like in Hollywood on the back seat. Empty. But below, on the floor, lies an unfamiliar plastic bottle. The people at the car rental company forgot that when cleaning up. Or?
Two minutes away by car, Thomas McGinley stands in front of his car and greets him with a broad “How are you?” and a grin that nips any thoughts of the ghosts of a coal fire in the bud. He is a son of Centralia, but one of those who left. McGinley has only fond memories of his childhood.
“It was a camaraderie – not only from friends, but also from their families,” he enthuses. A decal of life amidst the proud American industrial engine where everyone worked hard and the community held together. «It was a special place. He really was,” says McGinley, who works as a prison warden in the region.
Ghost town souvenirs
Meanwhile, Harold Mervine walks down Centralia’s old main street. He is thin and frail looking, his dented jeans flapping around his legs. But his steps are sure and after a minute he turns right, towards a staircase framed by low-hanging branches and bushes. He points to the adjacent wall, which is missing stones. “People are starting to steal everything they can,” is all he says. Souvenirs from Centralia.
He climbs a broken step and seconds later stands on the edge of the playing field, of which he once knew every corner. He played baseball with his boys here almost every day, with his best friend Billy mostly at his side. Mervine points over to where first base used to be. His favorite position. And as a batter, he’d hit the ball as high as possible into the Pennsylvania sky.
Decades later, waist-high weeds bury the past. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s not really visible,” Mervine admits. Thomas McGinley, on the other hand, says of the green that has covered Centralia: “As tall as these plants grow, they cannot obscure memories.”
Harold Mervine’s home will one day be razed to the ground in Centralia as well, even if he dies. He says it won’t make any difference anyway. But for now he goes down the steps and back to Troutman Street. He still wants to mow the lawn around his property.