Cover image for Slow Burn: A Photodocument of Centralia, Pennsylvania By Renée Jacobs and Introduction by Margaret O. Kirk

Slow Burn

A Photodocument of Centralia, Pennsylvania

Renée Jacobs, and Introduction by Margaret O. Kirk

BUY

$35.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03681-6

176 pages
10" × 8.5"
94 b&w illustrations
2010

Keystone Books

Slow Burn

A Photodocument of Centralia, Pennsylvania

Renée Jacobs, and Introduction by Margaret O. Kirk

“The gallery of stark Works Progress Administration–style photographs by Renée Jacobs portrays with poignancy a Welsh, Irish, and Slavic Roman Catholic community as it once was, poised in stubborn bewilderment.”

 

  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
First published in 1986, Slow Burn chronicles Centralia’s demise from an underground coal mine fire and depicts a singular epic event in Pennsylvania history, representing the confluence of environmental, scientific, bureaucratic, and emotional tragedies. As an award-winning photojournalist, Jacobs moved into a house in Centralia’s impact zone in 1983 to document in photographs and interviews the end stages of the tiny anthracite coal town’s unsuccessful fight to resolve the intractable problems that began with the mine fire in 1962 and culminated in the razing of the town by the federal government.
“The gallery of stark Works Progress Administration–style photographs by Renée Jacobs portrays with poignancy a Welsh, Irish, and Slavic Roman Catholic community as it once was, poised in stubborn bewilderment.”
“These are rapidly made ‘decisive moment’ 35mm photos in the Cartier-Bresson tradition of photojournalism—a very worthy effort that has led to a book, Slow Burn. . . . I wish the future of Centralia were as assured as the future of many of these revealing, heart-rending, eloquent and persuasive images.”
“Jacobs tells the story of the fire and recounts, in poignant interviews and photographs, the residents’ tough choice between staying and resettling. . . . From Todd Domboski’s account of falling into a dangerous hole in his grandmother’s backyard to Helen Womer’s decision to stay in Centralia no matter what happens, this book is filled with stories of courage in the face of an invisible enemy.”
“A somber and darkly fascinating portrait of the community as it fights to save itself.”
“Where once there was familiarity with open doors and trusting hearts, in a community that could be your home anywhere in America, an invisible cancer grew. It’s the unseen, slow-moving nature of this underground burning that took Centralia apart.

“The human spirit doesn’t want to believe, see, or hear what can destroy our sanctified special places in the world. Renée Jacobs faithfully and compassionately documents in pictures and words the confusion, uncertainty, and fighting spirit of Centralia’s residents—and the painful destruction and relocation of the residents of this little Pennsylvania town. Slow Burn is a compelling story about—and for—all of us.”

Renée Jacobs went on to study environmental law as a result of her work in Centralia. She practiced civil rights and constitutional law for fifteen years. In 2007 she returned to photography.

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction

Maps I. Previous Government Fire Abatement Measures, 1962-1973 II. Potential Trenches for Fire Containment, 1983

Centralia: The Slow Burn

Epilogue

Introduction

A whistle blew the day the fire started in Centralia.

It sounded long and shrill, a warning to the residents of this obscure Pennsylvania mining borough that something was wrong. The whistle rang out from the town's fire station and echoed back and forth across the valley and up and down the main street, Locust Avenue. The whistle sounded that spring day in May 1962 because someone had spotted flamed flicking up out of the old mining pit, the one on the southeast side of town, just below Odd Fellows Cemetery. For several years the pit had been used as a garbage dump. Now the trash was on fire. When they heard the whistle, volunteer firemen and borough workers rushed to the abandoned mining pit, where they quickly shoveled clay and hosed water onto the flames to extinguish the fire. Before long , the flames were gone. The men turned and headed back to town. What no one knew that day in Centralia, though, was that the fire still burned. It had simply dropped out of sigh. As the men returned to their work, the smoldering fire was already spreading to a coal seam that lay in the ground below the open pit, a black river of coal that would gradually lead the fire into a massive honeycomb of underground mine tunnels, tunnels deep and thick and rich in anthracite coal that criss-crossed under the streets of Centralia. And as the tunnels flowed, so spread the fire. It took years, decades in fact, for the people of Centralia to realize that the ominous whistle blast they heard that spring day had anything to do with the dramatic changes in their lives. It was years later that the government placed ticking, black boxes in Centralia homes to monitor the carbon monoxide escaping from the underground fire. Years later that a twelve-year-old boy fell into a hole of three-hundred-degree heat that opened up before him on Valentine's Day in the backyard of his grandmother's home. Years later that the members of the local chapter of the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union unfurled an American flag in the St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church and sang proudly: "This town is your town/ This town is my town/ Don't let Cen-tral-i-a/ burn forever."

Indeed, the whistle that one day pierced the lives of some one thousand Centralia residents has never been silenced. The fire that simply dropped out of sight twenty-four years ago still burns. No one knows how to put it out. And this fire, this slow-burning fire, killed Centralia, Pennsylvania. Everywhere, you heard it: "Centralia was a nice little town." Before the fire, Centralia was a town where people lived out their lives content to marry, raise children, go to church, fix up grandma's house, and grow old, just like their ancestors who first settled into this northern bend of the Appalachian Mountains in 1855 and incorporated Centralia Borough in February 1866. As sure as the sun rose every morning, John Coddington sold gas at his Amoco station. Helen Womer worked as cashier at the local bank. The nearest movie theater was seventeen miles away, but no matter. Every July 4, just down the hill in the little patch town of Byrnesville, there would be a bonfire so big it could be seen from miles away. The Jurgills coached the Centralia Little League softball team every summer, and a body could get a beer and a shot for fifty-five cents down at Mekosh's on a Saturday night. GOssip would "travel up one end of the street and go back down the other side," Colleen Russen once said with affection for Centralia, where portraits of Jesus, John and Robert Kennedy, and the family's first bride hung on household walls. How people loved to look out their windows and into their backyards, covered as they were with huckleberry bushes and mountain laurel. It was beautiful; but more importantly it was theirs. In Centralia you could own your own home, walk to church in the morning and pass the evening sitting on the front porch. A sense of trust, a singular, blind trust, bound these Centralians together like a rich tapestry laid out on a mountaintop. It was the kind of trust that evolves from generations of loving and living and dying in the clusters of white, clapboard row houses that lined Locust Avenue and ran smack through the middle of town. It was the kind of trust based on that which is familiar. That which is predictable. And that which is fiercely proud. The fire took all of this away. As the years passed and the fire continued to spread, the people of Centralia began to understand the true meaning of the whistle's warning. THe tapestry of the town and their lives started to unravel, first one thread, then another. Of paramount concern was something the Centralians had never thought to question. Were they safe in their own homes and their own backyards? As the fire burned beneath the town streets and surrounding hills, the people started to worry. They had to beg before government officials offered to put black monitoring devices in their homes, devices that went "tick, tick, tick" in the corner, measuring the carbon monoxide gases that many thought were seeping in from the fire. If the gas reached too high a level, the boxes screamed. Eventually representatives from the state Department of Environmental Resources visited the homes to check for the presence of other toxic fumes. "Those boys from DER," as they were called, would often stop, chat and have a cup of coffee with the neighbors, so expected was their knock at the front door. Other visible reasons for concern surfaced. Because they lived in a mining town, Centralia residents were used to subsidences, those holes in the ground caused by loose soil giving way unexpectedly. But after the fire started, the subsidences were worse than ever before. Signs that read "Keep Out, Danger" were posted in backyards and empty lots where it was too dangerous for children to play. Some say the town was never quite the same after Todd Domboski survived a fall into a subsidence. The danger of the fire-- heretofore played out in smoke on Route 61 and the ticking of the carbon monoxide monitors-became horribly real through the experience of this quiet, blond-headed child. Many argued that health problems associated with carbon monoxide and the danger of the subsidences were highly exaggerated. But the sight of the boreholes would convince anyone that something was wrong in Centralia. The boreholes--those long, lean pipes sticking up out of the ground like freshly lit cigarettes with smoke rising from their tips--were used to vent the stream and smoke from the burning underground fire. There were at least eighteen hundred boreholes all over town; the ones closest to the old mining pit, where the fire started, were surrounded with material that looked like chicken wire. They were eerie, those boreholes. THeir very silhouettes represented a ubiquitous, silent enemy that threatened to destroy the town. Other threads in the town's tapestry, unrelated to the health and safety of its citizens, unraveled, too. Particularly when it came to the town's sense of community. That black river of coal running beneath Centralia, coal that was first mined here in 1842 and the very reason the town was ever born, had turned against the people. The town was literally divided into hot and cold sides, depending on whether a family lived on land directly above the tunnels of fire or above tunnels the fire had not yet reached. As strange as it might seems, the citizens of Centralia could never agree on where the fire was located. Sometimes they could not even agree on whether there was a fire. After all, the fire is largely out of sigh, except up at Big Mine Run, a mining pit on the southeast side of town where flames sometimes surface. Even without the flames, the smoke from the underground fire is particularly dense on cold or rainy days, when it settles above the pit like a heavy veil on a favorite straw hat. The smoky veil begs for an answer to an age-old question that so many take for granted: Where there is smoke, isn't there fire? In Centralia, answers to questions did not always come easy. Even people living on the same side of town, in the impact zone where the fire was burning hotter than anywhere else, could not agree on what was happening under their own backyards. Some said that their basements were so warm from the nearby underground fire that they did not even need to run on hot water heaters to heat the bath water; others would not even have monitors installed in their homes, so gas- and vapor- free did they trust them to be. Some just did not care to know what was going on. It was all so complicated, so foreign, this notion of a fire underground, of vapors seeping into your home. Centralia, after all, was supposed to be "such a nice little town." So was it radon or radium, Mary Gallagher wanted to know, that was being measured in her basement by "that thing that looked like a ball of scotch tape?" The tension became so great that it followed the residents into the most unlikely arenas of confrontation: their churches. Parishioners were often at odds with their priests. Mary Gasperetti, a devout Catholic, pulled her son out of the communion line one Easter Sunday before he received the sacrament from a priest who opposed her efforts to get out of town. On another occasion a priest requested that those leaving town donate their shrubbery to help make Centralia prettier for those who chose to stay. With that, a woman sitting in the congregation stood up and allowed that her rhododendron bushes were sixteen feet tall and very expensive and that she would be "a son of a bitch" before leaving them behind. The fire without flames took its toll inside the borough's white, clapboard homes, too. The town's first mental health clinic opened. And many families, those who at first glance appeared as strong as the tapestry that once defined their community, learned the meaning of true stress. Catharene Jurgill, for one, had married her high school sweetheart, started her family and taken care of her home, never dreaming that something like a mine fire would disrupt her life. But when the fire spread and she became active in the movement to get out of Centralia, her marriage suffered. Eventually she and her husband separated, and she took their two daughters to live in another town. Flo Domboski, who had invested all her money in her house and planned to live there forever, had never thought of a life anywhere but in Centralia. Then, on Valentine's Days in 1981, her son, Todd, fell into a hole in the backyard of his grandmother's house. When the earth gave way under his feet, there was only the smell of sulfur, the smoke, the terribly hot temperature. As he fell, he grabbed onto some tree roots sticking out of the loose earth and reached up for his cousin's hand. To this day, people say that Todd Domboski should not be alive. His mother decided to take no more chances. No house was more important than her son's safety. The Domboskis moved away. Joan Girolami became an activist. She and a handful of other residents formed a group called Concerned Citizens Against the Mine Fire, which demanded that the government find a way to put out the fire. The former homemaker and mother of two, her head so full of hot-curled blond hair that they used to call her "Joanie Fawcett," lobbied in Washington, D.C., gave interviews on national television, talked to the press, and watched as the klieg lights of a documentary film crew burned her kitchen ceiling. Many people in town turned against her: She represented too much change, too much that was unpredictable and out of control in their little town. "You know, they say small towns are so nice," Joan GIrolami once said. Put a tragedy in a small town, you'll find out how nice it is. Put a disaster there, and it's not so nice anymore." Two months after the whistle sounded its warning, town officials met with experts from the Pennsylvania Department of Mines and Mineral Industries to discuss the fire. For the next twenty-four years, the people of Centralia believed that the state and federal governments would put out the fire and keep their town safe. And the government officials did try. They excavated burning material and made plans to construct an underground barrier to stop the fire; on more than one occasion, the fire burned and moved so quickly that the barrier became useless even before it was built. Underground tunnels were pumped full of fly ash to try and stop the fire from spreading. Clay seals were placed in the excavation areas to cut oxygen off from the fire. Nothing worked. And so the houses started coming down. On May 22, 1969, the government moved three families from the corner of Wood and South Streets, an area in the impact zone. The fire was cutting off oxygen in these homes; traces of carbon monoxide and high temperature made them virtual time bombs. No state or federal authority had yet to declare the town of Centralia a disaster area, but these three homes were the first to be considered unsafe. They would not be the last. It is important to remember that nearly two decades passed before the people of Centralia understood that the government and all its efforts to stop the fire might not keep them safe. Until the late 1970s, there was never the sense that the government might fail or that the fire was burning out of control. Truth to tell, that is exactly what happened. From 1962 to 1984 federal and state officials from the Department of Environmental Resources, the Office of Surface Mining, and the Bureau of Mines in the U.S. Department of the Interior spent more than seven million dollars trying to put the fire out. Official reports on the state of the fire, however, were never encouraging. On the contrary, the reports seemed always to conclude that the blaze was getting worse. At one point the fire burned nearly three hundred feet below the surface and registered temperatures of over seven hundred degrees. Among Centralians there were reports that vegetables growing in backyard gardens had burned to a crisp. In 1980 the U.S. Bureau of Mines released a thick, sobering report that devastated the citizens of Centralia. Called the "Red Book" for the color of its cover, the report made clear what the whistle had first tried to warn: "The Centralia mine fire has not been extinguished and is not controlled. THe measures used to date in attempts to control the fire have not been effective and in some cases may have influenced the propagation of the fire." The same year the Red Book was released, twenty-seven families sold their homes to the federal government. Many of them sold their homes for virtually nothing, not caring to wait for any regulated buy-out program that would have given them much more money. They simply wanted out. Centralia was no long such a nice, little town. Indeed, the Centralians had completely lost faith in that blanket of protection called government. There was even talk of a conspiracy existing between the coal companies and government officials, a conspiracy to get the people out of Centralia so the companies could mine the valuable coal assets underneath the town. WHy shouldn't that explain what was going on? the people asked. THe coal, after all, was rumored to be worth more than fifteen million dollars. The bitterness felt by the residents toward the government surfaced openly in their own ranks. In late 1979 the Concerned Citizens group was formed by Girolami. At first it tried to pressure the government to find a way to put out the fire. When that proved futile, the group became known as the Centralia Committee for Human Development. This committee was dedicated to getting money for the families who wanted to sell their homes and move elsewhere. Before long, an opposition group called Residents to Save the Borough of Centralia was formed, dedicated to preserving the community at all costs. The group's members were convinced that if a fire was burning under the town -- and they were not at all convinced that there was-- it was not really that bad. The conflict between the groups was intense. In fact, when Helen Womer, a leader in Residents to Save the Borough of Centralia, and Girolami were scheduled to appear on the same television talk show, they refused to ride to the studio in the same limousine. In 1983 yet another report stated that the mine fire was now burning on not one but on three or four fronts. Moreover, it was reported that the fire had the potential to damage nearly thirty-seven hundred acres encompassing Centralia and several small neighboring towns. On August 11, 1983, the residents of Centralia voted overwhelmingly (345 to 200) to take advantage of a voluntary federal government buy-out program that would allow them and the eighty resident of neighboring Byrnesville to sell their homes and move away from the fire. Three months later the federal government voted to appropriate forty-two million dollars in funds for the program. After twenty-four years the government finally told the people of Centralia that their homes were not safe. That the fire was causing problems that could never be repaired. That the fire was burning out of control. And that the people here had a right to start a new life, somewhere else. One by one, blood-red numbers were painted on the houses that had been sold and marked for demolition. On December 14, 1984, the bulldozers started tearing them down. Once, when you stood at the crest of Aristes Highway and gazed at the rows of white clapboard houses, Centralia looked like an average town, a sort of toy town of paved streets, church steeples, and patches of grass in backyards. Today, many of the blocks are missing. THe toy town has fewer and fewer houses. The steeples are gone. And the patches of grass no longer represent only backyards. Grass has been planted where houses once stood. In 1985 alone approximately one hundred homes were torn down. The voluntary government buy-out program will be available to Centralia's residents until the end of 1986. After that, common wisdom goes, there will be few, if any, families left living in Centralia. Helen Womer is one who has opted not to leave Centralia. When the government buy-out program is finished, she said, those left in Centralia "will be the most close-knit, dedicated group of people you will ever hope to meet." When the United Methodist Church was torn down on August 20, 1985, Mrs. Womer watched, taking pictures with her camera. Before the steeple was ripped off, she clicked and then turned to leave. "Sick, sick," she muttered to herself. The ones who chose to leave are scattered, some to houses in neighboring communities, others to little-known towns clear across the country. Some have chosen to be a part of Den-Mar Gardens, a community of homes being built about seven miles from Centralia on land purchased with so-called "last resort money" from the federal government. The Centralia Homeowners Association, an offshoot of the original COncerned Citizens group, coordinated the new community. Den-Mar Gardens has lots for more than one hundred new homes and apartments, as well as plans for a community center and some shops. In the Centralia Homeowners Association office, a map sprinkled with little red dots allows that dozens of residents will be part of this new community. The project is being coordinated by Sister Honor Murphy, who was assigned to Centralia in 1983 and has worked in disaster relief service since the early 1970s. A Mother Jones poster on the wall of her office tells the story of her life, her creed: Pray for the Dead, Fight like Hell for the Living. And there is no doubt, though, that even Sister Honor cannot put Centralia together again. The tapestry that was once Centralia is all but gone now, frayed to the point that it no longer exists. After twenty-four years of living with the fire that burns beneath their town, the people of Centralia have heeded the whistle's warning. They have no doubt wondered, time and again, about the decades-old story often repeated in Centralia, the one about the priest and the roving labor gang called the Molly Maguires. Legend has it that the priest once denounced the Mollys from his pulpit. Later, as he prayed in the cemetery, the angry Mollys returned and beat him. THe priest managed to stagger back to the church, where he summoned all his parishioners by ringing the church bell. When they arrived, he told them this: From that day forth, there would be a curse on the town of Centralia. The little mountain mining town, founded on a bed of coal, would burn forever.