This article originally appeared in Esquire and is reprinted on Longform by permission of the author.
OH, IF LAMAR had to make a guess, he'd say he drives up here about once a month, just to look down at the disappearing city. Pulls his Dodge to the side of the road and stands at the edge of the overlook. Every month, there's less to see. Another house torn down, another family gone. Lamar smooths his slicked-back hair and squints his eighty-three-year-old eyes. Fifteen years ago, you could really see something from up here. He points to a patch of grass. "There was a furniture store just over there," he says in a faintly Irish whisper. "Then we had an ice cream shop over that way, a convent on the hill, and, by it, there was Saint Ignatius, our Irish church." Lamar gazes quietly. It's gone. No more shops, no more church, no more school. Just a couple dozen homes scattered about the valley floor like an old man's last few teeth. He points to a billow of smoke rising from the hill behind town. "That's where the fire is now."
Truth be told, Lamar doesn't mind the fire. He's had thirty-seven years to get used to it, and besides, it hasn't really hurt much. Oh, sure, the earth caves in sometimes, but who cares? Only one person has ever slipped in. And people say the smoke is poisonous, but that doesn't scare Lamar. No, Lamar's problem isn't with the fire, it's with the Pennsylvania state government. Such worrywarts they are, trying to make everyone evacuate. Such busybodies.
Just last week, they forced Sarah out, and she loved Centralia. Used to sit on her front porch in the summer, selling souvenir T-shirts with a coal car on the front. She'd chat with tourists and passersby, pointing to the smoke and laughing. Then the state government came. Condemned the city, took title to the homes, evicting everyone in town. At first, Sarah refused to leave, but as she watched her neighbors pack up and go, she began to lose resolve. So now Sarah's porch is empty, her windows boarded up, and from Lamar's perch on the hill, he can see two government men walking across her lawn. Soon, they'll paint red numbers on Sarah's white aluminum siding. Then they'll come back with bulldozers and knock the house to its knees. And a few weeks after that, they'll make a final visit, seeding Sarah's empty lot with grass.
Lamar zips his windbreaker up to the knit collar, walks back to his Dodge. With Sarah gone, there are only twenty-five people left in Centralia, and the state wants them out, too. But Lamar lives in the house that belonged to his father, and he's not so anxious to leave. He still hauls ash from his coal furnace, mows his lawn, shovels snow when winter comes. And as far as Lamar is concerned, that makes it his place, no matter who owns the title, no matter who tells him, "Get out." So as he drives back home for supper, past Sarah's, past the old schoolyard, making turns at unmarked, deserted streets, Lamar wants to make one thing clear: He's lived in Centralia all his life, and he isn't leaving now.
WHEN A SMALL FLAME erupted in the Centralia town dump just before Memorial Day 1962, nobody gave a damn. After all, the town had always been fire country, and by local standards, this burn was small-fry. Not like the arson spree of 1872 or the block blazes of 1908. Certainly not like the eleven-day burn of 1923, which left forty buildings incinerated. No, this was just a little dump fire. Some have speculated that it was started intentionally to empty the brimming landfill, but the residents of Centralia maintain that the blaze was accidental. What is certain is that the fire seemed unimportant, a low-level flame eating up a pile of trash. As wisps of black smoke plumed into the atmosphere, the fourteen hundred residents of Centralia went about their lives.
They were a hardy stock, these Centralians -- Irish, Polish, and Ukrainian miners, mostly, with strong backs and large hands. The town, which sits 110 miles northwest of Philadelphia, had been built on a coal deposit in the 1860s, and fathers taught sons, who later taught theirs, the nuances of mining. This Centralia coal was special stuff, too, much better composite than most. It was anthracite -- the hottest-burning, hardest, most expensive coal on earth. There were only four places on the planet to mine it, with Centralia at the geographic center of one, and it lay deep under the topsoil in ribbons, a shiny black rock crystal that gave off a metallic glint when dragged up into the daylight.
At the southeast corner of town, there was one seam of anthracite that didn't lie as deep as the others. Miners called it the Buck Mountain Coalbed, and where it passed the town dump, it lay only a few feet below the surface, with chips of the stuff protruding through the grass like silver Lego castles in a miniature wilderness. And in 1962, those coal castles sat right in the middle of the trash fire, getting warm, then hot, then worse. They began to steam and crack and hiss and glow. They cindered and eventually caught fire, breathing air from the mine shafts, spreading beneath the soil.
Not that you could tell up top, where everything seemed delightful. The borough had sent firemen to splash water over the dump, and the fire above ground was extinguished. Kids played basketball on blue-sky afternoons and men drank beer at the American Legion while women chatted cheerfully on the phone. Nobody knew that a few feet underground, the earth was turning to fire, and that the end, in fact, was near.
BACK THEN, JOHN played basketball on Troutwine Street, drank Cokes at Zeluskey's soda fountain, played tag in the wooded hills. Of all the places his parents had taken him -- Hawaii, Germany, France -- John liked Centralia best. It was his father's birthplace, too, and he made friends quickly, learning his way around town, getting to know the girls. So after he got out of school and spent a year in the service, John turned down a job at the Goddard Space Flight Center and returned home to teach high school math. It seemed like a fair trade-off to him. The job might have been less prestigious, but Centralia, after all, was home.
Now John's childhood friends are gone, their homes destroyed. And at first glance, the forty-four-year-old bachelor seems out of place in Centralia. John lifts weights and drives a Camaro; most of his neighbors are retired. But John doesn't think of his neighbors as old. "We're buddies," he says, leaning back in a beige easy chair. "We don't pay attention to the age difference."
John's best buddy in town is Lamar, who once was the best buddy of his father. When John was a kid, his dad and Lamar used to go to Borough Council meetings together, just to see what was going on. But John's dad passed away, and now John goes to the meetings with Lamar. Not just for fun, though. John is vice-president of the council these days, and Lamar is serving as mayor. "Neither one of us is a politician," John sighs. "But somebody has to be."
When John and Lamar aren't being politicians, they get together like regular pals. Sometimes, they bump into each other on the street and end up talking longer than expected, or, when the wet, heavy snow falls, John will stop by to help Lamar shovel his sidewalk. And a few summers ago, when Lamar saw a bear walking down Troutwine Street, the first thing he did was call John, who was outside polishing his motorcycle. John's mom answered the phone and went outside to pass on the news, then they stood on the porch together, John and his mom, watching for the bear Lamar had seen. They could see Lamar on his porch up the street, and they all waved to one another as the big, beautiful black bear came ambling down Troutwine Street and paused to sniff the air in a meadow that once was the site of someone's home.
John doesn't remember much about that home or the people who lived there, but when he looks around his own home, at the stairs and the paneling and the wall-to-wall carpet, his memory kicks into gear. He sees his father everywhere -- in the walls they built together, in the plumbing, the chair beside the picture window with dictionaries under it, where Dad used to do the crossword puzzle every afternoon at 2:30. He sees his father in his mother's kitchen, how the old man could eat meat patties every day of his life, how he savored each bite of apple strudel as if it were a morsel of heaven itself.
And when the government men come banging on his front door, John gets up from his easy chair, peeks out the picture window. He opens the door and listens to the men talking about poisonous gases. But John doesn't want to hear it. He'll never sell them his father's home, never let them tear it down. So after a moment of listening, John has heard enough. He nods to the men, says goodbye, and closes the door with a frown.
THE FIRE SPREAD on all sides at once, creeping under buildings and streets and trees. It sent trickles of white smoke into the sky, put a sulfuric stench in the air. The people of Centralia knew what that smoke meant, and as miners, they knew that an underground burn was serious. So in July 1962, they reported a mine fire to the Pennsylvania state government, asking for immediate assistance.
Upon hearing of the trouble, the Pennsylvania Department of Mines and Mineral Industries promptly passed the buck to the research director of the Federal Division of Anthracite at the U.S. Bureau of Mines, who listened carefully and replied that it would take him at least three months to obtain official permission to give a damn. In the meantime, federal officials tried to pass the buck to a local coal company, which thought about the matter, then politely declined to get involved. Responsibility fell back on the state. With nowhere else to pass the buck, state officials reluctantly agreed to fight the fire.
Their first plan was to dig out the burning coal and douse it with water, but after hauling away fifty-four thousand cubic yards of smoldering debris at a cost of $28,000, state officials discovered that the fire was spreading too fast to excavate. So they hired specialists to squirt ten thousand cubic yards of noncombustible goo into the ground, hoping to suffocate the fire, but after spending $42,000 on that project, officials realized that the fire was bigger than ever, so they put their goo guns away. After four more months of brainstorming, officials announced that since they couldn't put the blaze out, they would focus on containing it. So they spent the next three months digging a $36,000 trench around the fire, only to watch the blaze leap across that trench and begin burning on the other side.
State officials retreated again. A year went by, then another six months, the fire continuing to grow. It fanned out over nine acres, burning away underground deposits of coal, causing the topsoil to collapse, and leaving fifty-foot-deep smoldering craters in the ground, which Centralians were known to visit on warm summer nights, peering over the edges, marveling at the red-hot embers below. Roads at the eastern edge of town became warm to the touch, and tabloids stopped by, troublemaking. Some people worried about the future of the town, but most folks didn't bother. It was out of their hands, so they prayed.
The fire had been burning for three full years when the U.S. Bureau of Mines finally received permission to give a damn. Of course, it took officials another year and a half to devise and implement a plan, and in November 1966, they announced that, instead of digging a trench around the fire as the state officials had done, they were going to dig a really big trench around the fire. To that end, they spent $326,000 before realizing that it would cost another $4.5 million to finish the job, which was more money than they wanted to spend. So they withdrew for another year and a half and returned in 1969 with a new strategy. This time, they would build an underground fire wall so massive that the fire could never penetrate it. Three years and $2.4 million later, the fire broke through. Again.
In 1979, the Centralia gas station was closed when steam began seeping through the soil surrounding the tanks. State and federal officials were tired. They'd spent $3.4 million over seventeen years and accomplished nothing. So, on August 15, 1980, the U.S. Bureau of Mines published an official report of defeat, recommending the "obvious alternative," which was to "do nothing and let the fire burn itself out." They called this proposal the "Do Nothing" operation, and the state of Pennsylvania adopted it in 1983.
The only remaining challenge was to clear everybody out. To eliminate the town of Centralia.
HELEN LOOKS OUT from her back porch, smiling at a stand of trees. Even forty years ago, when there were neighbors next door and across the street, Helen and Carl had a woodland out back, where Carl could plant his vegetables, tomatoes and parsley and chives. Such a great place to raise children it was, the four of them running between trees, building forts, climbing the branches of the towering maples.
But things changed in 1969, when the fire began creeping toward the house. Helen and Carl watched as a swath of dead grass inched down the hillside, crawling toward their porch. They waited and hoped, afraid. Trees died, the earth grew warm, and steam blew from the soil, but Helen and Carl held their ground. And one day, the fire just stopped, two hundred yards from the house, then retreated back up the hillside. After that, Helen vowed not to fear the fire. She'd faced it and she'd won. She would face it again if she had to.
Now Helen stands on the back porch, looking over the trees and the vegetable garden, her eyes ablaze with pride. "Did you see the moon rise over there last night?" she asks, pointing to the dusky horizon. "It was beautiful. So full. Huge, coming over those trees." Helen wishes there were children to climb in those trees--not her children, who are grown, but someone's. When you live in a town all your life, it's nice to see the new generations come along. A piece of your world will remain in their memories, even when your own memory fades.
That's what Helen longs for now. She thinks of her days as a Cub Scout den mother, when the boys would gather in her kitchen, ten of them sometimes, to munch on home-baked cookies, make crafts, and talk all at once. And that's why she took the job as president of the Borough Council: to bring children back to Centralia.
"We'll fight them every step of the way," she says, gazing at the evening sunlight glancing across meadows where her neighbors' homes once stood. Looking, admiring, she lowers her voice to a whisper: "That's why we can't leave."
AT FIRST, EVACUATION WAS optional. In 1983, Congress set aside $42 million to buy the town of Centralia, and the Columbia County Redevelopment Authority began making offers on people's homes. After twenty-one years of living with the fire, many folks were eager to move. So they took the state's money and moved into neighboring communities, dropping their keys on the way out of town into a four-by-six-inch box painted with flowers, which Molly kept on her dining-room breakfront.
In the first two years of the evacuation, eighty-five buildings were purchased by the state, and by 1989, fewer than a hundred Centralians remained. Houses were torn down, replaced with grass, and Centralia began to look less like a town than like a large meadow cut into perfect squares by a grid of empty streets. The state routed traffic around Centralia, put up signs that said, PUBLIC ALERT: AREA SUBJECT TO MINE SUBSIDENCE AND TOXIC GAS EMISSIONS.
But some folks still weren't ready to go. The 1980 report by the U.S. Bureau of Mines had suggested that their homes weren't really in danger. "The water table prevents the northward propagation of the fire to areas under the major portion of the Centralia Borough," the report had said. And that meant the fire wouldn't burn anyone's house until the sea level dropped by several hundred feet.
As for Lamar, he'd read the report and made up his mind: As long as his house wasn't going to burn, what did he care about the fire? There wasn't any reason to move. Helen felt the same way, as did John.
The Mayernicks, who rented a half duplex on the west side of town, also thought the evacuation was nonsense. So they, too, opted to stay. But when their landlord sold out to the state, the Mayernicks were ordered to pack up and go. Bertha and John Mayernick didn't have enough money to buy a place of their own, and pretty soon they got to squabbling. Then fighting. And John lost his temper. Stabbed Bertha to death, covered himself in gasoline, lit a match, and ended their worries.
Lamar doesn't like to remember that incident. When he does, it makes him so mad that his face turns red and his eyebrows draw together and his mouth puckers to the size of a pinprick. He never knew John to be violent, never once saw Bertha and John fight. "That's what this government does," he says, lowering his head in disgust.
By 1991, the evacuation had reduced Centralia by 545 buildings, leaving only 53 intact. State officials wanted to complete the evacuation, but they didn't know how to do it. Their offers of money weren't enticing these last stragglers, so in 1992, they decided to get tough. They condemned the city, taking possession of everyone's home.
Still, the Centralians didn't budge, didn't make any effort to move. And, unwilling to throw them out on the street, state officials decided to play possum. Sooner or later, they figured, even these stubborn holdouts would realize that this was no place to live. It was only a matter of time. Nobody would want to stay in Centralia. Especially now that it didn't exist.
ON A CHILLY EVENING in early December, six cars pull up to the little brick firehouse on the eastern edge of Centralia for the monthly Borough Council meeting. Never mind that the town doesn't legally exist anymore, or that the council members are all squatters. Because somewhere between the lines of bureaucracy, the Borough Council survives. It still submits an annual municipal tax, still fills out a census form. And each month, simply by having a meeting, the council confirms its impossible existence.
Tonight, Lamar shows up in a sweatshirt that says CENTRALIA as Helen distributes gold-wrapped candies and wishes everyone a happy holiday. Helen calls the meeting to order, and everyone stands to recite the Pledge of Allegiance while Bonnie, a councilwoman, fills out paperwork at one end of the faux-wood table. After a moment, she turns to Helen. "What's the permanent year-round population?" she asks, the hint of a smile at her lips.
Helen looks surprised. "I guess put how many people are left," she shrugs.
"How many is that?" Bonnie wants to know.
Helen shakes her head. "I've gone through it so many times...."
Bonnie nods, begins writing on a piece of scratch paper, silently mouthing the names of her neighbors.
Helen: Mayor's report?
Helen: No mayor's report. Streets and sewers?
Pete: From what I see, it's all right.
And so it goes for about half an hour, until everyone begins looking bored. Helen adjourns the meeting, and they file outside onto the sidewalk.
"Not very exciting," says John, smiling. "There isn't much business to do."
Which might be the best thing about Centralia, that there's no business to do. No crime to fight, no citizen complaints, no building code to enforce. Folks in Centralia don't need a jail, or a police car, or even locks on their doors. Their community functions as a community should: through everyone working together. They have barbecues in the summer, exchange gifts in the winter, mow grass for the borough without pay.
And maybe all this would make Centralia a great place to raise a few kids. Hell, nature's moving in again, sweeping into town from all sides. All this new grass, all these wildflowers springing up -- what could be more beautiful than that? Just last year, John saw a young buck standing bold in the center of town. And gophers and turkeys and robins and the bear. In the spring, Helen's trees simply burst. Nearly every family has a street to itself, nearly every home is surrounded by a sea of grass. Looking around at the friends and the landscape, having the courage not to mind that old fire, the town of Centralia looks better than ever, better than most anywhere else.