As far as landscapes are concerned, Centralia, Pennsylvania is about as close as one is likely to come to Hell on Earth. Jets of noxious gas issue forth from jagged gashes in the asphalt that zig zag drunkenly across the streets. Dead, bleached trees stand sentinel over the poisoned panorama of Centralia, a once prosperous middle American town transformed into an unmatched blight on the countryside.
Centralia was a mining town, much like the many that dot any given map of the United States. Its residents made their living by and large on coal, a seemingly inexhaustible seam of which ran beneath Centralia. If you weren’t mining the stuff, you were providing services to those who were, and a healthy small town economy brought a touch of life to this otherwise sleepy corner of the nation.
It was coal that provided for Centralia. It was coal that put the town on the map. And ultimately, it was coal, with a little help from human carelessness and bureaucratic incompetence that would render Centralia a ghost town.
With just one act, the very ground beneath Centralia burst into a fire that continues to rage almost half a century later, transforming the archetypal small American Town into a waking nightmare. But even as it continues to disintegrate, Centralia remains home for 11 souls who refuse to leave. It is this Centralia that still stands as a testament to the boundless endurance and staggering folly of the human spirit, and it is this Centralia that is explored to the finest effect in The Town That Was.
The Centralia fire began as a civic service. Each year as summer began, the fire department in Centralia would start a controlled burn in the city garbage dump. It was an admirable effort to improve the smell around the city cemetery, which would see many visitors over the coming Memorial Day weekend. But in 1962, the controlled burn touched off a fire in the seam of coal that runs beneath the town.
Fifty years later, John Lokitis, the youngest of Centralia’s 11 remaining residents, acts as a tour guide to an attraction that no longer exists, pointing out places where homes and businesses used to stand, detailing the ultimately hopeless governmental efforts to salvage the town.
Lokitis takes us through the city of Centralia, where smoke and carbon monoxide gas rise from hillsides that once supported suburban homes and playgrounds and fires burn so close to the surface that you can sometimes see the ground glowing red as the anthracite beneath the rolling hills of Centralia continues to burn away. Meanwhile, interviews with experts on the subject, from geologists and professors to researchers and former Centralia politicians guide the audience through the series of bureaucratic boondoggles that ultimately doomed the town.
After a funding snag prevented the fire from being put out soon after it was lit, the town simply learned to live with the situation. Residents shared carbon monoxide detectors, which indicated drastically heightened levels of the poisonous gas as soon as they were installed in homed. It wasn’t until more than two decades after the fire started, following the near death of a 12-year old boy in 1983, that the government was forced to act. By then, despite the assurances of state officials that no one would be forced to leave their home, it was too late to save Centralia.
As the government purchased homes throughout Centralia, the community was torn asunder. Residents left to start anew and their homes were demolished so utterly as to leave no trace that they had ever stood. And as more and more homes fell to bulldozers, those who remained had less and less impetus to do so.
Today, new growth forest springs up where homes once stood, the land reclaiming the all but abandoned town. Here and there stands a house that has yet to be torn down, or even one that is still home to one of the handful of citizens who refuse to leave Centralia.
The Town That Was is careful not to cast judgment on those who remain, letting them tell their own stories in their own words. There is no narrator in the film other than those who have lived the story of Centralia, and this fact endows The Town That Was with an earnestness that sometimes borders on mawkish sincerity.
Aesthetically, The Town That Was presents a tactful blending of television news footage, home movies, and interview sessions. The editing keeps the film moving at a brisk pace, but it’s clear that the filmmakers also know when to linger on a shot. If they linger too long, and they occasionally do, it can be understood as a consequence of their obvious personal investment in the story being told here.
The result is an often haunting documentary that can be forgiven for its wandering nature for the heart that it brings to its subject matter. The special features are less than notable, consisting mostly of extended interviews, as well as a music video by Austin pop band The Story Of.
Unfortunately for the filmmakers, the story of Centralia is one without a climax. As the film winds down, one is struck by the sadness of those who still ‘carry the torch’, so to speak, of Centralia. As one stalwart resident reads a poem mourning the lost town, he grows resentful, stating that “when stuff is put out in mass media of that nature, it’s really a negative for the borough.” What he can’t or won’t admit is that there is no borough. Not anymore.
There is no legal civic framework for the town of Centralia. The people who remain there are technically squatters, living in property that the government has seized under eminent domain. The zip code of the town—17927 – has been revoked by the United States Postal Service. Centralia is, for better or worse, a part of the past, and those who live there live now among ghosts and ash, fog and memories of better time.