50 Years of the Centralia Mine Fire

It seems hard to believe for those of us who grew up under the media coverage of the 1980s, but the Centralia mine fire has been burning for a half century as of this Sunday.

What started as a long sequence of unfortunate circumstances resulted in significant disruption for residents of the borough.  On May 27 1962, local firefighters set Centralia’s dump on fire in order to “clean things up a bit” for the Memorial Day festivities, as they had done so many times before.  But this year, things were a little different. The dump had been moved to a plot of land directly north of the Odd Fellows cemetery.  And although required by state law, the borough of Centralia failed to ensure that a clay barrier was properly installed between the dump and the nearby mine shafts.

19th-century geological survey of Centralia, PA

When the fire was set, it ignited a small coal vein near some old mine works beneath the dump.  The vein — and the fire — eventually found its way to the Buck Mountain bed, which fed into old workings from the Hazel Dell, Logan, and Germantown collieries.  A century of anthracite mining (a significant amount of which was unauthorized and undocumented) has left the hills peppered with an uncountable number of tunnels, drifts, slopes, and airshafts.  This makes extinguishing the fire virtually impossible.  A 1983 article in the Baltimore Sun (page A3, August 13, 1983) quotes a cost of $660 million to completely dig out the fire — with no guarantee of success.  That’s about $1.4 billion in 2012 dollars.

It’s displaced hundreds of homes, impacted countless lives, and had a dramatic impact on the region. You can see evidence and aftermath of the fire driving through the borough, including still-steaming subsidence if you walk down the bypassed stretch of PA-61. Earlier this year, the company that owns much of the former colliery sites (Pagnotti?) began demolishing many of the old remaining buildings, including the washhouse at the site of the former Germantown colliery. The remains of the Centralia / Centerville colliery (which, judging by the near total lack of graffiti, most people don’t seem to realize exist) are surely up next — especially since there’s an open shaft in the area.

Logan Colliery, Centralia PAIf the fire remains confined to the Buck Mountain bed, then there’s an end in sight.  Eventually, the fire will burn out once it runs out of fuel.  But if the fire spreads to the nearby Mammoth bed, then we’ve got a serious problem.  Even though the Mammoth and Buck Mountain beds are completely separated by ample amounts of dirt and rock, several of the old collieries (Hazel Dell to the east, Logan to the west, and Germantown to the south) ran slopes to both beds.  In fact, the workings for the Logan colliery (opened 1881, destroyed 1898) has underground connections to both beds.  According to the Centralia centennial, this was later connected to the Centralia colliery, which directly mined the mammoth bed.

It’s called the Mammoth bed for a reason.  It’s the thickest anthracite bed in the world, and its spread is immense.  Ignition of the Mammoth bed will create a very real threat to the nearby towns of Mt. Carmel and Ashland.

The debate about the fire rages on. Some people say the entire thing was fabricated, and that no fire ever existed. Presumably the smoke, steam, heat, and subsidence were all imaginary. Others say that the fire still burns, but has moved east of town and met the waterline near the old Continental works — a dubious claim to anyone who’s ever glanced at a geological survey of the anthracite region.  Still others believe that the Mammoth bed has already caught fire, and that the towns of Ashland and Mt. Carmel are just a few decades away from becoming the next Centralia.

Steam from a subsidence near Centralia, PA

But at the end of the day, the final results are obvious to anyone who cares to drive through town. Steam and smoke still seep up from the ground.  Parts of the ground — as in the dirt, not just the pavement — are hot to the touch.  Fresh sinkholes still open up on side streets.  And aside from the few remaining residents who still call Centralia home, the town is deserted.

Here’s hoping for a little media coverage to keep the town alive.

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A Brand New Host

I just got done moving the site over to a brand new webhost.  Wordpress.com has been great to me, but the times, they are a-changin’.

As you read this, my brand new dual-E5620 and its eight cores of terrifying web-serving might are idly twiddling their thumbs.  The gigabit Ethernet port, with its dozen-or-so 10-gigabit pipes to the outside world, flickers occasionally out of sheer boredom.  The SAS RAID-10 setup  is mildly amused, but you would be too if you were spinning around at 15,000 RPM.

Cool things are happening.  Details soon.

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Harrisburg’s Northern Gateway

The Furlow Building is being restored.  Midtown Harrisburg has evolved past “taking root” and into “sustained growth”.  The 1500 Project is moving full speed ahead.  Even the old glass factory on Third is being restored.  Downtown’s entertainment district is as strong as it was ten years ago.  And although the infamous Southern Gateway project is dead (probably because that’s a terrible name), the Northern Gateway project is about to begin.

Someone forgot to tell the city that we’re teetering on the verge of financial disaster.

See this? We can do better.

An article in PennLive yesterday described the project in detail.  Put simply, it calls for the complete reconstruction of the area from Seventh & Reily to Cameron & Maclay, by way of Seventh St.  Seventh will be widened from two to four lanes, new streetlamps will be installed, new sidewalks will be poured, and a lot of behind-the-scenes infrastructure improvement will take place.

All of which will create a major city artery that empties out onto Reily Street — the gateway to HACC and midtown.  It’s likely that this will also drive up land value within the corridor, which will in turn spark development and reinvestment.

Take that gas station on the corner of Seventh & Maclay.  The corridor improvements could cause that land value to skyrocket, allowing the owner to take out a loan to finance construction of a better convenience store … or even a deli.

Take the vacant lots between Sixth & Seventh in the corridor.  Those owned by the city can be doled out for high-density development, and those owned by individuals will likely jump up substantially in value.

What if that entire neighborhood became a vibrant, desirable place to live?  Before you laugh, recall that just over a decade ago nobody considered downtown or midtown to be prime parts of the city.

The benefits of the project are simply too great to list.  And it’s likely that within a few years — especially with Vartan’s three developments along neighboring Sixth Street, to say nothing of the new federal courthouse — the improvements will spread to the surrounding neighborhoods.

The Northern Gateway will help anchor a consistent, modern redevelopment initiative across the entire length of the city.  And once the project is completed, it will very likely improve conditions on Sixth over the same stretch.

Since most of the affected area is currently populated by vacant lots, it’s hard to envision a scenario where this doesn’t have a positive impact on the city.

Coupled with ongoing midtown redevelopment and downtown’s still-strong entertainment district, I can’t help but wonder:  Could this help reverse Harrisburg’s decades-old population decline?

To put that another way, are we witnessing the beginnings of the rebirth of our city?

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Filed under Development, Harrisburg, Northern Gateway, Uptown

Midtown’s Furlow Building Gets Un-Furloughed

The Furlow Building - FrontAt some point or another, we’ve all strolled past this building on our way to Midtown Scholar or points downtown.  At 1222 North Third St, the Furlow building sits almost directly across from the Broad Street Market, smack dab in the heart of midtown Harrisburg’s renaissance.  For decades it has sat empty and neglected, with a ground-level mural doing little to hide the decay of this once-stately building.  But starting last week, signs of life have sprung up in and around the joint.  Another major midtown renaissance project is well underway.

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Filed under Development, Harrisburg, Housing, Midtown

Downtown Harrisburg: Something’s Very, Very Wrong With Nancy Eshelman

Today’s title comes courtesy of comment left by PennLive user BoredInMBG.

You see, Nancy Eshelman — a long-time opinion writer at the Patriot News — published a story over the weekend complaining about downtown Harrisburg.  I’ve read and re-read her article several times, and I’ll be damned if I can figure out what, exactly, she is complaining about.  Read the article for yourself and if you can come up with anything, please let the rest of us know.  The only conclusions I’m able to reach from that particular article are:

  • Nancy Eshelman eats dinner downtown at 2am (incidentally, where?)
  • Nancy Eshelman is confused about the location of Beaver Stadium
  • Loud noises

I think she might have attempted to bring up guns, too.

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Filed under Downtown, Harrisburg

The State of Downtown Harrisburg: Part 2

Good news, everybody!  I just received word from Mayor Thompson that due to a very fortunate change in circumstances, the city will NOT be shutting down as was announced yesterday via Facebook.

Granted, the notion that this was a publicity stunt seems far more likely than the possibility that the city suddenly found some magical happy-time cure-all solution that they forgot existed and that staved off closing for now.

Because otherwise, they’d just be a bunch of obnoxious pricks.

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The State of Downtown Harrisburg

Did anyone else catch that weird posting on the City of Harrisburg’s Facebook page the other day?  I’m not sure what to make of this.  It sounds out of character, but I’m sure it’s legit.  The post has since been deleted, but I’ve captured it below:

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Filed under Harrisburg, Uncategorized

River Street Garage Attack? Not So Much.

WHP TV (video) and ABC27 (text) are reporting that the alleged victims in the alleged attack in the River Street parking garage (downtown, behind Sawyer’s) have stopped cooperating with Harrisburg police.  At this point, city police are calling the investigation “up in the air”.

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Filed under Crime, Downtown

Adventures in Huntingdon County

This past weekend I went off in search of some authentic Pennsylvania history with a very good friend.  During my years of research on the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike, I learned of a second rail tunnel through Sideling Hill.  Although the Abandoned Turnpike / South Penn RR history is fascinating in its own right, what we sought had nothing to do with either.  And thanks to a recent surge in interest in the Abandoned Turnpike (which I hope I’ve been at least a small part of), fewer Pennsylvanians have probably heard of our destination:  The East Broad Top Railroad.

Remember that with the exception of the Allegheny Mountain & Lehigh Valley tunnels, all of the PA Turnpike tunnels were once railroad tunnels for the never-finished South Penn.  The concrete shell you see today was built sometime between the late 1930s and early 1960s, depending on whether you’re travelling through the newer twinned tubes (mostly eastbound) or the original tunnels (mostly westbound).  All of the original tunnels date back to shortly after the Civil War.  I point this out only because in today’s Interstate-highway- and jet-based world, it’s easy to forget that railroads were once the dominant force in our economy.

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Filed under Central PA, Railroading

On Content Moderation

(Important note:  I am not a lawyer.  Nothing on this site, including this post, constitutes legal advice.  Everything in this post may be completely inaccurate; in fact, you should assume that it is.  Always consult a qualified attorney for legal guidance.)

There is a long-standing (and incorrect) Internet Urban Legend that has spent well over a decade misleading people who should know better.  The legend in question pertains to sites that contain user-submitted content, such as — for example — PennLive.  The legend goes something like this:

“If you edit, delete, or otherwise modify user-submitted content, you become responsible for said content and any legal ramifications it brings.”

This wildly-inaccurate assumption is regularly dispensed by Armchair Internet Lawyers and dime-a-dozen consultants.  And it needs to die.

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Filed under Central PA