Saturday, February 25, 2017

Pennsylvania Coal Country

Hi All,

We’re having a spectacular day!  We started the day with breakfast out on the patio, looking at Swatara Creek.  We left the camper and wandered back north to Ashland, PA.  We meant to go to the Anthracite Museum there, but it was closed.  If you don’t know, Anthracite is a type of coal, one that’s darker, more pure, and that burns hotter.  Hence it costs more than bitumous coal, which is often brown, less pure, and not as hot burning.  The town sort of made me feel at home, since it was a lot like the town’s near my wife’s home in the Harz Mountains of Germany. 

You could feel the history of the area.  This is the coal that powered the industrial revolution and made the steel that built America.   According to kiosks at the Pioneer Tunnel and mine in Ashland, in its peak year,1914, 181,000 people worked at the mines.  In 1959 a mine operator mined under the Susquehanna River, which broke through and flooded the underground mines in the Wilkes Barre / Scranton Area (Knox Mine Flood).  This essentially ended the large scale underground mining of coal in the area.  Just 2,179 miners worked in 1995.  Between 1870 and 1895 31,113 miners died working the mines, a high price to pay for the technology we have today.

 Here I am standing behind a 8,000 pound lump of coal:

You never think of a locomotive as having a receipt, but here's the receipt for ordering this locomotive for the mine.

Built on the ridgetop overlooking the spoils from the mine is a small windfarm with seven turbines.  Offroaders have made trails and jumps and the like all around.  It would be a cool place to rip around on a quad.

We wandered on to Centralia, PA, a town I first heard about in a book by Bill Bryce, who was hiking the Appalachian Trail.  This coal mining town is famous, because in 1962 they set a coal seam on fire while burning trash at the town dump.  This fire has crept underneath the town and made the houses unsafe.  The state took the town through eminent domain, buying all the houses and businesses from the locals, and forcing them to move.  The state tore the houses down, filled in the cellar holes, and now the town is abandoned.

Now, the town is a bunch of abandoned streets, with one or two houses of people that simply refused to move.  Here's a picture of Main Street.  I'd say that it's eerie and a bit depressing - maybe it is, but the color and spirit of the graffiti balances it out.

There was a divided highway from the town, and as the coal burned underneath and land subsided, the road buckled.  This highway was closed, and became a magnet for graffiti artists.  There’s about a mile of highway simply filled with graffiti.  Its oddly beautiful, and a bit uplifting.

While we were there, one artist was hard at work.  You can see him, and the size of the buckle in the road in this picture:

He told us that he comes there often, and he gave us directions to a place where steam is venting from the coal fire.  We hiked up there to a small sink hole.  You could feel the heat billowing up, and stream rising from the vent.

Experts estimate the Centralia Fire will burn for at least another 200 years.  Still, in the grand scheme of things, that's not very long.  There are coal fires that have been burning for hundreds and even thousands of years.  The Mt. Wingen Coal Fire in Australia is reportedly the oldest fire, and it has been burning for an estimated 6,000 years.

Then it started raining, a full-on thunderstorm with lightning and hail.  Now we’re back in the camper writing and waiting on pictures to upload on very slow WiFi.  It’s still raining and storming outside, but warm and dry in here :-)


  1. Wow. I have never heard of an underground coal fire. It makes since like a forest fire, as long as it has fuel and oxygen in theory could burn indefinay. This is a rather scary side of humans looking to have power. It amazes me how intellectual our species is but yet how incredibly disstructive we are to the world around us. Great post Dr.s V.

    1. Thanks, I think a lot of underground coal fires are natural as well. You wouldn't think there would be enough oxygen to keep going...

  2. I read a book a while back that had a battle scene on a burning plain that had been going for 100 years. It said it was a Peat fire, probably the same mechanics.

    1. You think about what it would be like to "drop through." There was a picture I saw online of a young lady standing in a steaming sink hole about 3 feet in diameter. Not me...

  3. What an interesting story of this abandoned town. Provoking pictures of nature taking back over...