The small appalachian town of Centralia, PA, has been on fire since 1961. Last month NBC announced that Centralia will be the focus of a new pilot. Deadline.com describes the show:
“Centralia is a dark character-driven genre soap based on a real town in central Pennsylvania where an underground mine fire has been burning for over 50 years. The remaining few residents of this ghost town are determined to preserve their homes butremain unaware of the evil that is slowly making its way to the surface.”
I’m not sure what the “evil that is slowly making its way to the surface” is, but it can’t be more disastrous and sinister than what actually happened. Few people have focused on the environmental and social disaster of Centralia more than filmmaker and documentarian Simon Tatum (The Last Freak Show). Simon has been visiting Centralia for over a decade, befriending the few remaining residents, and shooting hundreds of hours of footage.
Simon and I share a passion for telling people-focused stories to highlight complex issues. Simon reached out to me after reading my first book, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since.
There are few people who have thought more about the story of Centralia than Simon, so I reached out to him to share what actually happened to the town and what drew him to the story.
Kelsey Timmerman: What happened in Centralia?
Simon Tatum: Centralia was an ordinary little mountain town with around 1,100 residents which sat on top of one of the largest coal seams in the world – The Mammoth Coal Vein – so it revolved almost entirely around the coal mine.
In the spring of 1961 the town council ordered a landfill site on the edge of town to be torched as a clean up project for Memorial Day. The landfill site was was on an old strip-mining pit that hadn’t been sealed properly. That day the flames found their way down to the coal seam and slowly began to spread beneath the town.
There were various attempts to extinguish it but the resources were never there to be truly effective. The town carried on as normal not really realising the extent of what was happening beneath their feet. The fire was growing, being fed oxygen from all angles by the mass of mine tunnels that snaked their way through the mountain.
Twenty years later, in 1981 a twelve year old boy named Todd Domboski was playing in his grandmother’s garden when he noticed a wisp of smoke spiraling up from the lawn. He went to investigate and the ground just opened up beneath him. He managed to grab onto a clump of tree roots and was pulled to safety, but the hole itself was more than 80 feet deep. Smoke and noxious steam billowed out around him as the roar of the fire screamed underneath him.
The town began to panic. The ground began to subside, the highway that ran through the town began to buckle and split, smoke and steam pouring out. Suddenly the government started to take notice and eventually $42 million was allocated to relocate the entire town. The majority took them up on the offer, but there were a hardcore few that refused to leave. Some believed the government wanted them out in order to mine the billions of dollars of coal beneath them. Others just didn’t want to be forced out of their homes. So the government simply tore the town down around them.
And so the town went on. For thirty years now the remaining residents have lived in the still burning ghost town. At its height the smoke and steam was dramatic – billowing out, filling the air, the stench of sulfur permeating everything.
Today there are still six people living in Centralia . . . I think. The fire is still burning and the town’s almost gone. Nature is finally taking it back.
KT: So you’re over in England helping bring fictional worlds like Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride to life on the big screen, and you think, “Screw it, I’m going to a ghost town in rural, Pennsylvania?”
ST: “I was 25, I’d just been given the job of 3rd Assistant Director on Corpse Bride, but by that time I’d begun to lose my passion for filmmaking. I’d been an AD for sometime, working on various high end features, commercials, and music videos and somewhere along the way I’d started to forget why I wanted to be there in the first place. So my mind switched to documentary – an entirely different strand of filmmaking that would allow me to do something that felt meaningful, something that would enable to me to head out into the world and experience it in a way few people get to.
So I looked for a documentary subject, something I could dive into as a one man band, self-fund, self-shoot. At the time my dad was reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. In it Bryson mentions the town of Centralia, the mine fire that’s been burning beneath it for forty years and the collection of townsfolk who refuse to leave. Immediately I knew that was the subject I’d been looking for. So I began searching for a way in and found an online forum set up by the community of Centralia to communicate with each other. I posted that I was intending to make a film about the town, focusing not as an oddity but focusing on the people themselves as their community is slowly destroyed around them. I got a few replies from people curious about the town and it’s weird history, nothing useful, until one day I received a reply from someone calling themselves “Coalcracker.” This turned out to be John. He was the youngest resident in Centralia at 34, ferociously passionate about the town and keeping it alive. He would be happy to meet me and be on camera. He said it was my intention to focus on the people that made him decide to write to me.
So I booked a ticket, packed my camera, flew from London to Philadelphia, rented a car and headed into the mountains. I was horribly nervous. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was heading into No-man’s land with no idea if I’d be welcomed or really what kind of story I’d find. I’d never done a documentary at that point, so I was riddled with anxiety of every kind – Who do I think I am? I’m not a filmmaker, these people will see me for the imposter I am immediately and probably chase me out of town with a shotgun.
KT: Once you got there how were you received?
ST: There was skepticism from some but generally I was welcomed with great warmth. They mostly embraced the opportunity to talk about the town they loved and reminisce about the tight-knit community that has been all but torn apart.
John was my way in. At our first meeting he was shy and polite. I liked him straight away. But he had a fierce anger towards the government and the fear-mongers that took his town. We spent about three hours walking around town on that first day. It was late September and cold, the smoke and steam billowing furiously out of the split ground. He told me that he would never leave, that he would die there.
Over the next two years we developed a strong friendship. I went back to Centralia repeatedly and each time I saw him he’d become more and more isolated from the outside world. He lived in a beautiful, pristine house right in the middle of the town. He’d shared the house with his grandfather who’d passed away a little while ago and so the place was hugely special for him. I think he found it difficult to let go of the image of Centralia as it used to be – a place he’d spent such happy times with his grandfather. What remained of the town was kept pristine by John. He’d spend every weekend mowing the grass all over town, re-painting the benches and fences and generally fixing what was broken. Decorating the place at christmas. It was extremely impressive. His house now stood alone, on one side was the manicured lawn, on the other side smoldering scrubland. The final time I saw him we went for dinner at a dingy local bar over in the next town. He was at the lowest point I’d seen him. We talked for a long time about his obsession with the past and his fear of the future. I flew back to England and months went by before we spoke again. He told me that our conversation that night had a profound effect on him. The next time we spoke, he’d sold his house and moved away from Centralia for good.
KT: Did you ever hear from John again?
ST: A few years later I was in the U.S. shooting a TV series. I was heading down to West Virginia when I decided to take a detour and head back to Centralia. When I got there I couldn’t believe it. It was almost as if the town never existed. John’s house was gone. The pristine grass and trimmed hedges had become wild. Nature had taken the town back.
Then, last year I saw a post on a Centralia facebook page by a woman whose name I didn’t recognize. She’d posted a Christmas photo of herself and her partner holding their new baby. Her partner was John looking happier than I’d ever seen him. It puts a smile on my face just thinking about it.
Over the course of those years, I shot hundreds of hours of footage, interviewed all the key people from the story of the town – many of whom have passed away now, including Miss Centralia 1919 – but the film itself was never finished. My time there was really my film school. It was there that I made all my mistakes, learning the art of making a film by going out there and just doing it.
KT: I’ve been following your career for the past few years and I know that you’ve had some incredible adventures – you’ve filmed Amazonian tribes, Thai elephants, American sideshows. One time you even asked me if I would shoot a magician with a revolver! Did you forget about Centralia? Write it off as learning experience and move on?
ST: The fact I never finished it always bothered me. I never felt I was done with it as it was always really special to me. So now, twelve years later, the film is finally being completed. I’m in the unique position of being able to tell the story over the course of twelve years, from the perspective of those at the heart of it as well as incorporating myself and the filmmaking process itself. So it’s really becoming a film about the making of a film.
The place became more to me than just a film subject. I’d take every opportunity I could to fly back out there. To this day, I still find the smell of the burning sulfur comforting.
To learn more about Centralia, Simon recommends Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire by David Dekok.
To learn more about Simon visit simontatum.com.