A Short Trip to Coal Country

Mahanoy Mountain shows the scars of strip mining.
Mahanoy Mountain shows the scars of strip mining. Image by the author

Centre Street in the town of Ashland, Pennsylvania (population 3,091), rides a hill in the coal-rich northeastern part of the Keystone state. To the south is 1,420-foot Mahanoy Mountain, its flank amputated by strip mining, its innards coiled with mine shafts; to the north the abandoned site of Centralia where a trash fire set in May, 1962, spread to coal deposits underground. Fifty years later, the fire is still burning though the state spent millions trying to put it out, then moved some 1,000 people out due to concerns about toxic gas emissions and subsidence in home-owners’ back yards.

I detoured to this lost corner of America on a recent road trip across Pennsylvania, stopping first to see the Museum of Anthracite Coal in the Ashland borough hall. They had to turn the lights on for me when I got there, but the displays proved to be a comprehensive primer on the industry that shaped a region with the world’s highest concentration of low-ash anthracite, a prized kind of hard, clean-burning coal. It was discovered around Ashland in the 1850’s when Henry Clay, then a U.S. Senator from Kentucky, promoted the imposition of tariffs that made it profitable to replace imports from Wales with coal from the United States. Surveys revealed that northeast Pennsylvania had 75 billion tons of bituminous coal and 23 billion tons of anthracite, resulting in the growth of mining operations and small towns to serve them.

Ashland is a classic with its own Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine Shaft and Steam Train tourist attraction and Whistler’s Mother Monument, built in 1937 for the annual homecoming of the Ashland Boys Association. It looks like a scene from the 1978 film The Deer Hunter, with modest workers’ homes, shops and bars that have good bones, but an air of dilapidation stemming from the failure of the industry after World War II, when coal fell out of favor as a fuel source. It’s estimated that 58 billion tons of bituminous and 7 billion tons of anthracite remain, but natural gas deposits are now more attractive, tapped by the environmentally-contentious technique of hydro-fracking.

The coal museum tells the anthracite story from prospecting and drilling to treating acid water, a toxic byproduct of the mining process. Disasters like the 1869 fire at an anthracite mine in Avondale, Pennsylvania, that killed over a hundred workers, are also described, along with deadly gas known as black damp. But to understand the dangers of abandoned mines I drove three miles north to the ghost town of Centralia.

A few long-time residents continue to live there, along with those at eternal rest in two sorrowful Centralia cemeteries. When weather conditions are right, visitors can see smoke billowing up from scorched patches of ground, but otherwise nothing marks the mostly-abandoned town site. Highway 61 has been diverted around Centralia and the old main street is barricaded by a litter-strewn berm, defaced by fresh graffiti that tells who to call for a time. It reminded me of visiting the ruins of Gibellina, a small town in southwestern Sicily, razed by a 1968 earthquake, then memorialized with a cover of concrete by Italian artist Alberto Bruni.

Obviously, no one’s celebrating Centralia’s semi-centennial this year and visitors are mostly curiosity-seekers like me. Its lack of markers is presumably intentional, given the hazards, but sad. I stood there in a cold rain wondering whether some stray, surviving dogwood would put out commemorative blossoms in the spring.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.