Centralia was a real town in Pennsylvania that had a horrible accident. A coal fire started, which sent up choking fumes and caused random sinkholes. Everybody was ordered to evacuate, though a handful of people still live there. You can learn more about it here.

Several things about Centralia…

This is a non-fiction account; a reminiscence rather than a story, but Centralia does bring back memories for me.

I lived about a 15 minute drive from Centralia for my first two years of college.  Everyone is gone, now; the state forcibly evacuated the last few people a bit over five years ago.  But when I lived there, a few stubborn holdouts were still there.  They would congregate in the grassy town square, and spend most of their days there, sitting in chairs near the decaying sign that named the town and watching the occasional cars pass through from one place to another.

It was insanity, of course.  The coal fire is only burning under the southern part of the town, but a coal fire gives off highly toxic fumes.  That valley was full of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and other nasty things.  Signs advised you to roll up your windows when you drove through.  If you didn’t, you could smell the fumes on the air—acid and rotten eggs.  

But those last few old-timers wouldn’t leave.  Coal miners and their kin are a special breed of strong-willed.  If they can survive the mines, they can survive just about anything.  They used to take shifts in their houses, because as long as someone was home, the government either couldn’t or wouldn’t come along and simply eminent-domain their property away.

When I lived there, Centralia mainly looked like a spread-out, overgrown yard. Almost all the houses had been torn down, except for a few drab gray rebels, standing sentry against the desolation (everything turns gray in coal country, eventually; the dust works its way into your soul, and if you think that’s a poetic metaphor, ask someone who’s lived in eastern Pennsylvania or Kentucky).  All that remained were broad spaces of scrubby grass and thigh-high weeds, traced through with a grid of sparser, gravel-underlaid scrub that had used to be the town’s streets.  You know what a parking lot or driveway looks like when it’s been abandoned?  The whole town.  I remember one empty cave mouth of a garage a little up on the hillside.  The roof and part of the wall had caved in.  You could see the graffiti inside.  It didn’t so much look haunted as it looked like a haunting.

It took me a while to realize just how big Centralia had been before the mine fire started, because nothing was left.  In so few years, only about two decades, all there was left of a thriving 1000 person town was a couple of determined shacks, opportunistic plant life, and the old main street.

Oh, but if you took a right turn at the town square and drove south, then you came to the mine fire.  The old Route 54 used to pass through there, but it had to be closed and detoured, because south of the town the mine fire passed right underneath the road.  You could park your car near where the pavement had sagged and caved in, and walk around in bare feet to feel the pavement’s heat.  In the winter, the sinkhole was filled with fog and ugly yellowish smoke, and steam radiated off the pavement after snow or rain.  A friend of mine who grew up in the area told me about the last time his family had driven that road.  He and his sister had been watching out the car windows as a hole erupted in the hillside, swallowing a tree into the earth with a gout of flame.

They closed old Route 54 very shortly after that.

So.  Everyone is gone, now, and I know what an apocalypse looks like.  The last of the houses have been razed.  The last of humanity has vanished.  All that’s left is a lonely rural road that used to be Main Street, and a street corner with a useless stop sign, a hollow cinder block building that used to be the general store, and a green town square with a now-unreadable sign and abandoned, rusting chairs gathered around it, waiting for people who will never come back.

The Right Writing: Prompt time!

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