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And trying to meet halfway

June 11, 2011

I started this post in February, and didn’t quite know how to finish it, so it sat here for months waiting for me.  I didn’t want to post anything else until it was finished, and so I’ve decided to finally just finish it quickly (and not entirely satisfactorily) and put it up.

YouTube can be a funny thing. Its suggestions are often really far off, but sometimes you wind up with something that’s not really related to what you were looking for, but completely fascinating. Today Months ago, I came across this video in the sidebar to another video I was watching:

If you aren’t familiar with Centralia, PA, it’s a fairly recent ghost town, abandoned as the result of a coal seam fire that’s been burning for the past 50 or so years. These are actually not as uncommon as you might think – the more notable examples include the Brennender Berg in Saarland, which has been burning since the mid-17th century, and Burning Mountain in New South Wales, which has been burning since the 4th millennium BC (there’s also the well-known and striking Darvaza, in Turkmenistan, which wasn’t a coal seam fire, but a long-lasting natural gas fire). And there are, of course, others.

This video is rather interesting for a few reasons. First, most of the stuff you see in Centralia is no longer around. All of the buildings were condemned in 1992, and as a quick scan of Google Earth will tell you, most of them have been bulldozed. I was thinking this might be an interesting use of Google Earth’s historic imagery feature, but unfortunately this only goes back to 1993 for the area, so you don’t see a whole lot of change.  Of course, YouTube is facing no shortage of videos of what Centralia looks like now to juxtapose with this one.  Many of them compare Centralia to Silent Hill, but I’ve watched a few of them and no one seems to have caught the monsters on film, so I’m not sure this is the most apt comparison.  You can also get a glimpse of Centralia in 1986 in the beginning of Made in U.S.A. (soundtrack by Sonic Youth!), which is, as I update this in June, currently streaming on Netflix.

But then there’s an odd combination of a few other things. The mundanity of the video itself is almost striking, given what would eventually become of the city. It’s a great example of an unintentional historical document: a record of a family trip (I assume) can become a record of a place that they simply passed through. The video is called “A Trip to Centralia, Pa Circa 1957,” but the main event here actually seems to have been the Bloomsburg Fair. At roughly 2:03 or 2:04 there’s a brief and ominous glimpse of the mining operation itself, but it only lasts a few seconds.  These things stand out now, but the video itself almost forces you to realize that nothing seemed out of the ordinary in the late ’50s.

I’m also reminded of this story I read in Wired (now more than) a few months ago about Picher, OK, another recent industrial ghost town, although abandoned for different reasons.  In that case, toxic mining waste made the town uninhabitable, and yet a few people continue to live there, which was the point of the Wired story.  In both cases, it’s this emotional attachment to a place that interests me most.  The circumstances were, of course, much different, but it makes me wonder about the ancient miners and smelters in southern Jordan, and what they felt when those sites were abandoned.

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