Tourists of Disaster

I had designed the trip as a loop, a tour around Pennsylvania. No theme or thread in mind, but I knew there’d be something. And sometime after Johnstown, it became clear that this was a trip of disasters.

Sure there was some argument about where we were going and how to get there — suprisingly most glaringly when trying to make the short jump from Scranton to Wilkes-Barre after losing the directions to the hotel — but that’s not what I’m talking about.

Johnstown, obviously, is the greatest flood this country has ever seen, one of its greatest disasters, and as we tried to board the city’s incline — allegedly the world’s steepest inclined plane; more superlatives — we learned we couldn’t. There was an earthquake in D.C. and they were shutting down.

We didn’t feel it — An older couple also turned away from the incline, said they had — and it really wasn’t a disaster, but there was more to come. After wandering through the ghost town of Centralia — the residents of which were pushed out in 1992 after a coal fire that had burned for 30 years under the town and continues to burn — we woke up in Frackville, about 10 miles southeast of Centralia and about 8 miles north of Pottsville, home of the Yuengling brewery. We turned on The Weather Channel to find broadcasters there and then on the 24-hour news networks staring into the clear skies of North Carolina and cranking their panic meters to 10. Hurricane Irene was coming.

The panic would follow us to Wilkes-Barre where, sitting at the Executive Lounge of the Woodlands Inn, we watched the panic grow — professional sports postponed, the east coast evacuated. Fear and loathing in eastern Pennsylvania.

As I check the headlines now, on Sunday, when Irene was supposed to ravage Philly, New York, etc., she has been downgraded to a tropical storm. A FEMA administrator is reminding people though that no one has dodged a bullet. People have lost their lives.

But is it a disaster? According to the same article in the LA Times, about 15 people have died so far, and the damage is estimated to be between 7 and 20 million dollars. We may have been expecting a bigger one, but compared to the D.C. earthquake, it most certainly is a disaster.

There is no glory in ranking these unfortunate events, but having just seen the sites of two disasters that started 50 and 100 years, respectively, before, it seems, beyond the count of the dead and the final price tag, a more accurate way to measure these earthquakes, floods, underground hell fires is how far out their shock waves can be felt.

The Jonstown Flood, on May 28, 1889, killed 2,209 and caused more than $17 million in damage. The Johnstown Flood Museum works to illustrate what that really means, through photos of the aftermath, newspaper stories, an artistic installation of white washed pieces of detritus — boards and wire and mannequin parts — attached to the wall like how they would have been left by the flood. But what does it best is a model in the center of the museum’s main room. Green lights snake through the valley as the flood builds and culminates with sounds of crashing and red lights like sirens where the fires grew after. That and the markers around town, one near the city’s famed incline. There is a walkway about 15 feet above state Route 56 that connects the incline, which is about 30 feet above the Conemaugh River bed, with the rest of town. A sign points to that walkway — well above the road and the cars on it, which are well above the river and its high cement-walled ravine, and says that’s how far the water rose.

The markers and museum are arguably the most obvious reminders of the 122-year-old flood, but it’s a much more different picture in Centralia.

A couple miles out in any direction, on state Route 61 specifically, there are road signs that advise you the little borough is there and within reach. We climbed north on 61, up out of Ashland deeper into the coal hills of east-central PA, and had read of the abandoned, former-portion of the highway, what was labeled on the map as a logging road. We looked for it as the road whipped back and forth on an incline, but as it peaked and fell, we knew we’d missed it. It wasn’t till about half way down, until we saw the St. Ignatius cemetery to our left, and then found a note to Gov. Corbett in the form of a poster board sign, that we knew we were there. We had come from Philadelphia, and because of some GPS complications coming out of the city, we didn’t have as much time, and therefore daylight, as I had budgeted for. The sun was falling and the sky was becoming orange behind the sign. The free-handed words of the sign beg the governor and the representatives of the residents of the tiny borough to leave them alone. Stop wasting money to push them out, the sign says, which the state has been doing since 1992.

Because the fire is still burning, because the state won’t let them stay, we expected the streets to be vacant and quiet. Reportedly there are still five homes in the borough, and if that’s the case, we likely saw half the town’s population. We saw two at the borough building, which is just up the hill as state Route 42 climbs north out of town, and another, a teenager washing the wheels of his truck on one of the borough’s abandoned streets.

Most signs of civilization have been removed, through eminent domain, leaving just wild bushes and grass to spill over and eventually choke off the streets. They are a network of squares around the central intersection of state routes 42 and 61. You can find a map of it on Google, but there are no street signs, and no markings. What we found most were abandoned campfires, empty beer cans and cases, graffiti warning you of the fire that is either imperceptible or dormant underneath the road. We had read of the plumes of coal smoke and steam that rise or have risen out of the road surfaces, but they appear sealed over now. Just patches of black squares. And as we drove over them the car sagged down into them, and I braced for the car to crack through and fall into the eternal fire below.

But what is most intriguing is the abandoned road, which we were yet to find. Route 61 still drops down into Centralia, but that’s not its original path. There is about a mile of roadway, which would essentially join 61 at the top of the hill and then loop back down to rejoin it just above the cemetery. In the photos we had seen, there were road markers blocking off the old road, in view of the new one. There was none of that, but we knew it was there. We drove again back up to the peak, and down a little ways again, to the first big curve. There was just enough room to pull off and we did. There was only a wall of dirt and grass, like at the edge of all the other curves, but we put the parking brake on and climbed over. And hidden back in behind the wall of dirt was the abandoned road. It was stopped off and walled off too, by more dirt, but then climbed even steeper than the road we’d just gotten off of. The aged roadway was coated nearly end to end in graffiti. Some of it crude illustrations, other more warnings as to what lies at the end of the dead road, and even some more self-aware, welcoming you to Silent Hill, a 2006 horror film inspired by the town.

The lasting evidence of the disaster isn’t as obvious as we anticipated. Nearby towns of Aristes, Ashland, Mt. Carmel, and Girardville are well inhabited, and in addition to the car washer, residents are very active, including a man near Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, the last active church in the borough, was chainsawing something. I hoped it was something.

Despite whatever evidence we gathered or missed, according to all reports, the fire is still burning, though, and the residents are still in court, fighting to stay in their homes, i.e. the aftershocks are still being felt.

What really sets apart the tragedies of Centralia and Johnstown, which came to be aligned in my life with Irene and the D.C. earthquake, is that they were man-made. Although neither was purposefully caused, them coming by the hands of man makes them that much more devious.

Heavy rains were one cause of the Johnstown Flood, but more so was the South Fork Dam. The dam, created as part of a cross-state canal system, created Lake Conemaugh. Railroad would make canals irrelevant and eventually the lake would end up in the hands of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club. The club was just about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh and had a membership of some of the richest men in the world, the likes of Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon. Despite that though, little was done to maintain the dam. Over the about eight years that they owned it, it sprang leaks and inspired rumors of its impending failure, which is exactly what happened — 20 million tons of water barreled down on the city.

The cause of the Centralia fire isn’t as well documented, but the most frequently cited story involves the town’s dump. The mayor had the fire department burn it down, as was the annual convention, as the story goes, but the fire wasn’t put out properly and climbed into a nearby mine. It followed the seams of coal under the town and burned and put up plumes of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and otherwise reduced oxygen levels.

We watched a great amount of traffic just whip past the nearly abandoned center of town, past the fully abandoned portion of state Route 61, maybe listening to their radios to the disasters of Irene and the D.C. earthquake. And although the toll on life and repairs would be much greater from Irene, looking back on Centralia, I have to wonder if that little town’s plight isn’t greater. It will be expensive and heart wrenching, but the victims of Irene can rebuild. The residents of Centralia cannot, and neither will be rebuilt the homes of their neighbors, the local businesses that defined their town, the churches and social clubs, the entire culture of and memory of a community nearly erased. 

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