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Dying Embers

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abandonded house abandoned house (road_less_trvled/flickr)

Mary Lou Gaughin was drawn to Centralia, Pennsylvania when it had the energy of a city -- it was a thriving, happy community. But, 40 years ago, a fire broke out deep underground and changed everything. Joan Quigley, author of The Day the Earth Caved In, wrestles with the question of when a town really dies. And Tom Dempsey brings to life the pain of letting go of a place that's always been home.


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece indicated that the Dow Jones Industrial Average originated in the 1920’s.  In fact, it originated in the 1890’s; during the 1920’s it was expanded to include 30 companies, the number it includes today.  The audio has been adjusted in consideration of this fact.


Tom Dempsey, Mary Lou Gaughin and Joan Quigley

Comments [19]

Ellen from Schuylkilll County, PA

Wonderful story and a realization that asking people to change address isn't simple; it's as complicated as changing culture or family or personal history. Who we are is, very much, primal and our sense of place and community can be locked in to our identities.

May. 05 2016 01:48 PM
Larry Splitt from Bloomsburg Pa

I did graduate in 1961 from Mt Carmel Catholic High with many kids from Centralia and knew a lot of others. It was pleasant place to visit and periodically get back and am sorry to see what it has become.

Apr. 16 2016 04:31 PM
chris from nj

incredable story so sad but the memories will allways live on ......

Feb. 08 2016 10:39 PM
Mark Oshinskie from New Brunswick, NJ

My whole extended family is from the region. I passed through Centralia many times as kid in the sixties and seventies when all the houses and people were there. I think of my uncles took me to see the fire around 1964.

I still go back to visit family in nearby towns. In the summer, one sees abundant wildflowers during the day right down Centralia's main street. And many lightning bugs and crickets at night w/a backdrop of almost total darkness. It's eerily beautiful, esp if one remembers how it used to look.

Feb. 02 2015 08:57 PM

I drive through occasionally on my way to Heckscherville. Stop by the cemetery too. It was not mentioned that many of the names buried there are Russian (Cyrillic) and you can still see the Russian Orthodox Church on the other side of town where the fire was not involved. It was also not mentioned that the people of Centralia bought all the coal underneath their town so some folks felt that the buyout was an attempt to confiscate the coal, which if not burned away, was still valuable.

Sep. 07 2014 08:55 PM
Bill Hileman from Gainesville, Florida

I learned a few new facts I didn't know about Centralia. I was born and raised in Bloomsburg, PA, and went to college in Harrisburg. I used to go through Centralia twice a week from 1980-1982 as a shortcut from home to college and back. Every time I'd drive through the town, and its eerie silence, I'd often picture the road opening up before me and swallowing my car and me. It was a thrill not unlike that of a roller coaster, and I was always relieved when I got past the smoke stacks.

Sep. 07 2014 08:48 PM
kathy mallon

My grandmother grew up in this town. We took her to visit later in life (when she was in her 80's , sometime in the 1980's). The folks there seemed quite suspicious of us and it was very depressing for my grandmother. Her grandfather was a mason in the town.

Sep. 06 2014 02:54 PM
Andrew Shecktor from Berwick, PA

I have been to Centralia when it was a vibrant town, and only recently following it being vacated. The site of the vacant town prompted me to write a fictional novel, based on historical events and with a section on the history of the town. Much of the history has been lost to time or is very difficult to find. If anyone is interested, it is titled "Centralia PA, Devils Fire" and can be found on Amazon by searching "Centralia PA". It is a tribute to the town, and what can happen when nature gets the better of us. We feel we can control anything, but few mine fires have ever been actually put out, and thousands burn across the world.

Jul. 15 2014 10:00 PM
Seth Gilbertson from Harpers Ferry, WV

The first time I heard about this town was in Bill Bryson's book about the Appalachian trail. I think I remember reading that the fire was unable to be put out because of the type of coal that is present in this area. It is really interesting to hear so much more of this town's strange story! I listen to radiolab pretty much every weekend and have used it in my classroom! Thanks for being so awesomely entertaining and informative!

Nov. 17 2013 03:33 PM
Ravin' Dave from Lincoln, NE

The story of Centralia is even more bizarre than you realize. That whole area of was the cynosure of Mollie Maguire activity up through the 1870's. The reverend of St. Ignatius RC church made his displeasure known -- even speaking out from the pulpit. This earned him a savage beating from the Mollies. The stories goes that he cried out to the townsfolk for help, but they ignores his pleas. And he cursed them ... to eternal hellfire.

Dec. 09 2012 04:20 AM
Steve Giovinco from New York, NY

Another great show, especially hearing about Centralia, the odd burning town in Pennsylvania. I've visited there and photographed in Centralia, and one of the strangest things was to feel the heat on the ground as you walk and seeing smoke come up.

Nov. 24 2012 12:48 PM
JWHOLT from Detroit

In the Story, The only place in Centralia that is growing is the Cemetary...... The Cemetary is St Ingnatius, and that, if you know Latin, means "to Ignite" or "firestarter".


Nov. 23 2012 06:43 PM
Alex from Michigan

I love that that lady moved from Centralia is "Burnsville"!

Jul. 25 2012 05:08 PM
Susan from Williamston, MI

My grandfather was a retired mining engineer from that area. I remember him telling us kids about the fire under ground in the early 1970's. It was hard to believe until you saw smoke coming out of the ground when you drove through town years later.

Jul. 16 2012 07:04 PM
Chris from Los Angeles

For can find the documentary The Town That Was here:

Mar. 03 2012 08:06 PM
David DeKok from Harrisburg, Pa.

Nice production, if somewhat unbalanced in certain respects. As the author of Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire, I can tell you that (a) the fire was started accidentally by the town itself, to clean up the landfill, and (b) that Concerned Citizens Action Group Against the Centralia Mine Fire were the good guys in the story. The relocation was handled humanely, and Centralia residents received generous payments for their homes, at least in the main relocation. The Mayernicks, the tragic murder-suicide couple mentioned in the piece, lived in a rental that the owner had sold to the Redevelopment Authority.

Jan. 20 2011 09:44 PM

The idea of a city in part never dying because of generation after generation coming home to rest eternally kind of blew my mind. I really enjoyed all the stories on what makes cities tick...great job radiolab!

Dec. 03 2010 12:15 PM
Darlene from Altamont, NY

I grew up in Millville, PA and I remember traveling through Centralia. I still tell people about it but they don't really understand. Great job on this piece!!!

Nov. 19 2010 02:09 PM
Jeremy from Aristes, PA

So I'm a huge Radiolab fan, and I'm listening to "Cities," and next thing you know I hear Centralia being mentioned. That has to have been my coolest moment as a listener, considering I live literally 30 seconds away from Centralia.

Keep it up everyone at Radiolab!

Nov. 09 2010 10:39 PM

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