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Book chronicles tale of Centralia

Collection of photos depicts glory and demise

By Leon Bogden
Press Enterprise Writer

CENTRALIA – A once bustling mining town that derived it’s name from being “the center of everything” in anthracite coal country is seen in a new collection of vintage photographs depicting the glory days of Centralia.

Arcadia Publications has just released “Centralia” as part of its popular series of local history books.

The 128-page softcover book contains 185 black-and-white photographs.  They depict everyday street scenes, colliery workings and family life dating back to the turn of the century.  The collection follows right up through government buyouts and demolition of all but a handful of homes today.

Author Deryl B. Johnson, a Kutztown University professor of speech and theatre says many of the photos taken during the early days of Centralia’s boom, when mining was fueled by Mammoth Vein, one of the largest hard coal fields in the country.

Culled from picture postcards and family collections from former residents such as Tom Dempsey, a local historian now living in Girardville, Johnson said he was surprised by how much research material and photographs still exist from Centralia’s past.  There’s even pictures showing Locust Avenue after a large fire wiped out an entire block of it in 1908.

“I was amazed by how much was actually out there., including old photographs of the mines,” said Johnson.

The Nebraska native first grew interested in the town above a burning mine fire as he began work on a play he penned on Centralia in 1998.

“Centralia truly was the center of so much history.  Back in the 19940s, people from Washington came up to Centralia to record miners singing their mining songs that later became part of a collection at the Library of Congress,” he said.

Past and present

The historic photojournal book covers Centralia’s rich immigrant past and thriving downtown before a mine fire broke out in a garbage pit in 1962.

Later chapters in the book show more recent scenes of stark demolition and smoky emptiness as a $42 million government buyout began.  By the end of the 1980s, the buyout emptied the town of nearly all of its 1,600 residents and some 900 homes and businesses.

Johnson said he remains intrigued by the impassioned fight to preserve a sense of community in Centralia.

“We hear stories of communities fighting to have many important buildings declared historical landmarks,” Johnson writes.

“But now imagine that every building you have ever known is destroyed.  Imagine that every family you were raised with, and often times your grandparents were raised with, have been forced to move away from each other.  This is what happened in Centralia.”

‘A special place’

He said he hopes readers come to appreciate Centralia as “a special place.”

“There’s a rich family history seen in many of these photographs.  But also a feeling of sadness.  You can’t imagine that every building, every road, has been impacted by the fire,” he said.

Johnson, who’s taught theatre and speech at Kutztown University for 11 years, said he knew nothing about the coal mining or Pennsylvania history when he first came out East.

“I was surprised to learn later that Father (Daniel) McDermott, the founding priest of St. Ignatius Church who had cursed the town because of his feelings against the Mollie Maguires, was later transferred to Philadelphia and eventually moved to North Bend, Neb., only 13 miles from where I grew up,” he said.

“Centralia is much like the small town where I was born.  And I learned that several families from Centralia may have actually moved out to Nebraska in following the priest.  Little did I realize that descendants of Centralia may have lived only a short distance away,” he said.

Sharing memories

Johnson said local residents were more than generous when he issued a public request for research materials two years ago.  He met with many current and former Centralians at the Mount Carmel Public Library and also in Wilburton.

That’s why he arraigned to donate all his royalty proceeds from book sales to the library and the Centralia Fire Department.

“People were great.  I never expected such a warm reception. When I explained to them that I was working on a historical perspective of the town.  I really was impressed with the humility and heart of the stories they shared,” he said.

First printing

 Laurie Butcher, a spokeswoman for the publishing house, said “Centralia” will join more than 2,000 titles in the “Images of America” series that began in 1993.  The series focuses on smaller rural communities as well as major metropolitan cities such as Chicago, Boston, and Washington D.C.

The books highlight local and regional history from the early days of photography through the end of the 20th Century.

In its first printing, Arcadia is releasing 1,200 copies of “Centralia” and may consider a second printing based on sales and marketing demand, Butcher said.

The book is listed at $19.99 and is available nationwide at Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks, Borders, and many independent bookstores.  It can also be acquired directly through Arcadia Publishing at www.arcadiapublishing.com or by calling (888)313-2665.

Leon Bogden can be reached at (570) 748-2121, ext. 1307, or by email at leon.b@pressenterrprise.net

Photographs