Centralia Pennsylvania Remembered by Robert Keller Fetterman

Born in Centralia, PA, I spent the first few years of my life as a resident. My parents moved from the town when I was still very young. Spending many summers there on vacation, I lived with my grandparents. But this is not about me, it is about the town, and some of the people who lived there, many years ago.

A brilliant flash of lightning, with a sharp crack, followed by thunder, that shook the little coal town of Centralia Pennsylvania to its very foundations. A summer evening storm in the year of 1924 making its way across the mountains. Suddenly, through the sound of the beating rain, came long blasts from the steam whistle on the big colliery on the side of the mountain, rising above the town. The lightning had struck something and started a fire. As the storm passed, the clouds began to part, and the stars appeared, among them was a moving light, and the sound of a motor. The mail had to go through, and the pilot of a small bi-plane was doing his best to bring that about. Guided by beacons in the valleys, he followed the storm to his destination.

The whistle on the colliery sent many messages to the citizens of the town, day and night. Time to start work in the morning, time for dinner at noon, the big meal of the day in those times. Time to quit work, fires, and rapid blasts, signaling a problem in the mine. Operated by the Centralia Mining Company, the colliery and mine were the heart of the town. They provided employment for a large portion of the population. A tall wooden tower with low buildings clustered around its bottom provided an area to refine the coal. A slender sloping structure extended from near the top of the tower to the ground, and into the mine. A narrow gage track on it enabled a car attached to a cable to be raised from and lowered into the mine. An uncle of mine, Irv Bryson operated the machinery in the top of the tower. All day long there, was a chug chug chug sound and loud squeal, as the car reached the top and emptied its load of coal. In the colliery or breaker, as it was sometimes called, the coal was reduced to usable sizes, washed and loaded on cars to be shipped.

On one side of the breaker a huge pile of culm and slate rose against the mountainside, the waste from the refining process. Persistent exploration of the pile of slate could result in finding a fossil, the leaf of a plant, that existed millions of years ago. On the other side of the colliery, the earth was gouged from the side of the mountain, to form a large reservoir. Fed by springs, the water was used to wash the coal, and provided a swimming hole for the youth of the town. There were frogs in it and tiny sunfish that could be caught with a bent pin on a string, and “I wonder to this day how they got there.” The miners were much better off than in the past, but their job was still dangerous and dirty. Using small carbide lamps mounted on their caps for illumination, they drilled holes in the coal. Packing them with dynamite, the anthracite was blasted from the vein. The Centralia Valley stretches from Shamokin, through Mount Carmel, and Centralia, and it contains one of the largest fields of anthracite coal in the area with seven billion tons available.

The population of Centralia at that time was about 2200, and it was made up of ethnic groups from Ireland, Lithuania, Poland, England, and Germany. Everyone got along—“I never heard of anyone being robbed,” and it was common practice to leave the doors and windows unlocked. The mountain side to the south is a gentle slope, and building homes there was not difficult. A Catholic church with its cemetery stood near the top. Below it, houses on small streets on either side of the main highway dominated the rest of the slope. The side of the mountain to the north is very steep. Houses built along the winding uphill road were close together, each one higher than the other. The Lithuanian church, still there today, with its onion shapped dome, stands near the top of the hill. There is a small plateau about one-third of the way up the side of the mountain where houses were built on flat ground. The water supply for the town was pumped over this mountain from a reservoir in the pristine Brush Valley on the other side.

A railroad owned by the Reading Company, ran along the base of the north mountain, making its way through Centralia toward Locust Summit. There was no station because this line carried nothing but coal or freight. The main road intersection in the town was shaped like a T. Coming from Ashland to the south, the road at the base of the slope made a left turn leading to Mount Carmel. On the left side of the road, there was a Methodist church, and beyond that the school. Small streets intersected this main street with houses on both sides, making up the major portion of the housing in the town. Straight ahead, the road climbs up the steep mountain to the little town of Aristes on top. West of Centralia, there was an area where part of the mountain had been stripped for coal, leaving a deep trench filled with pools of water. Most of the businesses in the town were clustered around the intersection. There was Mays drug store, where you could obtain a great ice cream soda or a dish of delicious cherry custard ice cream. Then came a saloon, suffering through the days of prohibition. Next there was a candy and ice cream store operated by the McCullions. Across the street halfway between the intersection and the railroad, my paternal grandfather, A. E. Fetterman, ran a general store. The shelves and counters were loaded with everything under the sun.The living quarters in back and above the store is where my grandmother Sarah held sway, with the help of my aunt Grace and cousin Jean. Holiday visits were enhanced by her apple dumplings and special sauerkraut and pork. A barn in the back of the property once used to shelter horses now housed a Reo delivery truck. The alley in back of the property was dominated by a belligerent gander, whose sole purpose was to intimidate little boys. Halfway up on the south mountain slope, my aunt Irma and her brood, Irene, Bob and Grace, had a home on a small street.

Moving across the railroad tracks to the north, the fire house stood on the right side of the road and just above it, the Mammoth Store. Operated by the Riley family, it provided the people in the area with clothing, furniture, hardware, fresh meat and cheese dispensed by Christopher Small. On the second floor, my maternal grandfather, David E. Keller had a shop where he worked as a plumber and tinsmith. Along with his partner, George Jones, my maternal grandmother’s cousin, they took care of the plumbing needs of the town. As a tinsmith, my grandfather made many utensils for the people of the town. One of his specialties was a copper container he made for the miners. The utensil was oval in shape, about four by six inches and ten inches high with a neck on top to accommodate a cork. The miners used them to carry their tea or coffee when working in the mine. Another special container he made was the shape of a large bucket made of copper with a long wooden handle. This utensil called a “Honey Bucket” was used by the men who cleaned out the privies in the town. He would never allow these to be brought in for repair and made his customers buy a new one.

My grandfather’s home was situated on the north mountain plateau. The house was surrounded by a flower and vegetable garden. There was an apple, cherry, and plum tree on the property and a chicken coop in the back. Inside the home, my grandmother with the help of Bertha, my grandfather’s sister, took care of the household chores. At dinner time, she enticed everyone to the table with her snitz and kenepp and huckleberry duff. At times during the summer when the family gathered, a picnic was in order. A trip to a grove in Maysville was the place to go. An open trolley called a “breezer” was the highlight of the trip, the pleasant flow of air invigorated all. Two elderly spinster ladies, Gert and Agnes Faringer lived across the street from grandfather’s house. They supplied the town with their special baked goods. On a side street in the same area, the Zimbos had a candy store. There, for ten cents you could buy enough candy to last a week. Once a week, a farmer by the name of Teeple came to town. His truck was loaded with fresh vegetables, ham, frankfurters, and bologna. He also carried milk, cream, and smearcase, called cottage cheese today. The Mount Carmel Item was the newspaper of the day, and was eagerly awaited by all for its national and local coverage of the news.

Living in the town of Aristes on the north mountaintop, the Kostenbauders, my paternal grandmother’s relatives, provided a service for the surrounding towns. During the frigid winters on the mountaintop, ice was harvested from a large spring-fed pond they owned. The ice was stored in a shed and covered with sawdust, providing ice for the area during the summer.

Across the street from the firehouse in Centralia, there was a vacant strip of land that the natives of the town used to pasture their cows and goats. All day long, the clank of the a cow bell and the tinkle of the bells on the goats filled the air. There were others occupying the area—the belligerent gander took time from his watch in the valley to bring his flock there for a meal of weeds and grass. Small white butterflies fluttered among the Canadian thistle, the vines of the morning glory, and fragrant honeysuckle. Bees, hummingbirds, and a small yellow gold finch, resembling the canary my grandmother had in a cage, flitted among the plants. Crossing this pasture required the agility of a ballet dancer to avoid the cow flops.

In late May and early June, the mountains around Centralia were covered with blooming mountain laurel, the State of Pennsylvania flower. As summer approached July, the native huckleberry, a cousin of the blueberry, made its ripe appearance. Pickers flocked to the hills, and at thirty-five cents a quart, one could make a little money on the side. Recipes popped from the mind or were retrieved from some nook or cranny for immediate use. I never noticed, but some said that during these times, when entering the town, one could smell the baking huckleberry pies. Another highlight this time of the year was the block party held by the Fire Company, lots of games and good things to eat. My favorite was the hotdog smothered with fried onions—at 15 cents, it was hard to beat, and I can still taste them to this day.

As evening settled over the town, the arc lights came on dispelling the shadows accumulating on the intersections. The insects of the night appeared, mesmerized by the brilliance of the light, they fluttered and circled it all night long. As the darkness increased, a chorus began of a hundred barking dogs communicating with each other until sunrise. As the night progressed, another sound commenced, a chugging sound, becoming louder and louder, surpassing the sound of the barking dogs. Now a clattering and loud chugging sound reverberated across the valley. Rattling the dishes in the cupboards of the houses situated near the railroad, and waking the soundest sleeper, it was the coal train, fighting a two-percent grade up the Centralia Valley from Shamokin to Locust Summit. Four powerful steam engines, two pulling and two pushing, a hundred cars between, each loaded with fifty tons of gleaming anthracite. There was a lull, as the leading engines passed around the bend. It did not last, for as the pushers entered the area, the din commenced again, gradually fading away as they disappeared leaving the rest of the night to the dogs.

The Fourth of July was a glorious time in Centralia, and I thought about it all year long. From dawn to dusk, explosions sounded throughout the valley. There was the noise of tiny firecrackers, set off by the string, then the louder flash crackers, and louder still the five incher’s and cherry bombs. There were few injuries if any, because everyone was an expert. As evening descended upon the town, the real show began. There was no need for a community program, the community was already involved. Sky rockets, Roman candles, and aerial displays filled the sky. Off on the mountaintops, bright flashes appeared, and a few seconds later, the sound of loud explosions. The miners of the town were adding to the celebration by setting off sticks of dynamite. As the celebration with its sights and sounds, came to an end, the people of the town, happy but tired went to bed, dropping of to sleep, regardless of the sounds of the night.

It was late afternoon, the day before Christmas in Philadelphia. It had been snowing all day, as an early winter snowstorm swept into the area. In the Reading Terminal, a long string of passenger cars stood coupled to a large black steam engine. Panting like some huge animal, with smoke swirling from its stack toward the ventilated roof of the terminal, it was ready to take on the storm outside and carry the “coal-crackers” to their destinations. Anyone who lived, or had lived in the coal regions, was called a “coal-cracker” whether they had anything to do with the mines or not. This was the annual Christmas excursion to that region, dropping passengers off at various coal towns along the way.

To name some, there was Port Clinton, Schuylkill Haven, Pottsville, Tamaqua, Shenandoah, Mahanoy City, Frackville, Ashland, Gordon, Mount Carmel and Shamokin. Some of these towns had large railyards with hundreds of cars, each filled with fifty tons of coal waiting delivery. Inside the train, it was cozy and warm, with the steam from the boiler of the engine rattling through the radiators. After several hours travel, and dropping passengers off, the train stopped in Ashland PA, two stops from its termination in Shamokin. Leaving the train, the passengers who wanted to get to Centralia had a pleasant surprise. Standing there waiting was a team of horses, hooked to a large sleigh. Normally, a jitney was used to make this trip, but the snow was too deep for it. Piling aboard, covered with blankets, and accompanied by the jingle of bells on the horses, the group was carried up and over the mountain to Centralia.

My summer vacations in Centralia came to an end, when my paternal grandfather bought a farm along Catawissa creek, several miles above Catawissa, PA. From that time on I spent my vacations there with my cousins Jim, Will, Jean, and Lois, working as a farm hand.

The times I have attempted to describe may not have been the best of times for Centralia, but they were certainly better than today. To a young boy, oblivious of the depression in this country and abroad, they were the greatest of times, with memories that will be cherished as long as I live.

The story of the demise of Centralia has been told many times, but it is not yet over. Many attempts have been made to put out the fire in the mine, without success. Flooding the mine was a failure, with temperatures in the confined areas of the mine reaching 1000 degrees, water induced immediately turned into steam. The latest plan being considered is to strip the mine and expose the fire. Since many parts of it are very deep, 500 to 800 hundred feet, stripping it will result in the creation of huge holes. This will completely destroy the area where what remains of Centralia now exists, and any semblance of the little town will be gone forever.

Written and Contributed by:

Robert Keller Fetterman
Xmas 1999

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