On Ash Wednesday, many Christians are reminded of our mortality by having ashes placed on their foreheads, signifying that our bodies were made from nothing, and will return to nothing when we die. The ashes are a symbol of this passing world.
While this religious service is personal and individual, the passage of time can also relate to whole communities and civilizations. Abandoned towns return to the dust of the earth whence they had been raised.
Before malls, many of us remember when the main street in small towns commanded all business and commerce. The banks, movie theaters, grocery stores, five and dime department stores, clothing and hardware stores made Main Street THE hub of activity. There was a sense of civic pride among inhabitants.
The few remaining buildings of small towns across America hearken the hopeful, boom time after World War II but in most towns, those optimistic years are long gone. It's most depressing for those from the baby boom generation to see a Main Street with boarded storefronts, empty houses and empty streets.
Owing its existence to the coal underground, the Columbia County town of Centralia had 1,000 residents during the 1950s. Sinkholes and poisonous gases caused by an underground mine fire posed a threat to inhabitants, destroying the town. For the last two decades, just over a handful of inhabitants have been fighting condemnation proceedings.
The fire began in 1962 at the town dump and spread to a network of coal mines beneath the borough. For some time, the smoke and steam being forced to the surface by the underground fire offered a kind of Yellowstone hot springs allure to Route 61 travelers. The scene turned ominous in 1981 when a 12-year old boy was nearly swallowed by a sink hole that was also giving off deadly levels of carbon monoxide.
In 1983 the state began a voluntary relocation of residents. Most of the inhabitants accepted the voluntary buyouts to leave town or resolved condemnation proceedings without going to court. The state and federal government paid more than $43 million to relocate families and clean up the area.
Seven holdouts have been fighting a legal battle to remain in their homes, alleging the fire never posed a threat to the health or safety of Centralia residents. They maintained that the condemnation was just a ploy used by Blaschak Coal Corp. to access the billions of dollars worth of coal still in the earth. That allegation has been denied.
Last week, those last holdout families agreed to drop their opposition. They will be permitted to remain in their homes until they die.
In the not too distant future after the last survivor is gone, Centralia's last homes will be razed, the physical remnants returning to the earth that holds the veins of coal to which the town owed its existence.
By Jim Zbick