Flashback Monday: Our Town

15th November 2010

In an effort to gather all my writing in one place, I’ve been posting articles that originally appeared elsewhere, or work that has been gathering dust on my hard drive. This piece was originally published in 2002 by The Morning News. Thanks to Rosecrans Baldwin, for the edits.

A village that dies overnight, a town where the ground is on fire, real-life Atlantises. This is a small collection of stories about normal towns where strange things happen.

It’s the premise of nearly every solid horror novel, an ordinary place where something unexpected happens. The unusual event often begins as something small—a trickle of water, a puff of carbon dioxide, or a match flame that takes on destructive proportions over time.

As an editor I spend a great deal of time thinking about little things and their consequences, so I’m particularly fascinated by towns where a single event has led to abandonment or decimation. Though these places feel dispossessed, they also have an inherent sense of expectation to them. A few of the most interesting:

Centralia, Pennsylvania

In 1981, Todd Dombowski was twelve. He was playing near a tree in his grandmother’s backyard when smoke coiled up from the dirt. As he watched it, the ground beneath him suddenly gave way. Todd grabbed at the tree’s roots, caught hold, and was left dangling above a smoking, 80-foot-deep hole until someone heard his cries for help and came to rescue him.

By this time, anthracite mines under the town had been burning for nearly 20 years. Anthracite is an extremely hard coal that is difficult to ignite, but—once lit—is nearly impossible to extinguish. Centralia authorities discovered this in 1962 when a fire at the local dump managed to ignite one of the coal seams. The fire department pumped thousands of gallons of water into the mines, to no avail. Experts from the U.S. Bureau of Mines estimated that the least expensive solution would cost at least $20 million, an astronomical amount at the time, and so the mines were left to smolder.

By the time grandma’s garden tried to swallow young Todd, the fire had already claimed one cracking, bubbling highway, and townspeople had begun to notice that their basements were unusually warm. Within days of the backyard collapse, cave-ins in Centralia became commonplace.

The federal government evacuated the town, demolishing homes as residents fled, clearing away the rubble. They left a tangle of empty streets punctuated with driveways leading to empty spaces where houses once stood. The fire hydrants and traffic signs remain intact, as does the local church and a handful of scattered businesses.

A few residents decided to stay put, despite the increasingly nauseating levels of carbon dioxide in the air, and the smoke that has permanently settled just above the ground. No doubt the residents have learned to forget about the white-hot inferno blazing just below them. Perhaps they hope the fire will eventually burn itself out.

Unfortunately, 24 million tons of anthracite is a whole lot of coal. Enough, according to mine fire authorities, to burn for a thousand years.

Lake Nyos, Cameroon

Almost every living thing near Lake Nyos died in a single night—1,700 villagers, thousands of cattle, and most of the wildlife and insects. News of the disaster traveled quickly, and scientists from all over the world rushed to Cameroon to learn what they could about these mysterious deaths.

The bodies were almost peaceful. Their flesh was untraumatized, and many villagers seemed to have died in their sleep. Locals believed the disaster was the work of a mythological spirit woman who was said to live in lakes and rivers. This idea, it turns out, wasn’t too far off.

Lake Nyos is a crater lake settled in the saucer of an active volcano. The volcano had been steadily releasing carbon dioxide into the bottom of the lake for years. On August 21, 1986, the lake rolled over.

Scientists were unsure of how this happened at first, but surmised that the recent and rapid accumulation of rainwater could be the culprit. If so, the rainwater was likely pushed to one side of the lake by strong winds. Because this water was colder than the lake water—and therefore denser—the mass of rainwater sank into one side of the lake, causing dissolved gases to ‘undissolve’ (or ‘exsolve’) and rise to the surface violently.

Those nearby heard a deep growl as the gas cloud rushed into valleys below, crushing vegetation in its path. The wave of carbon dioxide was 165 feet thick and reached speeds of 45 miles per hour.

In addition to the 1,700 killed, 845 residents were hospitalized. Those who lived through it said they felt faint and fevered before passing out. They awoke to find that most of their family members and neighbors had perished.

Drowned Towns

Countless North American towns have been submerged to make way for dams and the reservoirs they create. Four communities in Massachusetts—Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott—were consumed by the Swift River to improve the Eastern Massachusetts water supply. Houses were razed and the cemeteries of white inhabitants relocated. Factories were likewise demolished, and trees cleared.

In fact, almost anywhere you find a reservoir, the footprints of sunken towns are likely impressed beneath. Sopris, Colorado, was drowned when the Trinidad Dam and Reservoir were built, and the state’s McPhee Reservoir covers the town of McPhee. St. Thomas, Nevada; Heroult, Kennett, Baird, and Copper City in California—all are underwater now, as are several towns beneath the Neversink and Roundout Reservoirs in New York.

In the U.K., the Ladybower Dam flooded the villages of Derwent and Ashopton. The dam was completed in 1945 amidst protests, but many buildings remained standing. Graveyards were relocated, but Derwent Hall (built in 1672) is now waterlogged, as are several farms that had been around for generations. For a long while, the spire of a local church pierced the water’s surface whenever the reservoir was low. Unfortunately, the church was later demolished for safety reasons. The Dam is now a thriving tourist attraction.

15 thoughts on “Flashback Monday: Our Town

  1. Heather

    “the premise of nearly every solid horror novel.”

    As a child growing up in eastern Pennsylvania we went on a school field trip to Centralia. It is a bizarre place that is most definitely still burning from the underneath. The driveways to nowhere will have a plume of smoke coming out of the yard, a green tree will stand next to a charred trunk. It’s so creepy and weird, so let’s take children there!

    Thanks for the fun article!

  2. Libby Forsyth

    My husband’s grandparents and their family were evacuated from the towns of Peach and Plum, Washington. They were flooded to created Lake Roosevelt.

  3. Katy Bug

    I have just wondered over from Bug’s Eye View. Its strang to think about the lives of so many changing so quickly.

    I recently saw a news report about flooded towns near a dam in Colorado are now visible again because the water level of the lake has droped.

  4. JessicaP

    I grew up not far from Centralia, Pennsylvania. It really is an unreal experience to go there. I remember driving through part of it once in the early 90s on the way to a soccer tournament and being totally in awe of the place. I couldn’t believe there were still people living there. Two days later there was a big article in the paper about how they finally had to close that same highway route we had just taken because part of it had collapsed. Creepy.

  5. Mia

    Oh, I’m so glad you posted this! My fiance and I are headed to upstate PA this weekend to visit my mother, and Centralia is literally on the way. We’re going to stop and do some exploring/ picture taking. Adventure!

  6. April G.

    I live near the Quabbin reservoir, which, when it was created, flooded those towns in Massachusetts. They have a visitors center with pictures of what the towns looked like, and everyday artifacts from the families of people who lived in them. It’s eerie and unnerving. If you look on the map you can see roads, like Enfield Road, which once led to the towns but now end at the reservoir.

  7. Rachel

    Watauga Lake (in northeast TN, not far from the NC border) is over the town of Old Butler, TN. I heard that a couple of years after flooding the town, the former residents were offered rides on the lake to go over where they used to live. It was pretty traumatic for people, whose families had lived in one spot for generations and generations.

  8. Amy

    In Drowned Towns, I think this line, “the cemeteries of white inhabitants relocated,” merits its own story. There’s a lot to explore in that one adjective. Thanks for sharing.

  9. lisa

    the little towns are so adorable and such treasures. I love traveling through the small towns because I meet the most amazing people.

  10. Lindsay

    Reading these definitely gives my the chills… The first one, Centralia Pennsylvania, reminds me of a video game turned film (geek alert!): Silent Hill. I didn’t realize that story was (so obviously) based on a real place.

    Creepy city.

  11. kerrie

    Thank you for bringing these incidents to attention – your prose is beautiful, though the reality is terrifying.

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