In withered Pennsylvania town, time capsule opens wounds

CENTRALIA Pa. (Reuters) - The contents of a half-century-old time capsule buried in Centralia, Pennsylvania, were bound to stir up bitter-sweet memories for those forced by a still-smoldering underground fire to abandon the town decades ago.

A time capsule buried in Centralia, Pennsylvania, in 1966 is noted by this marker in the yard of the Centralia American Legion post in Centralia, Pennsylvania November 17, 2007. REUTERS/David Dekok

But the official unveiling of the artifacts on Saturday is likely to be a lot more bitter than sweet, even for the people of an old coal mining town that has seen its share of hard luck.

Severe water leakage destroyed much of what was inside, especially books, paper documents and old photos, leading the organizers to schedule the presentation two years earlier than the 50-year anniversary of its burial, when it was originally planned.

“Over 48 years, the stuff was totally ruined,” said Ed Lawler, president of the Centralia chapter of the American Legion, a veterans organization that now meets in the nearby village of Wilburton.

The capsule was buried in the yard of the group’s old building in Centralia in 1966, about 200 feet from the coal mine fire which began in 1962 and still burns today, releasing steam into the air.

“We want to give what’s left back to the original donors or their children,” Lawler said.

Centralia, about 115 miles northwest of Philadelphia, was home to about a thousand people before Congress decided to fund a $42 million relocation of the town that began in 1984. It would have cost an estimated $600 million to put out the fire which geologists say could keep burning for decades, fueled by the large underground coal deposits.

Today, Centralia has fewer than 10 residents. Of the 400 to 500 buildings, perhaps five remain.

As Centralia gradually disappeared, the time capsule’s above-ground stone marker became one of the last reminders of the town that was.

“It held great meaning to those Centralians still alive,” said Michelle Buckley Stauffer, a teacher in Virginia who grew up in Centralia. “Many were looking forward to its opening in 2016. It was to be a reunion of sorts.”

What survived in the capsule ranges from the emblematic, like a miner’s helmet and lamp, to the silly, such as a pair of bloomers signed by the men of the town. Bibles and a photo of the 1966 graduating class of St. Ignatius School turned to mush.

What also survived, according to former resident Pete Kenenitz, were long-standing tensions between people who left Centralia because of the mine fire and the handful who stayed. The holdouts believe the fire threat was overblown.

During the height of the threat, clouds of steam billowed from the ground and a strong sulfur smell hung in the air. Carbon monoxide alarms in homes sounded frequently.

In 1966, the optimism of Centralia’s centennial celebration overshadowed any worries about the mine fire that was accidentally ignited May 27 four years earlier, when members of the town’s Fire Company were hired to clean up a garbage dump.

No one doubted that, eventually, government agencies would fix the problem. But they never did.

Stauffer’s family relocated in 1981 to get away from the gases, mainly carbon monoxide, that were coming into the house and sickening her mother, Evelyn, and her younger sister, Shannon.


The events that led to the premature unearthing of the capsule began in late May or early June when someone — no one knows who - attempted to steal it.

“I think, as many do, that choosing to vandalize the time capsule is beyond understanding,” Stauffer said.

What followed were competing efforts to save the capsule by the remaining residents and by those who left town, represented by the Legion officials. “This should have been done together,” Kenenitz said.

After accusations that someone responded to the vandalism by digging up the capsule without permission and then reburied it, Legion officials decided to dig it up themselves for safekeeping and to remove the contents.

To their horror, there was nearly a foot of water inside, said Tom Dempsey, Centralia’s former postmaster.

Even so, a big party is scheduled behind the Legion building, beginning at noon Saturday. Lawler promises beer, hotdogs and hamburgers but says rain is in the forecast.

Editing by Frank McGurty and Richard Chang