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Pennsylvania’s Lost Town: Documentary film has its debut

June 2017

On 6 May 2017, a long-awaited documentary film had its premiere at the Majestic Theater in Pottsville, Pennsylvania:  CENTRALIA, Pennsylvania’s Lost Town.  Directed by Joe Sapienza II, the film documents the rise and fall of a once thriving mining town, a fall that many will argue didn’t have to happen.

Deep in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region is the remains of a once thriving community, founded in 1866.  Most of the streets in this town are overgrown and crumbling, but one will find the odd house here and there; six to be exact.

Along Pennsylvania Route 42, also known as Locust Street, there is a brown brick building that says “Municipal Building” on the front, but other than a firetruck parked in one of the bays on the north side of the building, it’s empty.

This is the Borough of Centralia, a town that once had a population of almost 2500 residents in the 1940s.  Today there are only six residents.  Why is this once vibrant community on the verge of extinction?

A mine fire has been burning under the borough since May 1962, a result of “controlled burn” in the garbage dump, which got into an unsealed opening in the pit allowed the fire to enter the labyrinth of abandoned coal mines beneath Centralia.  Attempts to extinguish the fire over the next several months failed, as did all attempts over the next two decades.

Dangerous carbon monoxide and and the occasional subsidence caused most of the residents to leave, first voluntarily and then involuntarily when the state government invoked the right of Eminent Domain.  The last remaining residents were finally given official permission to stay in their homes in 2013 after settling their two-decade long lawsuit.

In 2013, Philadelphia native Sapienza, a camera assistant and assistant producer with NFL Films and a freelance videographer, began production on an 18-minute documentary on Centralia while a still film student at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

After the film was completed the following year, Sapienza decided to expand the film to a feature length film, with assistance from producer Allyson Kircher, an assistant at CESD Talent in New York.

The film tells the story of Centralia, as well as the neighboring Village of Byrnesville, and the mine fire that destroyed both communities using interviews with current and former residents of the borough, academics like author David DeKok, who has written two books about the Centralia mine-fire, lawyers, coal company representatives and state officials, along with archival news footage that document the decline of Centralia.

The film not only documents the fire from its beginnings, but also the controversial political decisions that not only doomed Centralia, but also ripped apart once the tight-knit residents between those who wanted to stay and those who wanted to leave.  The deteriorating situation pitted neighbour against neighbour and even family.

The journey getting the completed film to the screen was a long, difficult one with many technical and financial issues nearly derailing the film three times.  Even car troubles plagued the first day of shooting with former resident and postmaster Tom Dempsey.

Further delays resulted from post-production scheduling conflicts and additional interviews scheduled after filming originally wrapped, pushing the original release date of late spring / early summer of 2016 to the spring on 2017.

In addition to making the film, Sapienza has organized three community clean-ups in Centralia with Bobby Hughes, executive director of the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation, in Ashley, Pennsylvania, over the past three years.  Although the borough is virtually abandoned, two busy state roads run through it, so Centralia is far from deserted.

Some of those vehicles traveling through the borough slip down the deserted former residential streets and dump their garbage, everything from household waste to furniture to old tires.  Over time, this illegal dumping amounts to significant amount of garbage

Showings of the film will continue throughout Pennsylvania this spring and summer, so far until 19 August in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, but more dates may be added in the future.

Sources:  www.centraliapa.org, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3758864, http://www.pennlive.com/entertainment/index.ssf/2017/05/centralia_burning_for_decades.html, http://www.mcall.com/entertainment/tv-watchers/mc-centrallia-to-be-subject-of-documentary-possible-nbc-drama-20160105-story.html, http://republicanherald.com/news/documentary-on-centralia-to-wrap-in-may-1.2146613, personal observations of the author.

Also see the 2007 documentary THE TOWN THAT WAS, an intimate portrait of one Centralian’s quixotic fight for a town that has literally disintegrated under his feet – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhOeyWlrSEw

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/pennsylvanias-lost-town-documentary-film-has-its-debut/

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