Tag Archive: Unusual


Centralia’s Hidden Inferno

There is a small town in Pennsylvania called Ashland where old Route 61’s northbound traffic is temporarily branched onto a short detour.  Exactly why the detour is circumventing a perfectly serviceable road is not immediately clear; however, few passersby pay it any mind – a detour is nothing unusual.  But anyone who ventures along the original Route 61 highway will soon encounter a town filled with overgrown streets, ominous warning signs, and great cracks in the earth expelling steam and smoke.  There are the smoldering remains of the borough of Centralia.

The coal mining town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, was never a large community, but tit was once a lively and industrial place.  At its peak it was home to 2,761 souls, but today the population of its cemeteries far outnumber that of its living residents.  The series of events that led to the community’s demise, slowly diminishing its numbers to less than a dozen, began in the 1960s.

In 1962, workers set a heap of trash ablaze in the community landfill, a pit that had once been part of a mine.  The burning of excess trash was a common practice, yet at that particular spot there existed a dangerous condition:  an exposed vein of anthracite coal.  The highly flammable mineral was unexpectedly ignited by the trash fire.  The flames on the surface were quickly and successfully extinguished, and the firefighting equipment was packed up.  But unbeknownst to the townsfolk, the coal continued to burn underground.  Over the following weeks it quickly and quietly migrated into the surrounding coal mines and beneath the town, causing great concern once it was discovered.

Soon the Pennsylvania department of Environmental Resources began monitoring the fire by drilling holes into the earth to determine its extent and temperature.  As a precaution, the Department also installed gas monitors in many homes within the affected area, but even so many residents complained of symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure.  The fire continued to gradually move its way through the underground coal veins, possibly accelerated by the air allowed in by the monitoring boreholes.

The fire had little impact on residents’ day-to-day lives, but in 1969, seven years after the fire was started, the Department of Environmental Resources was forced to acknowledge that the fire was not running out of fuel or burning itself out, so a more involved effort was undertaken.  Workers dug containment trenches and installed clay seals, but the subterranean fire was too vast to be defeated with such methods.  In the 1970s, concerns over the severity of the extensive subterranean fire were stirred again when a local gas station owner discovered that the fuel in his tanks was a troubling 180 degrees Fahrenheit.

Numerous attempts were made to extinguish or contain the underground fire over the next two decades.  The mines were flushed with water and the burning coal excavated, but these efforts were unsuccessful.  The work continued for years at great expense, with no appreciable progress.

In 1981, after Centralia had been simmering for nearly 20 years, a 12-year-old boy named Todd Domboski was nearly swallowed by the earth when the ground crumbled beneath his feet.  As the 4-foot-wide, 150-feet-deep sinkhole vomited concentrated carbon monoxide, the boy pulled himself from the edge with the help of his cousin.  It was not the first nor the last sinkhole caused by the fire, but it was certainly the most sobering.  The harrowing incident drew national media attention.

At that point, about $7 million had been spent in the firefighting effort.  Experts determined that the only remaining effective option would be a massive trenching operation, at the cost of about $660 million, with no guarantee of success.  Left with such unpalatable options, the state of Pennsylvania basically condemned the entire town and spent $42 million in government funds to relocate most of its residents.

The fire continues to burn today beneath about 400 acres of surface land, and it’s still growing.  There is enough coal in the eight-mile vein to feed the fire for up to 250 years, but experts believe that it may burn itself out in as few as 100 years.  A few residents remained in the borough after the buyout, but their numbers have dwindled since then to about a dozen.  Most of the unoccupied homes and buildings have been razed, and large portions of the town are being reclaimed by nature.  The area is now largely comprised of wild meadows crisscrossed with overgrown asphalt roads, and the occasional hillside riddled with smoking crevasses.

In its prime, Centralia was a vibrant community with five hotels, seven churches, 19 general stores, two jewelry stores, and about 26 saloons.  Today it is a modern host town whose guts have been burned out and whose main path of ingress has been closed or detoured.  Residents are expected to return in 2016 to open a time capsule that was buried in the town in 1966, back when the town’s future was still somewhat optimistic.  Its future now is decidedly more grim.  There are currently no further plans to extinguish the fire, and most modern maps no longer show a dot where Centralia once stood.

The Dustbin of History

Lord Cornbury (Edward Hyde), colonial governor of New York from 1702 to 1708

Hyde, a cousin of Queen Anne, was appointed governor of New York in 1702.  When colonists went to welcome him, they found him rocking on his porch, knitting a doily and wearing one of his wife’s dresses.

things got weirder when he threw his first dress ball.  Not only was he decked out in a formal gown, he also charged an admission fee and insisted that his guests all feel his wife’s ears. . .which he had described in a long poem as “conch shells.”

For many years, he was the talk of New York, especially when it turned out he had taken the governorship to escape creditors in England.  Then, in 1708, he was caught embezzling public funds.

Cornbury was confined to debtor’s prison until his father died, when he inherited a title and returned to England.  No monuments to his rule were built, but he did leave his family name on land along the Hudson:  Hyde Park.

Lucy Page Gaston, 1860-1924, American anti-tobacco reformer

After legendary prohibitionist Carrie Nation, she was the most famous American female reformer of her time.  In 1899 she founded the Chicago Anti-Cigarette League, which became the National Anti-Cigarette League two years later.  For a while the movement she inspired was a real threat to the tobacco industry, as cigarette sales dipped by 25 percent.

By 1920 she was so well-known that she became a candidate in the republican presidential race, vowing to “emancipate” the country from smoking.  But she won few votes, and Warren Harding, a smoker, was nominated.

By June 1924, Gaston was hit by a trolley while crossing the street.   She was taken to a hospital, but did not respond well to treatment.  That’s when doctors discovered she was terminally ill.  She died two months later – of throat cancer.

Louis Rainer, a film star of the ‘30s

She was the first person ever to win two consecutive Academy Awards – for Best Actress in 1936, for the Great Ziegfield; and in 1937, for The Good Earth.

In 1936, nominations were still carefully controlled by movie studios.  Rainer’s first nomination was engineered by MGM to help develop her career.  It was only her second film, and it was a relatively small part.  No one thought she would actually win the Oscar.  That’s why everyone voted for her.

The following year, voting was opened up for the first time to thousands of actors, writers, etc.  Rainer, who was well-liked for not acting like a “star,” beat out Greta Garbo and Barbara Stanwyck.

For some reason, MGM forced Rainer into a quick series of throwaway roles; two years and five insignificant pictures later, she was a has-been.  Her downfall led gossip columnist Louella Parsons to coin the term “Oscar jinx.”

Smedley Butler, America’s most famous soldier, a U.S. Marine and two-time Medal of Honor winner, nicknamed “Old Gimlet Eye”

Once called “the finest fighting man in the armed forces” by Teddy Roosevelt, Butler ws renowned for personal bravery, tactical brilliance, and the ability to inspire his fellow soldiers.  He joined a Marine force in China during the Boxer rebellion and helped carry a wounded comrade 17 miles through enemy fire back to their camp.  He was promoted to Captain, at age 18.  He later served in Cuba, Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, and Haiti.

Butler served in France during World War I, not at the front, but as a commander of a troop depot, Camp Pontanezen.  Ironically, his greatest fame came from this post.  The camp was practically buried in mud; and the troops were short of food and blankets.  But somehow, Butler scrounged a huge supply of slats used for trench floors and created walkways and tent floors to keep the troops out of the mud.

The grateful soldiers never forgot him.  As one said, “I’d cross hell on a slat if Butler gave the word.”  After the war, Butler was regarded as presidential material (he didn’t run).  He was also a popular figure on the lecture series.

In the early ‘30s, he was approached by men claiming to be associated with the American Legion.  They wanted him to organize a fighting force to overthrow Franklin Roosevelt, and said there was 4300 million available to fund the insurrection.  Butler played along and eventually learned he was being courted buy the American Fascist Movement.  He divulged the plot before the Un-American Activities Committee in 1934, but nothing much came of it; the story was hushed up because several prominent figures were involved.

Butler retired from the Corps in 1931, but continued to speak out on military and foreign-policy issues.  He died in 1940.

William Walker, American journalist, physician, lawyer, and soldier of fortune

Walker is the only native-born American ever to become president of a foreign nation.  From July 1856 to May 1857, he was self-appointed dictator of Nicaragua, a nation he took over with a hand-picked force of mercenaries who called themselves “The Immortals.”

Walker’s success made him a hero throughout the U.S., where the notion of “manifest destiny” was gaining wide acceptance.  Crowds cheered his exploits, newspapers hailed his triumphs.  But a coalition of Central American nations, financed in part by Cornelius Vanderbilt, overthrew Walker.  On May 1, 1857, he and his troops fled back to the United States.

Walker made three more attempts to win control in Central America.  Finally, in the fall of 1859, he and his men attacked Honduras and were captured by British and Honduran troops.

Walker surrendered to the British, expecting he would again be returned to the States.  But he was turned over to the Hondurans instead, and was executed by a firing squad on September 12, 1860.  He was so hated by Nicaraguans that he became a symbol of “Yankee Imperialism.”  He is still remembered there.

More Presidential Firsts

Grover Cleveland (1885-89; 1893-97) First president to have hanged a man.  From 1871 to 1873, Cleveland was sheriff of Erie County, New York.  When two men were sentenced to death, he put the hoods over their heads, tightened the noose, and sprung the trap door himself.  He explained later that he couldn’t ask his deputies to do it just because he didn’t want to.  The experience affected him so deeply that he didn’t run for reelection.

James Garfield (1881) First president who could write in two languages at once.  Garfield was ambidextrous; he could write in Greek with one hand while writing in Latin with the other.

William Howard Taft (1909-1913) First president entrapped by a White House plumbing fixture.  Taft weighed in at between 300 and 350 pounds while he was president.  He was so big that one morning he got stuck in the White House tub, and had to call his aides to help him get out.  Taft subsequently ordered a tub large enough to hold four average-sized men.  He never got stuck again.

First president to throw out the first pitch of the baseball season.  Taft was our fattest president.  His handlers feared his girth might make him seem weak when he ran for office again.  So, in 1910, one of them suggested to the president that he begin playing a sport to prove that he still had his youthful vigor.  When Taft vetoed the idea, his aide suggested that he at least make a ceremonial appearance at a sporting event, say, to throw out the first ball of the baseball season.  Taft agreed, and on April 14, 1910, he waddled out to the pitcher’s mound at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., and pitched a ball to home plate. (It went wild)

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Continuing the tradition started by Taft, subsequent presidents’ pitches were just as wild.  By 1929, rather than actually pitch the ball, most presidents just threw it onto the field from their seat in the stands.

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James Madison (1809-1817) First president to weigh less than his IQ.  Madison, the unofficial “Father of the U.S. Constitution,” was only five feet, four inches tall and never weighed more than 98 pounds as president.  One historian has called him “a dried-up, wizened little man”—and observed that when he went walking with his friend Thomas Jefferson, the two looked “as if they were on their way to a father-and-son banquet.”

First commander in chief to actually command a military unit while in office.  When the British attacked Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812, President Madison personally took charge of an artillery battery.  But that didn’t last long; when the Americans started to lose, Madison fled the city.

John Tyler (1841-1845) First president to elope while in office.  On June 26, 1844, the 54-year-old Tyler sneaked off to New York City with 24-year-old Julia Gardiner to tie the knot.  They decided on a secret wedding because supporters were worried about the public’s reaction to their 30-year age difference.  It didn’t matter, the press found out about it almost at once.  Ironically, Julia turned out to be just about the most popular part of Tyler’s presidency.  (They had seven kids – the last one when Tyler was 70.)

Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) First president to have an asteroid named after him.  No, it’s not an honor of his presidency.  In 1920, Austrian astronomer Johann Palisa discovered an asteroid and named it Hooveria, to honor Hoover’s humanitarian work as chairman of the Interallied Food Council, which was helping to feed starving people in post-WWI Europe.  Said Palisa:  “It is a pity we have only a middle-magnitude asteroid to give to this great man.  He is worthy of at least a planet.”

Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) First president to see a UFO.  One evening in 1969, Carter and a few companions saw a “bluish. . .then reddish” saucer-shaped object moving across the sky.  “It seemed to move toward us from a distance,” Carter later told UFO researchers, “then it stopped and moved partially away.  It returned and departed.  It came close. . .maybe three hundred to one thousand yards away. . .moved away, came close, and then moved away.”  He added:  “I don’t laugh at people anymore when they say they’ve seen UFOs.

Harry S. Truman First president to buzz the White House in an airplane.  On May 19, 1946, President Truman climbed aboard his presidential aircraft, the Sacred Cow, for a flight to Independence, Missouri.  Shortly after takeoff, he asked his pilot to fly the plane into restricted airspace above the White House, where First Lady Bess Truman, daughter Margaret, and several other guests were waiting on the roof.

As the Sacred Cow approached the executive mansion, Truman asked Myers to dive bomb the White House.  “I’ve always wanted to try something like that,” the president explained.  The pilot sent the Sacred Cow into a dive, taking it from 3,000 feet to 500 feet in a matter of seconds.  “At 500 feet, I had the Cow leveled and we roared over the White House roof.  Everyone there was frozen with fear.  We climbed to 3,000 feet again, swooped, circled, and fell into another dive.  But this time Margaret and her mother were jumping and waving.  We shot past them, at a little over 500 feet and roared back upstairs once more.”  From there the plane proceeded directly to Independence, where the president visited his mother.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison The only presidents to be arrested together.  One afternoon in the spring of 1791, future presidents Jefferson and Madison were riding a carriage through the Virginia countryside when a rural sheriff pulled them over and arrested them on the spot.  Their crime:  riding in a carriage on Sunday.

Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)  First and last (that we know of) president to wear another president’s body part during his inauguration.  The night before he was sworn into office in 1901, was given an unusual gift – a ring containing strands of hair that had been cut from President Abraham Lincoln’s head the night he was assassinated.  Roosevelt wore the ring to his inauguration the next day.

First president to coin an advertising slogan.  While he was visiting Andrew Jackson’s home in Nashville, Tennessee, roosevelt was offered a cup of the coffee sold at the nearby Maxwell House hotel.  When someone asked if he’d like another cup, Roosevelt replied:  “Will I have another cup?  Delighted!  It’s good to the last drop!”  His words were eventually used by Maxwell House in thier ad campaigns.

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Teddy was also the first president to be blinded while in office.  He liked to box, and during one White House bout was hit so hard he became permanently blind in one eye.

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Warren G. Harding First president to bet (and lose) White House china in poker games.  Harding was an enthusiastic poker player; unfortunately, he wasn’t very good at it and was often short of cash.  End result:  when he was low on cash during poker games with his buddies, he used individual pieces of fine White House china for poker chips.  it is not know how many pieces of the china were lost in this way.

First president to pardon a dog.  One morning Harding read a newspaper article about a Pennsylvania dog that had been ordered destroyed because it had been brought into the country illegally.  Harding, who loved animals, wrote a letter to the governor of Pennsylvania.  The governor saw to it that the dog’s life was spared.

Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) First president with a fear of electricity.  President Harrison knew two things about electricity:  The White House had just been wired for it, and it could kill people (the electric chair was becoming a common form of execution).  That was all he needed to know.  He didn’t want anything more to do with it.  Throughout his entire term, he and his wife refused to turn the lights on and off themselves.  they either had the servants do it or left the lights off or on at night.

Andrew Jackson (1828-1837) First president to be born in more than one place.  The following places claim themselves as Andrew Jackson’s birthplace:  Union County, North Carolina; Berkeley County, West Virginia; Augusta County, West Virginia; York County, Pennsylvania; as well as England, Ireland, and the Atlantic Ocean (he may have been born at sea).  His “official” birthplace:  Waxhaw, South Carolina.

John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) First president interviewed in the nude.  President Adams loved to skinny-dip.  In hot weather he’d sneak out for a swim in the Potomac.  One morning Anne Royall – a reporter who had been trying to interview him for months – sneaked up while he was swimming, sat on his clothes, and refused to leave until he granted her an interview.  He did.

Martin Van Buren (1837-1841) First president to forget about his wife.  In his autobiography, Van Buren did not mention his wife, Hannah, once.

David Rice Atchison (1849-1849) First president to serve for one day.  Zachary Taylor was so religious that he refused to take the oath of office on Sunday.  So Atchison, President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate, stood in for him until he could be sworn in the next day.