In 1962, a trash fire ignited a seam of anthracite coal beneath Centralia, Pennsylvania, a once thriving mining town of over 1600 people. By the mid 1980's, giant plumes of smoke and deadly carbon monoxide gases billowed from fissures in the ground, the local highway cracked and collapsed, trees were bleached white and petrified, as the fire continued to rage unchecked. It wasn't until a young boy nearly died after falling into a smoldering mine subsidence that the government was pressed into action. After estimating the cost of extinguishing the fire at over a half a billion dollars, the government opted to raze the town and relocate its residents. Today, 11 die-hards remain. Filmed over a period of five years with interviews ranging from former residents to Congressmen, The Town That Was is an intimate portrait of John Lokitis, the youngest remaining Centralian, and his quixotic fight to keep alive a hometown that has literally disintegrated under his feet. His unbowed determination... Written by
Georgie Roland, Chris Perkel
Brief documentary regarding one of the heralded underground mine fires
I had been anticipating the release of this film onto DVD for quite some time now. I first become privy to the film over two years ago, just missing my chance to view it in a nearby city by a few weeks. I began to wait and wait until the DVD hit stories. After an online rental, I finally got to satiate my desire.
I must say, I knew quite a bit about Centralia prior to the film. I've read Joan Quigley's "The Day The Earth Caved In", read various websites, and even visited the town of Centralia in person. I was not sure how they were going to tackle the film. From reading the history behind the town, the press for saving it, and the aftermath, they had potential to really delve into a convoluted situation with many theories of why the government failed to act quickly and the heavy disputes between those who wished to keep the press out of the town. The film mentions these things, albeit too briefly for one with limited knowledge of the story to gain a better insight into the turmoil surrounded within.
The film mainly follows one of the last current residents of the town, we get quality reminiscing of how the town was, childhood memories, the camaraderie of neighbors, and he provides a great warmth for one to imagine how a town that is doomed to be torn down once prospered. We're treated to old film of Holiday parades at the intro of the film, I personally was expecting much more of this type of medium. This was one of my biggest expectations of the film, old achieve footage of the press the fire got. From reading up on the town, they actually appeared prime time on ABC in the 80s when they were trying to garner enough support to finally put the fire out. Sadly, no news footage of the sort appears in the film. The film largely comprises of first had accounts of how the town used to be from old residents, politicians, and relatives. Between these scenes, we are treated to the hometown resident walking around town giving us a detailed tour of how the town looks now.
I guess now is also the proper time to dispel any unseemly expectations. Cenralia is not on fire above ground. You will not see this film or visit the town and see flames billowing from the grounds or trees on fire. What you will see is the old highway deteriorated and cranked, smoke rising from the ground, and lots of dead trees and vegetation letting the viewer to realize the roots were torched from beneath the surface.
Overall, the film is a good introduction for those who may have heard about the film or the legends. It's too brief in spots, but many books were written to help fill in those gaps. I do wish in included news footage from the past, a topographical map detailing a then/now perspective, and just all around a longer documentary; there's much more history to push it over the ninety minute mark.
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