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Centrailia is a town remembered less for the town’s life then the its long agonizing death. Centrailia originally started out as a standard coal mining town in central PA. Like most of its kin, the town had seen better days. The mines were playing out, people were drifting away, and it was a sad shadow of what it had been. Most towns keep hanging on, slowly dieing out from lack of people. This would have surely been Centrailia’s fate, but then the ground caught on fire.

The town’s firefighters on May 27, 1962 set the towns dump on fire. They were trying  to tidy it up for the Memorial Day holiday. This was common practic and they had done it before with no ill effect. However, this was the first time at the dumps new site. While it looked just like a pit, it was actually a strip mine which led the fire into the extensive coal mine tunnels beneath the town. These tunnels were the result of over 100 years of coal mining and gave the fire vital oxygen allowing it to burn out of control.

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The town's Protestant ceremony. The dump where the fire started was in a pit to the left of this picture (now filled in). The close proximity to the cemeitary is one of the reasons why they wanted to clean it up for Memorial Day.
By 1979, the fire had creeped into the town and had started to cause problems for its residents. Poisonous gases started seeping into houses basements, sinkholes opened up, and local gas stations had to close because their underground tanks reached 170 degrees. Although several attempts were made at putting out the fire none were successful. Eventually, the government, due to the danger to the people living  there, condemned the whole town. Most people today have taken government assistance and have moved elsewhere. At last count there are only 10 people left  in the town, the die hards of the die hards.
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Main street today. In its hayday it would have been lined with buildings.
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The great conspiracy.
As a history buff growing up in Pennsylvania, I had always heard about Centrailia. So when my sister offered me a spot on a tour of the town I jumped on it. We got to town and parked next to the old Catholic cemetery. One of the local residents had placed a sign disparaging the governor over the condemning of the town. According to some local residents, the mine fire was part of a large conspiracy by the state to obtain ownership of the "billions of dollars” of coal lying beneath the town. I find this rather ridiculous. Yes, let's set on fire the very thing we are trying to steal. Besides, it’s not like coal was ever worth that much. It’s not gold for pete’s sake! Not to mention that the state has never tried to go after the coal.

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Our Guide David DeKok

Our guide was the author and journalist David DeKok. He had actually seen most of the Centrailia story covering it for the newspapers. As such he had a lovely set of photos that he took throughout the crisis and showed you what used to be. It was through his photos the tragedy would unfold.

The first stop was a small hike on what used to be people's yards. Now, it’s nothing but gravel and a few stubby growth. Steam and smoke still rise from the ground, and if you put your hand in the right spot you can even feel the heat. Telling Centrailia’s story, we looped back around to the cemetery. It is perhaps here that you can best see the edge of the fire. It burned close enough to the  surface that it killed the grass on one corner of the cemetery.

Returning to the main road we passed the site that really put issue of Centrailia on the mind of the nation.
Little Todd Domboski, than 12 years old, was running between houses when the ground gave way beneath him. He managed to grab some tree roots which prevented him from falling into the abyss. A nearby neighbor pulled him to safety before he could succumb to the poisonous gas or cooked in the steam.

A group of reporters happened to be meeting at the gas station across the street. Needless to say a mud splattered kid who just escaped death caused quite the sensation. The near miss was broadcast to the entire nation. It was then that a lot of the Centrailia folk realized just how serious their predicament was.

Our next stop was the Protestant cemetery and the site of the garbage dump that started it all. It’s since been filled in, in a futile attempt at smothering the fire. The site now contains six massive pipes that were used to vent the fire. Now dead and cold these vents were used to try and draw the fire away from the
town. Like all other attempts at controlling the fire, they failed.

Perhaps the most interesting place in town was the old highway. While PA 42 still runs through the town it had to be rerouted because of the fissures that opened up. Today the abandoned pavement is a canvas for local graffiti artists. While there is the crude humor and sexual innuendo that you would expect, there also is
some fine art and quotes from various books.
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Time Capsule
We ended our tour at the Centrailia time capsule. It has outlasted the town that created it. The capsule is set to be opened in 2016 on what would have been the town’s 150 birthday. Now the birthday will be nothing but a memorial service for the town that was destroyed by the fire below.







Review: I highly recommend the Centrailia tour. While you could visit the area by yourself it would not have the same impact as the tour. After all, the only thing that’s left is some pavement and trees. To get the true impact you need to see the town as it was before the fire, which Mr. DeKok’s pictures do nicely. Also there is a possibility of sinkholes and toxic gases. This is definitely not something you should do by yourself. Besides, Mr. DeKok is a great storyteller the experience should not be missed. Also it is reccommended to visit somtime when it's cool so the steam is visible.

By the way for those of you who are fans of the horror movies/games Silent Hill Centrailia with all of it smoking ground was the original inspiration for that demon haunted town.

Fee: $200 for the whole party regardless of size. Our group had about 12 people so it was $16 a person. This is one case where the larger the group the better.

Notes: If you are passing through the area and want to explore Centrailia a bit stick to  the roads you should be fine. Most of the old streets are still driveable, although it is a bit creepy driving down an nice residential street with nothing but trees on either side. I also would recommend taking one of the many books written on Centrailia with you.

Websites
http://daviddekok.com/centralia-mine-fire/centralia-mine-fire-tours/
http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/story/2012-05-25/fire-still-burns-in-centralia/55213824/1
http://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/eco-tourism/photos/12-us-places-where-your-visit-could-double-the-population/centralia-pa
http://www.vpnavy01.com/websites/church/index.html

Directions: Take PA 61 East from Mt. Carmel  or PA 42 North of Ashland. Look for the wooded streets that lead nowhere or the Centrailia Municipal building.


View Creepy Centrailia in a larger map
 
 
Roamed on 10/2012
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Unnamed pond by Arrow Island trailhead
After my first experience with Braiden’s directions (see the Road to Ruins post) I was a little leery to do it again. However, the sheer amount of cool stuff that he knows meant that I was bound to take his advice again. This time, however, I made sure to get a map from him with detailed instructions. The goal: Slateford Quarry, a waterfall in an old shale quarry.

Unfortunately, this time was no more successful than last time. Actually, it was far more annoying. Only the first step in the instructions was correct “Park at the Arrow Island Overlook.” From there I was supposed to walk up the road and find an old road that would lead me easily down to the creek. Well, I hiked quite a ways, but there was definitely no road, or if there was one it had decayed beyond recognition. That alone should have set off warning bells in my head. However, the chance for seeing a waterfall in an old shale quarry drove me on.

It was rather tough going, having to rock hop down the creek. It would have been quite pleasant to go wading in the summer, but in the fall chill that wasn't an option. I had to criss-cross the stream three to four times before finally reaching the waterfall. It was definitely as amazing as advertised, Slateford Creek plunging down 40 feet into the quarry.

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The tunnel through the rhododendron
Because dying a horrible death was not on the agenda for the day, I decided to find another way. The fall was just too cool to go back empty handed. Going around had its own share of difficulties. The sides of the ravine were coated with an almost impenetrable wall of rhododendrons. I had to force my way through the thicket which was not pleasant at all. Thankfully, I was able to catch a break on the way down and found a natural tunnel through the undergrowth. 

I overshot the quarry and had to backtrack a bit but boy was it worth it.

The fall was quite spectacular but I thought the quarry was just as interesting. I had been to a few others in the park, but this one you could really see the drill marks in the wall. It’s hard to imagine that all of them were drilled by hand using a sledge hammer and iron bit.

After what I endured there was no way in hell I was hiking back the way I came, so I decided to follow the creek. I knew that it would eventually lead out to the road and I could walk the road back to my car.

I was shocked to find that leading out from the quarry was a really nice trail. Wide, flat and paralleling the creek it went straight to a pull off on the side of the road. It took me less then 1/3 the time to hike out as it did to go in. As I trudged up the side of the hill back to my car I silently cursed Braiden for sending me the most difficult way possible.

Directions: Head South from Delaware Water Gap on Rt. 611. Turn right onto National Park Drive. The road makes a 180 degree turn after you cross a bridge. In the middle of the turn there should be a pull off on the left that fits one or two cars. Park and follow the edge of the woods up the road (away from the bridge) until you hit the path. If you start trudging up the side of the hill you have gone too far!

View Bad Directions: Slateford Quarry in a larger map
 
 
This post is not really related to the outdoors but it's cool and you should check it out. I was stumped as to what to give my Mother for Christmas this year. She doesn't have many hobbies except for Genealogy,  which is almost impossible to give a present in. Still, I found a way. In the early 1600's our ancestor Jesse DeForest, seeking religious freedom, led an expedition to Brazil looking for a site to place a colony. His journal has actually survived and is now part of the British library. 

To actually get a present out of it, I took the journal one step further  I took the various journal entries and put them onto Google maps so now it is possible to see where they were (approximately) for each entry. It's a neat tale of  adventure, exploration, and even a little piracy, so go take a look at my second website.

Journal of Jesse DeForest- www.jessedeforest.weebly.com
 
 
Roamed on 10/20/2012
One of the greatest bonuses to being a ranger is you get a detailed behind the scenes look at the park and the surrounding area. There always seems to be at least one person in each park that knows it like the back of their hand and can direct you to where the neat spots are. In my park last summer (Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area) this person was Braiden. One day at work he mentioned that he had discovered an old ruined church just outside of the park in New Jersey. As I am always looking for cool things to explore I made a mental note of it.

Unfortunately, a combination of poor directions from Braiden and my own lousy sense of direction doomed my first two attempts to locate the ruins. On my third try I broke down and did what anyone does when they can’t find an answer. I did a search on the net. It was a little hard to find but I eventually succeeded in locating it.

My little sister, Laura, decided to accompany me on my final quest to locate the ruins. Our first stop though, wasn't the church. While hunting down the location of the church I had stumbled across an entirely different ruin mentioned on Google Earth, so I figured we would head to that mill ruin as well.

The mill ruin was supposed to be in the White Lake Wildlife Management Area. Unfortunately, the NJ department of Fish and Wildlife really has no good trail maps of its WMAs online. So to find the trail, we hoped that once we got there that we would find a map of the area attached to a board or something. Our faith did not go unrewarded. There was indeed a map, although it was almost completely faded to a nasty off white color.

We parked at the spot indicated on the map but were shocked to find there was no trail. Confused, we hiked toward the creek that was supposed to be next to the ruins. We even asked some bicyclists,who were doing the nearby Paulinskill Valley Rail Trail, if they knew the location of the mill. No luck. We were just about to give up hope when they came back. Certainly, there was no mill ruin in the area, they said. However, just up an old road there is a rather large icehouse ruin. The stupid net guy, as they so often do, had gotten it wrong.

The funny thing was the old road started back where we had parked. We didn't go up it because it looked like it led to an active farm. I am a little leery about hiking near farms like that. I have hiked several places where I knew of some old farmers keeping a well-oiled shotgun just for people trespassing on their land. Because I rather like myself without a lot of holes, we did not even consider it.
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Does that look like a trail to you? You can see the farm to the left.
We found the ruins just like the old couple said, a quarter of a mile back into the woods we came across the ruin. When you first come across it its sheer mass causes you to stop dead in your tracks. I have seen many ruins across America and few are as large and well preserved.
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My sister Laura, shows just how huge the ruins actually are
On seeing the ruin it makes sense that it was an icehouse. In the days before refrigeration people would go out to the lakes and saw off huge blocks of ice. Using insulated boxes and rooms lined with sawdust they used it to keep their food cold all year long. The ruins location, right next to a large lake, would have been ideal for processing and storing the ice. It may be hard to believe now but this was a major industry at the time.

Later, I would realize that part of the problem was that the ruin is in the White Lake Natural Area not White Lake Wildlife Management Area. They are right next to each other so I guess a little confusion is understandable.


Afterwards, we finally went to the church. It was only a mile down the road. We didn't  need to make a single turn. It was much easier to find being literally right of the road. They even had some interpretive signs up so you can’t miss it. 
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The church had its start in the fervor of the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800’s. At this time a massive eruption of religious passion was gripping the nation. It led in turn to people seeking new paths to God and this led to the founding of the Christian Connection. The Connection was the “first” Christian denomination to be founded on American soil.

While I don’t really buy the whole first church thing, the Connection did have several interesting things going for it. It was the first to use religious newspapers to keep connected. This was important for them because the churches were almost completely decentralized. They had no form of central authority; each church was on its own. Couple that with the fact that the entire movement was founded on the passion of its preachers. It’s not surprising that the church perished. Over time, the zeal of its leaders inevitably declined, and many passed away, sapping the church of its strength. Individual churches, as they were never part of a higher authority in the first place, drifted away leading to the death of the movement. Eventually the remaining churches were absorbed into the Congregational Churches.

This particular church was built in 1841 and lasted until 1870, only 29 years. The church nowadays is the centerpiece of the Hardwick Township historical society, which is where the interpretive signs come from. Unlike most ruins, where signs are posted telling you to stay out, at Spring Valley they actually want you to come inside. They have benches and what would be a beautiful garden in the spring. It’s almost a chapel. It’s a very peaceful setting.

Over my career as a ranger I have seen a lot of interesting and historic ruins. However, to find two such high class ruins only a mile or two apart from each other is definitely a rare treat.

Directions- Icehouse: Go north from Blairstown, NJ on Stillwater Rd. (County Rt. 521) for approximately 3.4 miles. Turn right onto Spring Valley Road for one mile. There will be a pull off to your left.

Directions- Spring Valley Church: Instead of turning right on Spring valley road turn left and travel approximately 1.5 miles. The church will be visible from the road.

View Road To Ruins in a larger map
 
 
My first job for the National Park Service was at Great Basin National Park. One of the things that they gave me when I first got there was a lime green government notebook. They told me that I could do whatever I wanted with the book. What I wanted was a sense of humor, so from that day forward it has been used to capture interesting quotes from park visitors. The first batch of sayings from the green book is all quotes about Great Basin NP’s wonderful cave Lehman Caves. This particular collection focuses on the youngest visitors, because as the age goes down the chances for them saying something funny go up.

Ranger: “What does this formation look like?”
Boy: “ A long, dark, orange tunnel we can’t go down.”

Ranger: “It’s made out of the mineral calcite.”
5 year old boy: “So it’s a germ?”

Ranger: “What does this look like to you?”
Boy: “A cave.”

Ranger: “The early visitors wrote here with pencil.”
Boy: “ They wrote with pretzels?”

Boy: “I know what this room’s called.”
Ranger: “What’s it called?”
Boy: “It’s called something room!”

Ranger: “People had a habit of telling tall tales back then…”
Boy: “People had tails?!”

 
 
Went down to Maryland for a job interview and stumbled across this classic motel. While they were not as cheap as I would have preferred, I did get some awesome pictures and got to try out my new tripod.
They were a bit jumpy though. I was taking pictures when this big guy comes over "What are you doing?" Turns out the place was robbed recently and he thought I was doing something fishy. When I explained that it was my hobby he was totally cool with it, but it was a little scary. 
The motel's sign used to have one of those huge arrows pointing to the motel. Some knuckleheads cut it off and tried to steal it. Thankfully they failed.
 
 
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Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the National Association for Interpretations national conference in Hampton, VA. NAI is the professional organization for park rangers, nature guides, museum curators, etc… Basically if you talk to the public about nature or history, NAI is the professional organization for it.

One of the most exciting events held during the conference was the field trip on Friday. Out of the many options, I chose “Ft. Monroe Interpretative Work in Progress.” Ft. Monroe is a brand new unit of the National Park Service, as in of November 1, 2011 new. The whole point of the field trip was to take a behind the scenes look at setting up a new NPS site.

I will freely admit that I did not have the best reasons for picking this trip. While I was somewhat curious at how you create a new monument, my real reason was to check another part of the NPS off my life list (33% of all NPS sites complete!). I just wasn’t that interested in the fort itself. I was “oh my not another system three fort.” For those of you who are not history buffs or live anywhere other than the East Coast, system three forts are a group of 42 massive stone forts that were built all up and down the eastern seaboard after the war of 1812 to protect key areas. The NPS already has quite a few of them protected with Ft. Warren, Ft. Hancock, Ft. Wadsworth, Ft. Sumter, Ft. Pulaski, Ft. Jefferson, Ft. Massachusetts, Ft. McRee, Ft. Point lying within NPS units. These forts are all built from the same general plan so, if you’ve seen one you've seen them all. So why do we need another one?

Well, it turns out there are some very good reasons for Ft. Monroe to join the system. Perhaps the most important is that it was the first (and largest) of the system three forts. It’s not just another cookie cutter fort, it created the mold from which all other system three forts were made.

It also was quite distinguished in the Civil War. It always remained in Union hands. Think about it, this is a fort in Virginia and it NEVER fell to the Confederates. In fact, the forts defenses were so good they didn't even try to take the fort. Because it was a Union stronghold deep within the confederacy this led to the Peninsula Campaign, a botched attempt early in the war to seize Richmond, the Confederate capitol. This is also where a Union General Benjamin F. Butler declared slaves, who came into the possession of Union troops, to be “contraband of war.” While this in no way declared that slaves were human and had rights, it did lead to massive slave runaways and was a stepping stone in the abolition of slavery.


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The "freedom gate" that contraband slaves passed through.
The other thing that I found fascinating about the fort was the fort’s town. Most forts when handed over to the NPS are first left to languish for about 10 years, letting most of their structures decay. With Ft. Monroe, the transfer was almost immediate; everything is left intact. A partner of the park, the Ft. Monroe Authority is currently finding new uses for the forts buildings so that in the future the area will look just like it does now.

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The fort's old hotel is now an assisted living facility thanks to the Ft. Monroe Authority.
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This rapid turnover, we found, was the main problem in creating the park. The army pretty much went “here’s the keys, have fun!” and left. The NPS and the Authority then had the unenviable task of trying to keep the fort open to the public while learning how everything works.

One of the truisms in working with the parks is that most people don’t really know or care who owns and runs the park as long as they can keep doing what they have been doing; Army, NPS, Ft. Monroe Authority, doesn't matter. When change comes though, people get mad. Nothing drove this home for the NPS more than the issue of Ft. Monroe’s flag. The army, by law, is required to take down the American flag when they decommission a base. This is what they did when they left the fort, and the NPS arrived just in time to get the masses of complaints over there not being a flag. The poor NPS staffers, all two of them, spent several frustrating weeks with negotiating with the army and the powers that be just to get the flag back.

I have no doubt that someday Ft. Monroe will be a great member of the NPS. I am just grateful that I am not one of the ones that have to set it up. Fight on Ft. Monroe staff!!!!

http://www.nps.gov/fomr/index.htm

http://www.fmauthority.com/

 
 
Welcome to be my first blog. Today’s topic is going to delve into the heart of the ranger. Who are rangers? While it may seem simple enough it’s actually a bit complicated. Are they the guys who wear those funny hats? Do they keep the park safe? Do they arrest people? Do they run the visitor center and give tours? Or do they run around keeping bears out of picnic baskets? The answer is that rangers do all of these things and none of these things. See what I meant when I said it was complicated?

While rangers are known for their uniform and the iconic hat not all uniformed employees of the park are rangers. The park has employees in maintenance, administration, historic preservation, and an array of scientists. All of these employees may or may not be in uniform and none of them are technically “rangers.” So it is impossible to tell a ranger by uniform alone. To make matters more confusing there are times when a ranger will not wear a uniform at all, such as historical reenactment or going on a stakeout.

So how do you tell who is a ranger? You need to look at their job. All rangers interact with people as one of their main duties. Rangers are of the face of the park and act as the “front-line” of contact and communication with park visitors. They try to make sure visitors don’t damage the park and conduct themselves in a safe manner. Out of all the park employees there are only three types of rangers.

The type of ranger most people are used to is the interpretative ranger, which I am. We are the ones who run the visitor center, gives tours, and programs. Interpretative rangers take the vast amounts of data about the park and “translate” it so that it is easily understood and enjoyable to the average visitor. We are on the preventative side of things. After all visitors cannot follow rules they do not know of or if they don’t care. If interpretative rangers do their job well everyone can enjoy the park without having to interact with the second type of ranger: Law Enforcement.

Law Enforcement rangers are exactly what their name sounds like, the police of the park. They have all the authority their non-park comrades have, so if you are ever pulled over by one please don’t ask, “Well what are you going to do, give me a ticket?” because the answer is YES! This may seem like a stupid question, but a lot of people make that mistake. They can even go so far as to arrest people. Now that being said park Law Enforcement generally tend to be rather nice people. If you are in trouble or need information please don’t hesitate to contact them.

The last type of ranger is a bit of an odd bird. It is the General Ranger. Parks have never been well funded and as such are chronically understaffed. To make up for this, parks sometime will employ general rangers who literally do everything in the park. From maintenance, to law enforcement, administration, and interpretation, there is nothing in the park that a general ranger cannot do as part of their job. While interpretative and law enforcement ranger will pitch in and help with other park duties, the general ranger takes generalization to the extreme. These rangers are commonly found in small parks with limited staff. They are the closest to the old fashioned rangers and because of this I have the utmost respect for them.

I hope you enjoyed our little exploration into the world of the ranger. Just remember that although not all park employees are rangers, their jobs are just as important to the health and well-being of the park as any other position. If you have a question, feel free to ask them. They would be happy to help or point you to a ranger that can.

 

    Alex Emert

    An oudoorsman for many a year the Roaming Ranger is a seasonal ranger for the National Park Service.

    NOTE: All opinions expressed in this site are solely my own and are not intended to represent any organization I have worked for.

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