From Special Collections: Telling the Story of the Centralia Mine Fire

Writing a book is a process that requires research as well as imagination. Special Collections/University Archives holds the David DeKok Collection which is comprised of the research, notes, taped interviews, and correspondence that represent DeKok’s published work, Unseen Danger: a Tragedy of People, Government, and the Centralia Mine Fire (1986) that tells the story of the research and publication of DeKok’s book about the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. (David DeKok, a journalist who wrote an additional book about Centralia mine fire, Fire Underground: the Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire (2000)). This manuscript collection is a rich resource about how one might go about researching and writing book and is representative of magnitude of the work that goes into creating a publication.

DeKok grew up in Holland, Michigan, later attending the town’s Hope College, graduating in 1975. After college, DeKoK went to work in Shamokin Dam, Pennsylvania, as a news reporter for the local newspaper the Sunbury Daily Item. One of DeKok’s first major stories as a reporter came in the late 1970s with his investigation of the many issues regarding the Centralia mine fire, which had started over a decade before.

Centralia was a quintessential turn of the century Pennsylvania town. Settled by Irish immigrants in 1866, it found success as a coal-mining town—centrally located in the eastern part of the state among the many small industrial towns that dotted the countryside. The town enjoyed relative prosperity until the mid-1950’s, at which point many of the mines had been exhausted and the coal industry began moving elsewhere.

While no one is quite sure how the fire that engrained this town in the popular imagination started, many, including DeKok, believe it started in May of 1962 when a fire accidentally started during a routine municipal trash cleanup project to prepare for Centralia’s annual Memorial Day parade. The blaze quickly spread among the empty mineshafts that made up the subterranean network below the town. Though many attempts were made to put the fire out, the complexity of the layout of the mines and the sheer strength of the blaze made it hard to readily combat—the result is that it was allowed to smolder, unchecked, for close to two decades. In February of 1981, a twelve-year-old boy sank into an opening in the ground with smoke rising out of it. The fact that the blaze had continued to spread underneath residential buildings and the ensuing media attention led to, a decade later, the relocation of the sixty remaining residents of Centralia. DeKok was one of the first reporters on the scene when the real scope of the mine fire reached public attention. His book Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government, and the Centralia Mine Fire is now an authoritative account about Centralia’s mine fire. The book tells the story about the continued failed response by the Federal government and the State of Pennsylvania, and the effects that the fire had on Centralia’s residents.

The DeKoK collection was donated by the author to Special Collections/University Archives in 1990 and chronicles the political, environmental, and emotional struggles of Centralia citizens. Included in the collection are DeKok’s interviews with residents, field notes and transcriptions, correspondence and reference material related to his research and writing as well as the typescripts of chapters from his book, Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government, and the Centralia Mine Fire. As a manuscript collection, the David DeKoK collection provides great insight into topics of interest from the Centralia fire itself as well as the study of the history of the Pennsylvania coal regions.

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