Centralia Film To Be Screened In Scranton
A mine fire didn’t destroy Centralia — the government and community did, according to a Philadelphia filmmaker.
On Monday at 5:30 p.m. in the University of Scranton’s Moskovitz Theater, filmmaker Joe Sapienza will host a free screening of Centralia: Pennsylvania’s Lost Town. The documentary delves into the history of the nearly abandoned town in Columbia County, taking a chronological look at Centralia from the time it was founded up to 2013, when residents settled a federal lawsuit.
Centralia’s fire department set the town’s landfill on fire in May 1962. That fire slowly spread to the vast network of mines beneath homes and businesses, creating dangerous sinkholes and spewing poisonous gases.
By the end of the 1980s, more than 1,000 people had moved and 500 structures were demolished under a
$42 million federal relocation program. But some holdouts refused to go — even after their houses were seized through eminent domain in the early 1990s.
The film is an hour and a half long and includes interviews with the town’s few remaining residents, tourists visiting Centralia, officials reclaiming the land, and even the former mayor of Centralia who clashed with the state over eminent domain issues, said Sapienza, the film’s director and producer.
Sapienza wove news clips into the documentary to show the rift between residents in the 80s and 90s as some members of the community wanted to stay and others wanted to flee as the mine fire burned beneath the borough.
“We had neighbors that were friends for years that started turning against each other,” he said. “There was a lot of paranoia. There was a lot of vandalism going on and hatred toward one another.”
The documentary also investigates a conspiracy theory among residents that two coal mining companies wanted them to abandon Centralia in order to mine coal under the town, Sapienza said.
He wanted to leave the film’s conclusion open ended so viewers can take their own stance on the conspiracy, he said.
The overall documentary is “very broad, very fast paced because we want to keep the viewer engaged,” he said.
Sapienza spent four years on the film, funding it himself, and released the documentary in May 2017. He decided to screen it at the University of Scranton after associate psychology professor Jessica Nolan, Ph.D., reached out to him.
Following the movie, Bobby Hughes, the executive director of the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation who is featured in the film, will discuss the EPCAMR’s efforts to clean up Centralia. The nonprofit has spent several years cleaning up the town as it deals with rampant illegal dumping, Hughes said.
With enough funding for the reclamation organization, Hughes believed it is possible for them to map out the entire coal basin in Centralia, determining water levels and where the mine fires are advancing. There will be a cleanup in Centralia on Oct. 20, and any university students can lend a hand, he said.
Hughes’ goal is to answer any questions people may have about the documentary, particularly the EPCAMR’s role in research on Centralia, and any questions about the mine fires. He will also bring maps to explain what’s going on for those unaware of the region’s geology, Hughes said.
When the audience leaves after the screening, Sapienza wants them to walk away knowing how a thriving borough destroyed itself from within, he said.
“Man came in, burrowed out the land for coal, set it on fire ... and then neglected to put it out,” he said. “We just want them to take away ... don’t ever rely on your government to help you out because they never will, and we want them to just learn a vast history of what this borough was about.”
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IF YOU GO
WHAT: A screening of Centralia: Pennsylvania’s Lost Town — a documentary looking into the history of the famed coal town that was abandoned by the majority of its residents following a mine fire that still burns today.
WHEN: Monday, 5:30 p.m.
WHERE: Moskovitz Theater, the DeNaples Center at the University of Scranton, 900 Mulberry St., Scranton
To obtain a physical copy of the documentary or view the film online, visit centraliapalosttown.com