by Ken Lahmers

Editor

You might have thought ghost towns are only associated with the western portion of the United States. Many are depicted in old cowboy/Western movies.

But recently I came across some interesting information about a couple of modern-day ghost towns which are not that far from here -- in southern Ohio and eastern Pennsylvania.

Some readers may have heard of Centralia, Pa., and Cheshire, Ohio. The latter thrived until just after the 21st century arrived, while Centralia has disappeared gradually since the late 1960s.

The stories of both's demise could easily fit into the old adage "truth is stranger than fiction." Their sagas are very sad, but at the same time incredible.

Centralia is in east central Pennsylvania, about 90 miles northwest of Philadelphia in the nation's largest anthracite coal region.

In the early 1960s, it was a thriving town of more than 1,100 people. Fewer than a dozen live there now, and the town no longer has a ZIP code and is not listed on some maps.

In May 1962, the lives of Centralians changed drastically, and it all started with a garbage dump fire, which ignited an exposed seam of coal underneath.

Ever since, Centralia has been known as "the town that is on fire." The blaze has burned under nearly 600 acres for 45 years and could grow to 3,000 acres over another 100 years.

Several attempts were made by government officials to stop the fire in its first half-dozen years. At one point it was close to being snuffed out, but the project was not finished and the fire rekindled.

BECAUSE the fire was causing fissures to develop on the landscape, ground to collapse and noxious carbon gases to rise from beneath the surface, the government began relocating families.

From 1962 to 1984, the government spent about $7 million on the mess. From 1969 to the early '80s, several dozen families were moved out of town at government expense.

In the early '80s, officials devised a plan to build a huge trench to try to halt the burning. Its cost was estimated at more than $600 million and there was no guarantee of success.

The severity of the situation came to light in February 1981, when a youngster fell into a hole caused by collapsed ground. He was pulled out by a relative, and the hole went down 150 feet.

In late 1983, the government offered a $42 million buyout to all of the village's nearly 1,000 residents, a so-lution considerably cheaper than the $600 million plan.

After residents left, dozens of homes were demolished. Several years ago, a section of Route 61 through town collapsed and a detour was built around it.

By 1997, only 44 people remained, and the number today has dwindled to about a dozen. Only the former Town Hall and a few homes remain.

The reason for Cheshire's demise is different than Centralia's, but has one common bond -- coal. The town is gone because of a large coal-fired power plant.

In the early 2000s, blue sulfuric acid gas clouds began drifting into town from the James M. Gavin power plant owned by American Electric Power.

The plant is in northern Gallia County along the Ohio River.

IT CAUSED residents to experience headaches, burning eyes, sore throats and chemical burns on their mouths.

Although the 2,600-megawatt plant installed new emissions control devices in 2001, the level of sulfur trioxide increased from its two 830-foot high smokestacks.

Although AEP officials claimed the emission levels were well below health-based air quality standards, the firm agreed to a $20 million buyout of 93 homes and 200 parcels, and relocation of about 220 residents. About a dozen homes remain occupied.

Part of the settlement included that residents could not file any lawsuits dealing with health-related issues. The firm also spent $7 million to install sulfur emission controls.

Historians claim it was the first time an entire town was dissolved by a company because of environmental factors. Some neighborhoods have been bought out, most famously Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Times Beach near St. Louis.

The situations at Centralia and Cheshire have become fodder for filmmakers.

Earlier this year, three filmmakers released "The Town That Was," a documentary focusing on the youngest of the remaining Centralians. It includes five years of interviews with government officials and former residents.

The film is making its rounds at festivals nationwide, including the Los Angeles Film Festival next week. Producer Milinka Thompson-Godoy said she and her colleague are looking for a distributor and hope the film someday will air on a national television network.

Meanwhile, 7North Productions has made a one-hour documentary called "The Cheshire Transaction." It also has played at film festivals and is looking for distribution.

E-mail: klahmers@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-688-0088 ext. 3155