THE TOWN THAT WAS (2007)
The Town That Was is a moving documentary about the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania which has become a virtual ghost town after an underground coal fire has slowly forced most of it’s inhabitants out. The documentary by Chris Perkel and Georgie Roland, focuses on some of the few citizens left, specifically a man named John Lokitis Jr, who still sees the shell of a town as home.
The documentary first details how in 1962 a fire that was set to burn a garbage dump, reached the coal mines beneath the town and ignited it. Bureaucracy then prevented the situation from being remedied quick enough and now the fire has been burning out of control underground ever since. As the fire spreads people either left, or sold their homes under eminent domain when the government stepped in to buy them out. By the time this documentary was made, their were only eleven people left in a town that once held 3,000.
Once we learn the history of how this once thriving little coal town has practically disappeared, we get the story of some of the few that refuse to leave, even though the government now owns all the property. One such man is John Lokitis Jr, who has lived there all his life. John works hard to keep alive what little of the town is left, including repainting benches, mowing the lawns of dozens of properties and hanging Christmas decorations from the telephone poles as was tradition. It’s both empowering to watch someone fight for what he believes in and sad to see someone in denial about what is happening around him. John maintains there is no danger, but it’s hard to agree with him while smoke billows out of the ground behind him. We also get some experts’ opinions and most agree there is a constant danger of CO2 poisoning or the ground collapsing as it has in the past…almost fatally for one boy. Regardless, this is a disturbing story of a town all but erased from the map by a bizarre situation.
Whether you believe the last hold-outs are being foolish or standing up for the home they love, is left up to the viewer. We’re given the history on the town and the fire that’s been it’s undoing and hear from experts, citizens who left and those few who remain. At times the documentary did feel like it focused on Lokitis a bit too much and could have delved a bit more into the current state of the fire itself and the havoc it reeks on the area, but the human element was definitely the goal here. Either way, this is a fascinating and disturbing piece of Americana and the freak accident that has been swallowing a small town for over 50 years.
NOTE: Some personal research on my part has revealed that Lokitis was finally evicted from his home in 2009 and his house demolished a year later, though ironically, in 2013 the remaining citizens were granted permission to stay by state and local government.
There’s also a segment of Real Fear: The Truth Behind The Movies focusing on Centralia, hosted by paranormal expert Katrina Weidman, who actually has family from there.