Artist photographs Columbia County ghost town
By: Lily McElory, News Editor
In the early ‘60s, a fire started in an abandoned coalmine, emitting toxic gas into the borough of Centralia, PA. That fire still burns today.
Over the years, the fire spread and in the late ‘70s, the long-term effects of exposure to the toxic gas were seen, with reports of children and adults becoming sick.
By the ‘80s, more than half of Centralia’s population had abandoned their homes and the remaining residents desperately tried to come up with a plan to contain the fire.
Millions of dollars have gone in to different solutions for putting out or containing the fire, none of which successfully panned out. After the federal relocation plan in the ‘80s did not evacuate all residents, the borough was placed under eminent domain in the ‘90s and about 10 years later Centralia’s zip code was revoked. Still, some residents refused to leave the place they called home. The little borough in Columbia County that stretches no more than 128 acres and was once home to over 1,000 residents now has a population of less than 10.
Garrett O. Hansen photographed the ghost town after moving to Bloomsburg a while back.
Hansen began taking photography seriously as an undergraduate in 1977. After someone taught him how to develop film and use an enlarger, he was hooked.
“I’ve been teaching photography on and off for the past 10 years, but I made a full time commitment to a career in photographic education in 2007,” said Hansen.
After completing an MFA in photography at Indiana University Bloomington, Hansen went on to lecture in photography at the University of Kentucky.
After hearing about Centralia 10 or 15 years ago, Hansen became interested.
“It sounded fascinating and I thought it would be an amazing place to see,” said Hansen.
After seeing a sign for Centralia while driving around Bloomsburg, Hansen remembered the intriguing town he had heard about all those years ago.
Hansen visited Centralia countless times throughout the year in order to get a real sense of what the landscape was like.
“It’s not enough to show up once, shoot some pictures and call it a day. I hope that’s something people pick up on, that this is about discovery as much as it is about telling the story of the place,” said Hansen.
“It is impossible to talk about Centralia without talking about the fire and I think it was important for me to acknowledge and photograph the fact that the fire continues to burn,” said Hansen.
Hansen’s photographs capture the eerie town in dramatic detail, providing those who view the exhibit, which is on display in the Haas Center until Nov. 22, with an idea of what happens when nature takes over.
“For me, it was fascinating to see what happens to a place when no one is looking,” explained Hansen.
Although the exhibit sheds light on what happened in Centralia, Hansen hopes it gets people talking about more contemporary issues of resource extraction.
“I think it’s important to keep these types of events in mind, particularly as a new form of resource extraction [fracking] is sweeping through the region,” said Hansen. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we see towns being erased from the map because an errant well poisons a town’s water supply.”
Hansen aims to use Centralia as a cautionary tale.
“Nothing can be done about Centralia at this point. We can learn a great deal from what happened there and hopefully we can prevent other events like this from happening again,” said Hansen.