In 1962, a trash fire ignited a seam of anthracite coal beneath Centralia, Pennsylvania, a once-thriving mining town of over 3,000 people. By the mid-1980s, giant plumes of smoke and deadly carbon monoxide gases billowed from fissures in the ground, the local highway cracked and collapsed, trees were bleached white and petrified, as the fire continued to rage unchecked. It wasn't until a young boy nearly died after falling into a smoldering mine subsidence that the government was pressed into action. After estimating the cost of extinguishing the fire at over half a billion dollars, the government instead opted to raze the town and relocate its residents. Today, 11 die-hards remain. Filmed over a period of four years with interviews ranging from former residents to Congressmen, The Town That Was is an intimate portrait of John Lokitis, the youngest remaining Centralian, and his quixotic fight to keep alive a hometown that has literally disintegrated under his feet. His unbowed determination and steadfast refusal to acknowledge defeat reveal a man, a town, a region, and a way of life abandoned and forgotten.
Gosh, what an amazing real world mystery: in 1962, Centralia, Pennsylvania, was a thriving mining town when a trash fire ignited a seam of anthracite coal. The fire continued until the mid 1980s when the landscape of this sleepy little hamlet looked more like a war-zone than a place where families lived and prospered. What happened to the town that was? Chris Perkel and Georgie Roland s fascinating little documentary, The Town That Was, answers that question through interviews with former and present residents. Yes, amazingly some 11 die-hards still live in the smoking town that sits atop some of the purest coal in the world. One resident, John Lokitis is the youngest remaining Centralian and continues to fight to keep his literally burning away town alive. Living in his grandfather s home, he takes us on a tour of the place. And he says that it is as it has mostly always been. But while it may be the same inside, the outside is nothing like it was. Lokitis commitment to the spirit of the town is made very personal and touching by filmmakers Perkel and Roland who smartly intersperse great old home movies from the town s folk. One old film shows a large group partying in what looks like a bar or recreation center. They re all dressed like pilgrims, with the hats and everything, happily they drink beer from ornately shaped brown bottles (perhaps, a local Pennsylvania brew popular at the time). It s like something straight out of The Deer Hunter. Against the backdrop of what happens in the years to come, this scene is so very poignant. But Lokitis desire to keep living in the smoking environment is kind of disturbing. His pupils look to be the size of pin-points and his statements about there being no danger in the area doesn t square with the reality that s all around him. In one scene, Lokitis says something like the government won t let those remaining sell the land and restart the town even though it is safe. He s saying this as the field behind him continues to belch smoke! And experts warn that the very ground below him could ignite at any second! But there is a larger tragic point here. These people have lost their tangible sense of home, which is more than just the structures themselves, the land itself no longer available to them. The concept of being a refugee in the United States is unique to American citizens. While we see an influx of immigrants and are debating these issues on Capital Hill, most Americans have little personal connection to the plight of those forced from their home. The former residents of Centralia know what this is like. And Chris Perkel and Georgie Roland s film, The Town That Was, gives us a glimpse of what it is like to be a refugee in the most free country in the world. --Entertainment Insiders
Having served as inspiration for several fictional spooky settings, Centralia, a real life ghost town, finally has its true story revealed and we discover that it s not very spooky at all. In fact, it s actually kind of lonely as the town is inhabited by eleven remaining residents, one of whom has taken it upon himself to keep Centralia alive as much as one man can. Filmmakers Chris Perkel and Georgie Roland give us the skinny on Centralia, the town that was. In 1962, the local fire department in small mining town Centralia, Pennsylvania set an annual controlled garbage burning in preparation for Memorial Day festivities. The fire grew out of control and spread down into the mines where the coal has continued to burn over the last 40 plus years (oops), ever traveling beneath the town, spitting plumes of smoke up from the ground. Over those years, Centralia has slowly seen most of its inhabitants leave for safer pastures. Mass exodus finally came in 1981 when fears of carbon monoxide poisoning and other fire safety issues reached an all-time high. Buildings were condemned and destroyed and today the only remaining sign of Centralia are several paved roads, some houses, a church, a few cemeteries and its eleven remaining residents. A few of these residents are interviewed for the documentary and they detail the tragic fate of Centralia as film footage of the town s good old days fade into it s current state of dreary lifelessness. Through these stories and imagery we are fed a fairly in-depth history lesson, but the heart of this doc lies with the stories of the remaining residents themselves, especially the town s youngest inhabitant, 33 year-old John Lokitis, who refuses to leave his hometown even though the government has since claimed ownership of what remains of Centralia, making John and the others squatters in their own homes. Some of the residents fear the government will swoop in any day and boot them out of town, while others figure they ll just be left alone until the whole place dies out. Only time will tell. Meanwhile, Lokitis does his best with the local upkeep, mowing lawns, painting park benches, even lighting Christmas lights during the holidays. To many, including those living outside of Centralia in nearby Ashland, Lokitis is a hero, but to others he s a crazy eccentric who s unable to see the writing on the wall. Lokitis serves as tour guide of this film, detailing daily life and duties as well as various struggles such as the post office wanting to wipe Centralia off of the map. Through it all, Lokitis exudes love and loyalty to his home and he makes it clear that he ll do whatever it takes to stay where he feels he most belongs. Hero or crazy eccentric? The filmmakers let you make up your own mind during the documentary s course, but whatever you decide, you can t deny the inspirational draw of this Hell no, we won t go! story. --FilmThreat.com