Saturday, March 17, 2012

My Irish Relatives From Centralia, PA

Hope you all are enjoying St. Patrick's Day so far! Last year, I wrote about my Irish ancestor, Jane (Johnston) Brenton. This year, I thought I'd share some information I've found only recently on my other Irish relatives.

My maternal grandfather's mother was Anna (Kane) Fritzley. Anna's family has been one of my favorites to research because of their unique location. They settled in Centralia, Columbia, Pennsylvania and lived there for some time.

Centralia, PA probably sounds familiar to you. That's because Centralia, once a thriving community based in the mining trade, is now a ghost town. There are conflicting reports as to the details, but basically, here's what happened: Centralia was incorporated in 1866 and quickly developed into a thriving mining town. At its peak, the town had over 2,000 residents, many schools and churches, a post office, etc. - the basics of a small, bustling industry town. The first infamous incident in Centralia history came in 1868, when the town's founder, Alexander Rea, was murdered just outside of town by the Molly Maguires.

However, this incident is now overshadowed by the mine fire which destroyed most of the town. No one knows for sure how the fire ignited. What is known is that around 1961, a fire ignited coal underground in south Centralia. Numerous efforts to extinguish the fire failed. The fire spread to the underground mines, and continues to burn today. The air around the fire is poisonous. The town is marked by empty lots with cracked ground, piping smoke from the fire below. Most of surrounding trees are now dead sticks. Most of the residents of Centralia accepted a buyout and moved long ago, but a few still remain. In 2002, the U.S. Post Office revoked Centralia's zip code. This is what Centralia looks like now:

The street view and photos on Google Maps are very interesting as well. The spooky remains of Centralia have inspired many novels, films and other media including the film adaptation of the Silent Hill video game series and even an episode of The Simpsons.

My great-grandmother, Anna Kane, was born in Centralia in 1893 to Teddy and Sarah (Durkin) Kane. She had 2 sisters and 3 brothers (as far as I know). Her brothers and her father were coal miners, like most men in the town's largely Irish population at the time. I find it so interesting that they worked in the mines that would eventually ruin the town from below. 

Her father Thaddeus "Teddy" Kane was born in Ireland in 1868. He immigrated to the U.S. around 1881 and married Sarah Durkin in about 1892. Sarah Durkin was born in 1869 in Pennsylvania to Mark and Sarah (McAnally) Durkin. Teddy and Sarah Kane raised their children in Centralia, and as far as I know, they never left. 

Their daughter, Anna, married William Fritzley around 1910, and raised their family in Pittsburgh (including my maternal grandfather, William Fritzley). After Anna's husband died in 1955, she moved back to Centralia. She died there around 1971, so she would have been witness to the mine fire and multiple attempts to put it out. When she died, there was still hope for extinguishing the fire and saving the town. 

But in 1981, a young boy fell into a sinkhole caused by the fire and would have died from carbon monoxide poisoning if his cousin hadn't pulled him out quickly. This caused media attention to the fire to increase, to the chagrin of many residents. Starting in the mid-1980s, the residents started to accept federal buyouts of their Centralia properties and move away. But a few residents still remain in Centralia, and continue to wage a very contentious legal battle with the state to remain in their homes. Some claim that the state only wants them to move so that they can have access to the remaining coal below the town (estimates of the value of  the coal vary greatly from source to source). That may be true, but it is also true that Centralia is a dangerous place to visit. If you do, please use caution as in many places the ground is extremely unstable and the air is thick with carbon monoxide and dioxide. 

So, you can see why this is one of my favorite family lines to research. I look forward to finding out more about them. My goal is to find living relatives who can tell me more about their (or their parents' and grandparents') experiences in Centralia. 

I'm off to start my St. Paddy's day celebrations, and I'll leave you with one of my favorite Irish sayings: "It is often that a person's mouth broke his nose."