An Associated Press story posted on AOL News brought back a memory from more than twenty-five years ago.
It was late 1983 or early 1984 that I first read about Centralia, the small town in Pennsylvania under which a coal mine fire has burned since 1962. At the time, I was one of the regular writers of Superman and having the Man of Steel tackle such a problem made for the interesting beginning for an adventure. So, Supes flew off to "Coaltown" and used his heat vision to create a firebreak in the vein of coal so that the fire burned itself out.
The story appeared in ACTION COMICS #558 and was just another of numerous stories I wrote during that period. But it wasn't just another story to everyone.
I was at lunch in a restaurant in Montreal with Angelo Messina, the rep from Ronalds Printing that I worked with, when he got a page message. We figured that it meant something was going on with the printing job I was there to okay, but it turned out to be a message for me. A reporter named David Iseman was anxious to speak with me.
Though I did not know who David was, I figured that someone who had tracked me to a restaurant in Montreal had something urgent to talk to me about, so I called him. (In those days before everyone had cell phones, this entailed making an international call from a phone booth and charging it to a phone card.) Turned out that David was a reporter for a newspaper in Bloomsburg, a town near Centralia, and he was writing a story about my story. He asked me where I'd heard about Centralia and why I'd used it in the story. When we were finished speaking, he told me he would send me a copy of the story.
I was quite surprised when a package arrived a week or so later. The news story, headlined "Superman Saves Centralia," was on the front page and included a reprint of the first page of the comic book story. Not long afterward, I received another package, this one from the then-mayor of Centralia, Anne Marie Devine. It contained certificates proclaiming that Superman, artist Kurt Schaffenberger, and I were now honorary citizens of Centralia.
At the time, we had a vacation home in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, so Laurie and I thought it might be interesting to make a trip from there to Centralia. I also decided to include a follow-up sequence about "Coaltown" in another Superman story. So, one summer day in 1984, we drove first to Bloomsburg where we met David Iseman for a cup of coffee, then continued on to Centralia.
Mayor Devine was quite gracious. She filled us in on the history of the mine fire, pointed out places where the steam and heat from the fire vented through the ground, and told us where we could get some nice views of the area. One thing I recall was her talking about winters in Centralia. Even when there was heavy snow, there were many parts of town where the ground was so warm that the snow melted, despite how cold it was.
Superman returned to "Coaltown" in ACTION COMICS #567 for the unveiling of a statue erected in his honor. David Iseman makes an appearance in the story, as a reporter for The Coaltown Press. For a reason I no longer recall, however, the mayor of Coaltown speaking at the ceremony is a man, rather than Ms Devine.
Though a number of families and businesses moved out of Centralia in the 80's under a federally-financed relocation program, at the time we visited, many of the townspeople were determined to stay and keep their town alive. That number has dwindled in the ensuing years; according to information I found, Mayor Devine left Centralia in 1993. Today, as the article cited above notes, there are only five homes left standing, with fewer than a dozen inhabitants. And, it would appear, if the state has its way, they too will soon be gone.
Clearly, the fire that doomed Centralia was a job for Superman. Unfortunately, he was not here to save the town.