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Laurel Run Mine Fire

It was a cold December Saturday in 1915. Miners working for the Red Ash Coal Company in Laurel Run Borough were struggling to finish their shift and looking forward to a day off. Suddenly, a fully loaded coal car jumped the tracks and dumped its contents all over the mine floor. The men rushed to reload the car so they could call it quits for the weekend. One miner forgot he left his lantern hanging on a shoring timber. By Monday morning, the lantern had set fire to the timber and the timber had set fire to a nearby coal vein. The Laurel Run Mine Fire had begun. When the miners returned to work, they discovered the fire and went to work to dig out the smoldering blaze. Content that they had extinguished the fire, they resumed their normal activities. It wasn't until 1921 that additional evidence surfaced indicating that the fire started six years earlier was still burning. From then until the 1950s, various extinguishment and containment efforts were undertaken while coal was still being mined from beneath Laurel Run. But, in 1957, the Red Ash Mine went out of business and that ended all efforts to eliminate the mine fire as well. As the fire continued to burn, the earth's surface began to de-stabilize due to the rock-hard coal slowly turning to ash from the combustion. At the time, that part of Laurel Run, both north and south of East Northampton Street, contained 168 homes, a church, a school, two grocery stores and a lumberyard. Joe Gregory grew up in Laurel Run during those years.

"The only problem when we were kids is that you couldn't play marbles on the kitchen linoleum because they wouldn't stay put. They'd roll away into the living room because the floors were so tilted," Gregory recalled. Of course, the floors were uneven because the homes were slowly sinking into the mines. Porches were pulling away from the main home structures and walls were cracking badly. Gregory remembers many fissures in the earth that spewed steam, smoke and gases. "We called it 'the blackdamp.' It was this eerie bluish haze that covered the area," Gregory related. The "blackdamp" was occurring in people's basements as well. Headaches were common. "Folks would say, 'open a window if you're getting headaches.' No one thought about moving," Gregory said. Personnel from the U.S. Bureau of Mines brought in testing equipment and discovered there were highly elevated levels of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide in the area and in the homes. By the early 1960s, the Laurel Run Mine Fire had attracted the attention of the state and federal governments. Then Gov. William Scranton and U.S. Congressman Daniel J. Flood toured the area and determined that the newly created Appalachian Regional Commission could play a role in helping to fund a large scale containment effort and property buyout in order to keep the fire from spreading and to evacuate the area above the fire.

Laurel Run Councilman Ed Correll, a local official in that community for more than 40 years, remembers that containment efforts included creation of a water pool to stop the fire from spreading on one of its borders. The rest of the fire's perimeter was protected by a wall of incombustible material made of clay and sand that was injected into a series of bore holes. The containment work covered an area 200 feet wide by 4,000 feet long. According to a research paper compiled by Amy Randolph, a geologist with the state Department of Environmental Protection, it was first estimated that fire containment would cost $4 million. That estimate was soon revised upwards to $9 million. However, by the time the containment work was deemed complete, only $1.3 million had been expended. An additional $2.5 million was spent to buy out the property owners and demolish the structures. The federal government covered 75 percent of the costs while the state paid the remainder. Some of the home owners received as little as $1,800. About 850 people were eventually relocated. Today, nearly 90 years since the fire started, it is still burning and rising smoke and gases can readily be seen on either side of Northampton Street a short distance from where the roadway rises to become Giant's Despair Hill. Randolph's research indicated that periodic testing shows that the fire is from 200 to 300 feet deep and registering temperatures as high as 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. Dave Philbin, an engineer with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining in Wilkes-Barre, conducts tests twice each year to ascertain if the mine fire is moving. He said the containment measures are working. Philbin noted that the incombustible barriers are preventing the fire from working its way underneath Interstate Route 81. There is no way of determining how long the fire will continue burning, he added. Laurel Run as a borough still exists, but the community's center is a distance uphill from the original town, in the Oliver Mills section, named after a Civil War general who started a gunpowder mill there in the 1800s. Meanwhile, the only evidence that a thriving community once stood over the Red Ash Coal Mine are the asphalt remnants of what once were paved streets and several exposed housing foundations, all of which have become overgrown with thick vegetation.

December 6, 1915 ... Red Ash Coal Company miners joined to re-load a mine car that had jumped its tracks. One miner placed his lamp on a wooden shoring timber and neglected to retrieve it before the end of his shift on that Saturday. Upon returning to work Monday, it was discovered that the lamp ignited the timber and the timber ignited a vein of coal. Extinguishment efforts were believed to have eliminated the fire.

1921 ... evidence indicated the 1915 mine fire had never been thoroughly extinguished and the fire was spreading.

1921 to 1957 ... various mine fire containment efforts were mounted. In 1957, mining ceased and so did fire containment efforts.

July, 1962 ... smoke and gases venting through the earth's surface and into many basements of homes in the area forced several families to move.

February, 1964 ... Despite a large snowstorm, a large area of surface ground remained snow-free and dry and steam was observed emanating from rock crevices. Elevated levels of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide were detected. Evidence mounted that the fire had spread beyond the workings of the Red Ash Coal Company and toward the Georgetown section of Wilkes-Barre Township.

September, 1964 ... homes began subsiding, dead vegetation was everywhere and people began experiencing headaches. An "eerie bluish glow" was visible at night in areas where mine gases reached the surface. The phenomenon was called "blackdamp" by residents.

1965 ... Serious mine fire containment and resident relocation efforts were mounted through a program administered by the Appalachian Regional Commission.

July, 1965 ... Resident relocation was underway and approximately 166 homes were razed along with two grocery stores, a church, a school and a lumberyard.

April 23, 1966 ... Mine fire containment began in earnest.

1973 ... The mine fire containment work was declared complete.

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