Skip to content


Small towns,

Big problems,

American stories

The Epidemic

The Epidemic

I live in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the state capital, and write narrative non-fiction books and articles about small American towns, their people, and their crises. You can read more of my biography on the “About the Author” page under  the Centralia Mine Fire drop-down menu at the top of the page. My neighborhood, Shipoke, population about 200, is very much like a village, sometimes even like a commune.  A National Historic District, it is bounded on one side by the flood-prone and nearly mile-wide Susquehanna River, a source of beauty and dread, and on the other by a tall, faux-brick sound wall. The wall does lend a certain medieval German feel to Shipoke, and protects us to a degree from whatever nastiness is occurring elsewhere in Harrisburg. Or at least we like to think so.

My Books

(1986) Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government, and the Centralia Mine Fire, University of Pennsylvania Press. A comprehensive history of the tragic underground fire that destroyed Centralia, Pennsylvania. Reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. Cloth and trade paperback. Out of print, but don’t despair.

(2009) Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire, Globe Pequot Press. An updated edition of Fire Underground, with three additional chapters and other interesting additions  here and there. It has a lot of my photographs of Centralia from the 1970s and 1980s. Now in its second printing. Trade paperback, also available for Kindle and Nook.

(2011) The Epidemic: A Collision of Power, Privilege, and Public Health, Lyons Press. I tell the story of a typhoid epidemic that devastated Ithaca, New York, and Cornell University in 1903. Eighty-two people died, including 29 Cornell students. This is both a medical/environmental thriller and an intimate picture of a small town struggling to survive in the face of a terrible contagion. The business owner responsible for the epidemic founded the company that eventually became General Public Utilities Corp., responsible for the Three Mile Island nuclear accident near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1979. Cloth. Also available for Kindle and Nook.

(September 2014)  Murder in the Stacks: Penn State University, Betsy Aardsma, and the Killer Who Got Away, Globe Pequot Press. The true story behind what has become a Penn State urban legend over 45 years. Betsy Aardsma, 22,  was the pretty, bright, and well-liked graduate student stabbed to death in Pattee Library at Penn State’s University Park campus on Nov. 28, 1969. She was also from my hometown of Holland, Michigan, and went to my high school. I have written a dual biography of her and her killer, how their lives collided, and how he got away with murder. Trade paperback, will also be available for Kindle and Nook. Here’s a recent Q&A with me about the book. You can read more about Betsy Aardsma elsewhere in this website.

Upcoming Events

Friday, May 2: Chris Snyder group tour, Jim Thorpe, Pa.

Wenesday, May 21: Author Natalies S. Harnett speaks about her Centralia-themed novel, The Hollow Ground, to the Pottsville Rotary Club. The event, which is open to the public, is at noon at Vito’s Coal-Fired Pizza in St. Clair.

Recent News

Friday, Feb. 28: I was interviewed live by Australian radio in Melbourne about the Centralia mine fire and how it compares to a new (Feb 9) mine fire burning in Morwell, Victoria, about midway between Melbourne and Sydney. The interviewer is Red Symons, and it was kind of like being interviewed by Crocodile Dundee. Although I’m sure to Red and his listeners, I had the funny accent. The new fire threatens Morwell, a town of about 13,000. Unlike Centralia, this one is burning on exposed lignite (brown coal) in a pit, and it is believed to have started via arson.

Feb. 5, 2014: The New York Times reports on the contamination of a river in North Carolina and Virginia by fly ash, referred to as ‘coal ash’ in the story, but the same thing. “Coal ash, a murky gray sludge that is residue from burning powdered coal to generate electricity, contains high levels of toxic elements, including led, mercury, selenium and arsenic.” This is the same substance that the U.S. Bureau of Mines used to build the fly ash barrier between Centralia and the mine fire in the late 1960s and early 1970s. When I spoke to Florence Domboski last fall, she told me about what appeared to be unusual numbers of cancer among people who lived in homes along the fly ash barrier. This sort of thing is hard to nail down, but someone ought to try.

Feb. 2, 2014:  The Pottsville Republican has a story about an upcoming novel, The Hollow Ground, by Natalie S. Harnett that will be published in May by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press. Harnett’s book is a fictional account of a family dealing with the Centralia and Carbondale mine fires in the 1960s. The family is descended from one of the Mollie Maguires who beat Centralia priest Father Daniel Ignatius McDermott after he denounced the group from the pulpit in 1869, a few months after their reputed murder of Centralia founder Alexander Rea. The priest, according to legend, then placed a curse on Centralia for harboring murderers, predicting the day would come when only the church in Centralia remained standing.

Jan. 30, 2014: The Sunday Dispatch of Pittston reports that Rep. Kevin Haggerty, D-Lackawanna, wants Luzerne and Lackawanna counties declared disaster areas to free up state and federal funding to fight eight mine fires. The Centralia mine fire is again cited as the universal example of what happens when prompt action against mine fires is not taken.

Jan. 29, 2014: The Carbondale News reports that Rep. Kevin Haggerty, D-Lackawanna, is trying to remind state officials of the lessons of the Centralia mine fire. Apparently he’s having trouble getting funds from the Corbett Administration in Harrisburg to fight mine fires in his district.

Older Centralia stories.

Centralia mine fire historical tours available

Two-hour (approximately) Centralia mine fire historical walking tours, led by yours truly, are available for a flat fee of $200 (any number in the group), which covers my travel and time from Harrisburg.  Media tours, which are slightly longer and more involved, are $250. I can now take credit cards (although we have to go down the hill to Ashland to get a strong enough Internet connection). Cash is fine, too. Unfortunately, much of the tour is not handicapped accessible. Coming back from the highway cracks is a gentle uphill walk.

I talk about the history of Centralia and the mine fire, show you where the fire started, take you to the gaping highway cracks opene3d by the fire (they are getting wider), and display large photos of  how the town used to look. I I talk about what the people of Centralia endured from the mine fire gases coming into their homes. The gases are not an issue during the walk. The tours are rain or shine and can be taken at any time. It is no longer likely that you will see steam coming from the ground, because of changes in the fire. You might, but recent tours have seen little or none. You will still have an amazing experience and come to understand the magnitude and anguish of what happened here.

Centralia Consulting

During the past ten years, I have worked with more than 15  television production companies filming stories on the Centralia mine fire. In 2013, for example, I worked with three different Russian journalists and their crews as well as Indigo Films, which was producing a piece for the Travel Channel.  I can make your job a lot easier, whether as an on or off-camera source or facilitator (‘fixer’ is the industry term, but not everybody knows that definition…). I have a graduate certificate in documentary filmmaking from George Washington University and I understand your needs. In addition, all of the photographs in my Centralia photo archive, an unparalleled collection of Centralia and mine fire images, mostly from the early 1980s when the crisis was at its peak, are available for license.

Fire Underground

Fire Underground


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: