Hello, and thank you for visiting my website. I live in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the state capital, and write narrative non-fiction books 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 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.
Books #1 and #2: Centralia and its Mine Fire
My first two books were about a Pennsylvania environmental disaster known as the Centralia mine fire, which will mark its 50th anniversary on May 27, 2012.
After I graduated from Hope College in 1975, I found a newspaper reporter job at The News-Item in Shamokin, Pennsylvania, population 15,000. In late 1976, I began writing about the much smaller town of Centralia, population one thousand, and how its residents were coping with an environmental catastrophe, a fire that had burned in old coal mines beneath the town since 1962. Over the next ten years, I wrote more than 500 articles about Centralia for The News-Item. My first book on Centralia, Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government, and the Centralia Mine Fire, was published by University of Pennsylvania Press in 1986. It is now out of print. The Sunday New York Times Book Review said of Unseen Danger that it had “enough bureaucratic villains to fill a Dickens novel.” In 2008, Globe Pequot Press asked me if I would be interested in updating Unseen Danger. I was, and Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire, came out in 2009. The new book incorporates Unseen Danger and adds three new chapters, a number of additions and modifications to existing chapters, and a whole lot of Centralia photographs, many in color.
Go to the Centralia drop-down menu above for more news and information about the Centralia mine fire.
Centralia mine fire tours available
Two-hour walking tours of Centralia and the mine fire area, 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. I talk about the history of the mine fire, show the place where it started, take you to the gaping highway cracks caused by the fire, to the hot spots, and display photos of how the town used to look. The tours are rain or shine and can be taken at any time, although I recommend doing them in cool or cold weather when you’re more likely to see steam coming from the ground. I can now accept most credit cards, but let me know in advance so I remember to bring the Square swiper for my iPhone. Cash is also fine.
Centralia photographs available to the public for the first time
Images from my Centralia Photo Archive gallery can be purchased as 8×10′s ($25 plus $10 per order S&H) or 11×14′s ($50 plus $10 per order S&H). The images in the online gallery contain watermarks, which won’t be seen in your copy. Conditions: sizes may vary slightly depending on the image. Purchase of a photograph does not convey the right to post the image online or to give or resell it for use by any third party. It is for personal enjoyment and home display only. These images are also available for license commercially. The rate is $200 apiece. If you are interested in using more than a few, we can discuss a discount.
Book #3: The Epidemic: A Collision of Power, Privilege, and Public Health
The Epidemic , available as a hardcover book, an e-book for the Amazon Kindle, and finally, as an e-book for the Barnes & Noble Nook, explores the dark underside of the 1903 typhoid epidemic in Ithaca, New York, one of the last and worst (in percentage terms) typhoid epidemics in America. Food Safety News in Seattle, after reading my book, ranked the Ithaca epidemic #2 on its list of the ten worst food or water-related disease outbreaks in American history.
It all began when one of Ithaca’s leading families, the Tremans, engineered the sale of their Ithaca Water Works to a friend, William T. Morris, in 1901. Cornell University in Ithaca, where several of the Tremans sat on the Board of Trustees, provided critical financing for the deal, even though it had been rejected by at least one Wall Street bond house. The Tremans were overpaid, and Ithaca paid the price. Morris, vain and grandiose, began building a huge dam above Ithaca on Six Mile Creek, the town’s main water supply. He ignored advice from his engineer to first build a filtration plant to protect the community. One of the Italian immigrant workers he employed turned out to be a typhoid carrier, a concept not understood in America in 1903, and he accidentally contaminated Six Mile Creek. Typhoid began killing young people in Ithaca, including students at the university. The stories are heartbreaking. Ultimately at least 85 people died, of whom 29 were Cornell students. Three of the 85 were fathers who caught the disease while nursing their stricken sons. More than a thousand other people, including many children, became ill with typhoid but survived.
Morris walked away scot-free, protected by his wealthy Ithaca friends. Cornell University was saved only by the intervention of Andrew Carnegie, a board member, who paid the medical and/or funeral expenses of Cornell students and provided funds for a campus water treatment plant. Ithaca, denied the Carnegie help, muddled through on its own and with the help of George A. Soper, a state public health official who broke the epidemic that spring. Several years later, Soper used the lessons he learned in Ithaca to track down Typhoid Mary in New York City. Ithaca Water Works and Morris’ other utility holdings evolved directly into General Public Utilities Corp., responsible for the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979. Kirkus Reviews called The Epidemic “engaging.” (How The Epidemic came about is worthy of a page of its own, which you can read here.)