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Small towns,

Big problems,

American stories

Betsy Aardsma at Holland High School

I live in Harrisburg, the state capital of Pennsylvania, and write narrative non-fiction 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.  A National Historic District, it is bounded on one side by the flood-prone and three-quarter 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 look 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 and only available as a used book, but please see the next listing.

(2009) Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire, Globe Pequot Press. An updated edition of Unseen Danger, with three additional chapters and other additions here and there. It contains some of the best of my photographs of Centralia from the 1970s and 1980s. Trade paperback, you can purchase it at, or  It is also available as an e-book for Kindle and Nook and Kobo and as an audio download from . The gift shop at the Pioneer Mine Tunnel Tour in Ashland, usually has copies available for in-person purchase. This has been my most faithful sales outlet for my Centralia book, almost from the beginning. They are open daily between April 1 and Labor Day and on weekends in September and October. Ashland is down the hill from Centralia on Route 61. Finding the Pioneer Mine Tunnel is a little complicated, so get GPS directions off the website before you go. The tour is well worth it. Just remember to bring a jacket or sweatshirt, even on the hottest summer day, or you’ll be shivering during the tour once you get inside the mountain.

(2011) The Epidemic: A Collision of Power, Privilege, and Public Health, Lyons Press. Hardcover. I tell the story of one of the last and worst typhoid epidemics in America. This epidemic devastated Ithaca, New York, and Cornell University in 1903. Eighty-five people died, including 29 Cornell students. This is both a medical/environmental thriller and an intimate look at 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 and as an audio download from

(2014) Murder in the Stacks: Penn State, Betsy Aardsma, and the Killer Who Got Away, Globe Pequot Press. The true story behind the Penn State legend. Betsy Aardsma, 22, was the pretty, bright, and well-liked graduate student who was 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 Betsy and her killer, how their lives collided, and how he got away with murder. The book can be purchased online from, Powell’s Books,, or in person at  Reader’s World at 8th & River in Holland, Michigan. Or have your local independent bookstore order it. The e-book is available for Kindle or Nook or Kobo. There’s also an audio download from The paper-and-ink book can be purchased online from, Powell’s Books,, or in person at  Reader’s World at 8th & River in Holland, Michigan. This great little bookstore has been part of my life since it opened in 1967 and I would walk down after school. Or have your local independent bookstore order it.

(2022) The Epidemic: How Typhoid Devastated an American Town and How the Residents Fought Back.  Lyons Press. Trade paperback edition of the 2011 hardcover book but with a new and better subtitle. Everything else is the same. Order it online from or, No e-book with the new title, sorry, but the text in the old title is identical. Also available under this new title as an audio download from, narrated as all my books are by the incomparable Eddie Frierson.

(2024, tentative) Working title –– The Korean Father: An American Tragedy. In 1989, Han-Tak Lee, 54, a Korean American businessman from New York City, took his mentally ill daughter, Ji-Yun Lee, 20, who was a student at Pratt Institute, to Hebron Camp in the Poconos for a weekend of “prayer and relaxation” after she flipped out at the Lee family apartment in Elmhurst, Queens, and  the police came. In fact, she underwent an exorcism at the camp. About 90 minutes after the two exorcists left, the cabin where she and her father were staying was on fire. Ji-Yun died, Han-Tak Lee escaped and he ended up wrongfully convicted of arson and murder and serving a life sentence. Now began a 25-year effort by the Korean community and their lawyers to free him from prison, no easy task, but finally accomplished in 2014 by Mr. Lee’s final two lawyers, Peter Goldberger and Pamela Wilk of Ardmore. My book, written with Maggie Moon Kim, who began as my Korean interpreter for the interviews with Mr. Lee and became an invaluable cultural adviser, delves into all of this in my usual detail. Racism, bad and good science, it’s all there. The book is finished, but does not yet have a publisher. It once did–Three Hills Press in Ithaca, NY–but became “orphaned” when the editor who asked me to submit our manuscript took a job at a different publisher. Long and infuriating story.

Recent News

I began posting my Centralia mine fire photographs on Instagram at the end of 2022, at least one a day, sometimes more. I am ddekok on Instagram. I shot hundreds of images of Centralia beginning in 1976. The early ones are in black-and-white, but after 1982 most are in color. Most of those were shot on Kodachrome transparency film, so their colors have remained true. My images will show you what Centralia looked like before the relocation and the dramatic physical manifestations of the mine fire during that period. No copying or use in your own projects, sorry. All the images are copyrighted, so you need my written permission to use them. Students included.

Centralia mine fire historical tours available

Two-hour (approximately) Centralia mine fire historical walking tours, led by me, are available for a flat fee of $300 (any number in the group), which covers my travel and time from Harrisburg.  I have been doing these tours for well over 10 years. I talk about the history of Centralia and the mine fire, answer all your questions, show you where the fire started, and display large photos of  how the town used to look. We view what remains of Graffiti Highway. I talk about what the people of Centralia endured from the mine fire, especially the dangerous 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 except during Pennsylvania deer season (in 2023, Nov.25 to Dec. 9) for safety reasons on the Graffiti Highway part of the tour. You will have an amazing experience and come to understand the magnitude and anguish of what happened here. With luck (not guaranteed) you will see some steam coming out of the ground.

The tour is not really handicapped accessible, although one person in a wheelchair was able to do most of it with help from her friends. Any reasonably fit person should be able to do the tour.

Centralia Consulting

During the past ten years, I have worked with more than 20 television production companies that were filming stories on the Centralia mine fire. In 2018, I worked with TwoFour Broadcast Ltd. (Boomerang) and Britespark Films. In 2019, with Prometheus Entertainment for an episode of “The Unexplained.”  In 2020, with Like A Shot Entertainment. All of those were from the U.K. RTL German Television was somewhere in that time period.  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 understand your needs. In addition, all of the high-res images 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. My basic rate for media consulting is $500. That includes all the help and explanations you need, finding people to talk to, spending one day with you in Centralia, appearing in your piece if requested, everything except photo licensing.

Fire Underground

Fire Underground