At its peak, in 1890, Centralia, Pennsylvania, had a population of 2,761 inhabitants who were served with seven churches, five hotels and fourteen general stores. Today’s population comprises of only ten, occupying three remaining houses. The residents settled their twenty year legal battle in October 2013, when they were permitted to stay in their homes for as long as they live. The reason for this dramatic conclusion was a result of a mine fire which occurred in Centralia in 1962.
There is some disagreement over the specific event which triggered the fire. David DeKok, in Unseen Danger and Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire, suggested, after studying available local and state government documents, that in May 1962 the Centralia Borough Council hired five members of the volunteer fire company to clean up the town landfill, next to the Odd Fellows Cemetery. The fire continued and in 1979 the local residents became aware of the scale of the problem when a gas-station owner and then mayor, John Coddington, measured - in one of his underground tanks - the fuel level. The temperature of the gasoline was found to be 172 °F (77.8 °C). Due to this discover the town started to gain nationwide attention, which was further highlighted when the fire began to create sinkholes which started to emit lethal levels of carbon monoxide.
With three homes remaining in Centralia, most of the abandoned buildings have been demolished by the Columbia County Redevelopment Authority and removed. The central areas of the town are now its four remaining cemeteries. In February 2012, the Commonwealth Court ruled that the purpose for condemnation no longer exists and the seven people, including the Borough Council president, had filed suit claiming that there was no longer needed as the underground fire had moved. Indeed, modern geoscientists have surveyed, and tested, the surface of Centralia and concluded that the coal fire that still burns below the surface and has not diminished and still burns at a significant rate. In addition, Centralia is seen as a model for many inspirations, including the Konami computer game Silent Hill, Strange Highways by Dean Koontz and Vampire Zero by David Wellington.
The project’s title, Heir to a Crippled Crown, is taken from singer-songwriter William Fitzsimmon’s song Centralia. Pennsylvanian-born Fitzsimmon (born 1978) produced the lyrics, from the album Lions (2014), which connote the history and changing face of the landscape of Centralia. For the project the photographs, taken using Kodak film, coincide with the autumnal colours of Centralia; this was executed to help highlight the inferno that continues below the surface. The photographs depict the surrounding landscape, prominent cemeteries and still-life objects that are scattered throughout the newly formed landscape of Centralia.