Documentary shares struggles of coal town's survival

Children of Centralia, PAProducing a documentary is a labor of love requiring numerous hours of interviewing, recording and editing, according to Montgomery County Community College’s alumnus Joe Sapienza, who showed his most recent documentary, "Centralia – Pennsylvania’s Lost Town," at Central Campus on Dec. 11.

"It took about four years and $15,000 to make," he told the audience prior to the screening. Nevertheless, there’s an element of satisfaction in the process of creating and showing the documentary.

Inspired by a book he read about the town’s struggle with the underground mine fire and eminent domain, Sapienza decided to produce the documentary and started interviewing the town and government officials and eventually was able to connect with former residents.

Founded in 1866, Centralia was a coal-mining town in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania’s Appalachian Mountains. By the mid-1900s, the town was on the decline since the demand for coal had decreased. In 1962, a fire reportedly started at a landfill near an old strip-mining pit and went into the abandoned mines, where it grew and continued spreading. In the early 1980s, residents voluntarily started leaving the town when the fire was causing sinkholes and carbon monoxide gas to seep into homes.


In 1992, Pennsylvania used eminent domain to take control of the town and required the remaining residents to leave. However, a few remained and sued for their right to stay. In 2013, the lawsuit ended and the eight remaining residents were allowed to stay.

This is the third documentary Sapienza has shared with the College and community. While a student at MCCC, he and fellow student Sean King created a documentary, "The History of Montco," which was presented during the College’s 50th-anniversary celebration in 2014.

In 2016, the College showed the documentary, "Broken Dreams: The Man I Always Wanted to Be," which was a collaboration between Sapienza and filmmaker Tyrone Brown. The documentary featured artist James Dupree’s career and his artwork and highlights his battle and victory against Philadelphia’s eminent domain claim for his art studio in the Mantua community of West Philadelphia.

While a student at MCCC, Sapienza was enrolled in the Film and Video program, and he then transferred to Drexel University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in May 2014. He currently is employed by NFL Films.

In February 2018, the documentary will be available at online and through Amazon on DVD and blue ray.