Published in Bank Note Reporter December 2002
Coal town bank tells
story of Centralia, Pa.
By Richard McDonnell
|An astute businessman,"
Big Mike” McDonnell was known to carry the local
newspaper’s business section under his arm
regularly, as captured in this August 1928
Centralia Fire Company photograph.
After becoming interested in genealogy several years ago, I
found a way to merge my interest in collecting paper currency
with researching my family roots. In particular, my interest
was piqued after discovering that my great-grandfather,
Michael J. McDonnell, was associated with the First National
Bank of Centralia, Pa., for 39 years. Michael was the bank’s
vice president from 1909 to 1927 and its president from 1927
until his death on Dec. 27, 1948.
A first generation Irish-American, he was the son of John and
Mary (Leahy) McDonnell. John immigrated from Tipperary,
Ireland, and arrived in the Port of New York on April 1, 1854.
He resided for a short time in Schuylkill County before
establishing roots in a small town in Columbia County now
known as Centralia, Pa. John purchased a large house along
Locust and Railroad Streets on Sept. 5, 1862, established a
well-respected hotel and restaurant, and raised four children:
Catherine, John, Michael and Joseph.
Michael, also known as “Big Mike,” was born in Centralia on
June 21, 1867. He began his working years as a landlord and
wholesale liquor distributor. After his father and elder
brother died, he also became the proprietor of the family
hotel and restaurant in 1916. Michael was very civic-minded
and was active in the Centralia Fire Department. Centralia
Fire Company No. 1 was organized on May 6, 1893, and dues were
a whopping 15 cents a month. The company was granted a charter
by the Columbia County Court in Bloomsburg on Aug. 16, 1893.
Michael was a member for many years and, most noteworthy, he
intermittently served as fire chief and company president for
many years. During 1922 the fire company nearly disbanded due
to a lack of interest, lack of subsidies and poor equipment,
but on Nov. 16, 1922, the fire company was reorganized. An
active but small fire department remains today.
|These checks are from the
First National Bank of Centralia, Pa. At top, a
personal check signed by Michael J. McDonnell
dated May 9,1929; below it, another personal
check payable to First National Bank dated April
By most definitions, the current state of Centralia would
be considered a ghost town; however, this town has a vibrant
and industrial past. The land was originally surveyed and
subsequently purchased by the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron
Company. In 1855 Alexander W. Rea, the first engineer and
agent of the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company, surveyed
the town into streets and lots. This was practically the
beginning of the town which was called Centreville at the
time. The name Centralia was suggested by Rea because another
Pennsylvania town named Centreville already existed. This
suggestion combined with a strong insistence by the postal
authorities to change names in order not to confuse mail
deliveries was accepted, and in 1866 the Borough of Centralia
With the incorporation of Centralia, the residents saw a need
to develop and expand. Many of the residents sought loans to
purchase homes through the financial institutions located in
Centralia. Prior to the incorporation of the First National
Bank of Centralia, the town hosted two other financial
institutions: The Centralia Mutual Savings Fund Association,
and The Citizens’ Building and Loan Association.
The Centralia Mutual Savings Fund Association was established
on Feb. 2, 1866. Prominent members of the town were chosen to
serve on the board of directors. One member was Rea. Rea was a
friend of the McDonnell family and was known to be a staunch
supporter of coal miners. He built his home in a section of
Centralia that later became known as Rea’s Hill. Rea vouched
for the credibility of Michael’s father and served as a
witness as John McDonnell presented his petition for
naturalization on May 2, 1859.
|This was the building
used after a major fire destroyed the original
in 1912. Markers identifying the bank were
written on both windows. This bank was located
along Locust Ave. also known as State Highway
Sadly, Rea was murdered in 1868. Several years later the
county charged three suspects with murder and their subsequent
trial was reported as another Molly Maguire trial. The jury
found all three guilty of murder and they were hanged in the
jail yard in Bloomsburg, Pa., on March 25, 1878.
For several years the Centralia Mutual Savings Fund
Association was successful and profitable. Subsequently, this
financial institution fell on hard times and was closed during
Centralia’s other financial business, the Citizens’ Building
and Loan Association, was established after the Mutual Savings
Association. Both Centralia associations coexisted for several
years. The Citizens’ Building and Loan Association closed
during the early 1900s.
The First National Bank of Centralia was organized on Sept. 9,
1909, and received charter number 9568 on Oct. 26, 1909. This
bank opened for business on Dec. 1, 1909, with initial
deposits of over $106,000. The bank was initially situated
along the west side of Locust Avenue, which served as the main
conduit through town. Today this road is also known as State
Highway 61. After a major conflagration in 1912, the bank was
destroyed; however, the cash and records were protected by the
bank’s vault. The bank moved across the street and reopened
for business the next day. This “new” building was originally
constructed in 1866 and was purchased by the First National
Bank for $6,000.
The Centralia bank remained solvent throughout the next 44
years. The following excerpt from a 1933 advertisement
expresses the strength of this hometown bank during one of
America’s most troubled times: “When President Roosevelt
proclaimed the national bank holiday, he assured the people of
these United States, that only sound banks would be permitted
to reopen. The Government’s stamp of approval has given OUR
depositors the additional satisfaction of knowing their
confidence was not misplaced.”
|This large-size note from
the First National Bank of Centralia was signed
by James Jones, cashier, and Theodore W. Riley,
Michael J. McDonnell resided in close proximity to the
national bank and would walk to and from his office. As a
businessman, he was always seen around town “looking dapper.”
My late paternal grandmother once explained that Michael had a
reputation for being “tight with a buck” but he was a kind man
who commanded respect. An astute businessman, “Big Mike” was
known to have the local newspaper’s business section
consistently placed under his arm. Evidence of this was
captured in an August 1928 Centralia Fire Company photograph.
A consummate businessman throughout his working years,
Michael also ventured into an agreement with Atlantic Refining
Company on July 22, 1932. Still serving as bank president, his
initial three-year contract called for the selling of
petroleum products along the front of his residence/hotel.
Additionally, he dedicated an 8 x 15-foot room from his hotel
for office space to operate his new business. This partnership
with Atlantic Refining Company entitled him to receive one
cent for every gallon of White Flash gasoline sold.
On Dec. 27, 1948, at the age of 81, Michael’s role as bank
president ended with his death. Appropriately, the Mount
Carmel Item newspaper’s headline read “M.J. McDonnell,
Centralia Bank President, Dies.”
|This Type-2 small-size
note was signed by Michael J. McDonnell,
president, and John Cramer, cashier.
Subsequently, the First National Bank of Centralia was
merged into the Pennsylvania National Bank & Trust Company of
Pottsville, charter No. 01663, on Dec. 15, 1955, and the deed
was officially recorded Feb. 25, 1956.
Due to the relocation of most of this Centralia branch
office’s patrons, the final day of business was Nov. 30, 1987.
The building was razed shortly thereafter. The Pennsylvania
National Bank & Trust Company later became known as Keystone
Financial Bank, NA, and on Oct. 6, 2000, was merged into
Manufacturers & Traders Trust Company, Harrisburg, which is a
The beginning of the end of Centralia commenced in 1962 after
an underground vein of coal caught fire and has continued
burning for the last 40 years. The federal government began
acquiring homes during the early 1980s and only a few
residents remain today. Centralia has received national
attention and several books have been published describing the
history of this modern-day ghost town.
|This photo shows a
collection of Centralia National Bank items:
personal checks; a 1912 passbook, "The Traveling
Teller", A promotional metal bank circa early
1900's; and two National Bank Notes.
Centralia reached a maximum of 2,761 residents. At one
point in time, Centralia had 19 general stores, two jewelry
stores, 26 saloons, two theaters, a dairy, an ice cream
parlor, five hotels, seven churches, a bottling works factory
and six major collieries in close proximity to the town. These
collieries were the main employers for the majority of
Centralia’s hard-working men and boys for generations.
In order to further my research, I would greatly appreciate
any additional information or items from either the First
National Bank of Centralia, Pa., the Centralia Mutual Savings
Fund Association or the Citizens’ Building and Loan
Association. I would gladly purchase related bank items or
reimburse anyone in order to have copies produced from these
Please click here to contact Rick McDonnell.
For More Centralia related information see Rick McDonnell's
McDonnell's grandfather, John M. McDonnell was the
proprietor of McDonnell's Dairy (pasteurized milk & ice
cream) and McDonnell's Ice Cream Parlor (later partnered
with his brother, William "Bill"). The dairy
operated from 1930 until his untimely death in December
1948. The dairy was located along Railroad Street
behind the McDonnell homestead situated at the corner of
Locust Ave and Railroad St. The ice cream parlor
was situated along Locust Avenue and some old-timers
have told Rick that McDonnell's had the whitest, best
tasting vanilla ice cream.
|This 1929 bank ad was
published in the "IRIS", school yearbook of
Conyngham Township High School.
|Two years later, this
bank ad appeared in the "IRIS".