This article is accompanied by a sample chapter from our Greatest Hits audio book.
There is a small town in Pennsylvania called Ashland where Route 61’s northbound traffic is temporarily branched onto a short detour. Exactly what the detour is circumventing is not immediately clear to travelers, however few passers-by pay it any mind…a detour is nothing unusual. But anyone who ignores the detour and ventures along the original route 61 highway will soon encounter an abrupt and unexplained road closure. Beyond it lies a town filled with overgrown streets, smoldering earth, and ominous warning signs. It is the remains of the borough of Centralia.
Centralia, Pennsylvania was never a particularly large community, but it was once a lively and industrial place. At its peak the coal mining town was home to 2,761 souls, but today the population of its cemeteries far outnumbers that of its living residents. The series of events which led to the community’s demise—slowly diminishing its numbers to less than a dozen—began about forty-four years ago.
In 1962, workers set a heap of trash ablaze in an abandoned mine pit which was used as the borough’s landfill. The burning of excess trash was a common practice, yet at that particular time and place there existed a dangerous condition: an exposed vein of anthracite coal. The highly flammable mineral was unexpectedly ignited by the trash fire, prompting a quick effort to put it out. The flames on the surface were successfully extinguished, but unbeknownst to the fire fighters, the coal continued to burn underground. Over the following weeks it rapidly migrated into the surrounding coal mines and beneath the town, causing great concern.
Soon the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources began monitoring the fire by drilling holes into the earth to determine the extent and temperature of the fire. In retrospect, it was realized that the well-meaning workers may have unwittingly provided the fire with a natural draft by drilling these boreholes, feeding the coal’s combustion. As a precaution, the Department also installed gas monitors in many homes within the affected area, but nonetheless many residents complained of symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure.
In 1969—seven years after the fire was started—a more involved effort was made to contain the fire using trenches and clay seals, but the attempt was met with failure. In the 1970s, concerns over the severity of the extensive subterranean fire were stirred when a gas station owner noticed that the contents of his underground fuel storage tank seemed hot, so he measured the gasoline’s temperature, and found it to be a troubling 180 degrees Fahrenheit.
Numerous attempts were made to extinguish or contain the underground fire over the next two decades. The mines were flushed with water and the burning coal was excavated, but despite the persistence of the workers, their efforts were unsuccessful. The work continued for years at a great expense, with no appreciable progress.
After burning beneath the surface for almost twenty years, the fire drew national media attention when the ground crumbled beneath the feet of twelve-year-old Todd Domboski in 1981. The sinkhole—about four feet wide and 150 feet deep—had sufficient heat and carbon monoxide concentration that it would have killed the boy had his cousin had not been there to help pull him to safety. It was not the first nor the last sinkhole caused by the fire, but it was the most sobering.
At that point, about seven million dollars had been spent in the firefighting effort. Experts determined that the only option remaining to effectively battle the fire would be a massive trenching operation, at the cost of about $660 million, with no guarantee of success. Left with such limited options, the state of Pennsylvania basically condemned the entire town, and spent $42 million in government funds relocating most of its residents.
The fire still burns today beneath about four hundred acres of surface land, and it’s still growing. There is enough coal in the eight-mile vein to feed the fire for up to two hundred and fifty years, but it may burn itself out in as few as one hundred years. A few residents remained in the borough after the buyout, but their numbers have dwindled since then to about a dozen. Most of the unoccupied homes and buildings have been razed, and large portions of the town are being reclaimed by nature, leaving meadows crisscrossed with overgrown asphalt roads and the occasional steaming or smoking hillside.
In its prime, Centralia was a vibrant community with five hotels, seven churches, nineteen general stores, two jewelry stores, and about twenty-six saloons. Today it is a modern ghost town whose guts have been burned out, and whose main path of ingress has been closed and detoured. Residents are expected to return in 2016 to open a time capsule which was buried in the town in 1966, back when the town’s future was still somewhat optimistic. Its future now is decidedly more grim. There are currently no further plans to extinguish the fire, and most modern maps no longer show a dot where Centralia once stood.
Update: In 2014, the Centralia American Legion opted to dig up the time capsule to forestall looting. (thanks Tango22)