It was cold, the kind of bright icy cold that takes your breath away as soon as you step outside. We had not felt cold like that yet this season, but the bright early morning sun pushed us to get out of the car and explore. After all, we had driven well out of our way, twisting and turning through the mountains to get to here. To…really nothing, at least not anymore.
Anthracite coal. It’s discovery is how it all started and is the reason why there are so many towns tucked into the Appalachian Mountains of Northeast Pennsylvania. These are small towns, difficult to get to, and far from major highways. Towns where time seems to move forward at a slower pace. Towns where you have to have a reason to go to. It was here where we found ourselves on that icy winter morning, traveling through the deep dark hills to a town that was on fire.
Centralia Pennslyvania. The town started out like any other mining town. A couple mines were opened in the mid-1800s and the town grew to a population of over 2700. At it’s peak, according to Wikipedia, Centralia had seven churches, five hotels, twenty-seven saloons, two theaters, a bank, a post office, and 14 general and grocery stores. By the mid-1900s coal mining had declined and the population of the town had dropped in half. Centralia would have become just another story of a struggling Pennsylvania mining town, if it weren’t for the events of 1962 which changed everything.
The actual cause of the fire is disputed, but the most common cause seems to have happened is that the Centralia volunteer fire company was hired to clean up the town landfill, located in an abandoned strip-mine pit next to the Odd Fellows Cemetery (pictured above). They had done the same in the past, just prior to Memorial Day. On May 27, 1962, the firefighters set the dump on fire and let it burn for some time. But this time, for some reason, the fire was not fully extinguished and the fire managed to enter an unsealed opening in the pit which led to a labyrinth of abandoned coal mines beneath Centralia.
The fire burned beneath Centraila for years after that. Pipes were used to allow the steam to vent, but all was pretty normal in the town above. Then, in 1979, a gas station owner inserted a dipstick to check on the level of the gas in his tanks. When he withdrew it, it seemed hot, so he lowered a thermometer down and was shocked when he found out that the temperature of the gasoline in the tank was 172 °F. Everything finally came to a head in 1981 when a 12 year old boy fell into a sinkhole in his grandmother’s backyard. His cousin managed to save him from falling into the 150 foot hole which had a large billow of steam billowing out of it. A lethal level of carbon monoxide was discovered in the steam and the state got involved.
There was a lot of fighting back and forth over what to do with the town. Many residents wanted to remain; it was their home after all. Finally in 1992, the governor of Pennsylvania invoked eminent domain on all properties in the town and condemned all the buildings within it. Buildings were torn down as people moved out until there was virtually nothing left of the town. Yet, Centraila is not a true ghost town. Only 8 residents (I think) remain today, not wanting to leave their home. The state will obtain possession of their home as soon as they are gone, but for now these residents remain, living in the deserted area surrounded by emptiness where a town once stood (Below is one of the 5 remaining buildings. It used to be a row house with houses attached to either side of it, now brick supports hold up the sides where the attached homes have been torn down).
We explored the empty streets of the town on that early winter morning. The roads are still there, cross-crossing each other in the normal pattern of downtown streets, yet they are empty. Just fields and trees and the remains of stone steps. Nature is slowly reclaiming the roads (below is what once was the center of town).
Leaving the downtown area, we drove up a hill next to another cemetery. There the damage from the fires was obvious. We got out and walked around and came upon holes in the ground with steam rising from them. Signs that a fire did still burn underground and this was not your average ghost town.
Another result of the fire was that the main road, Route 61, through Centralia had to be rerouted. Today there are road closed signs in front of giant piles of dirt built up to stop traffic from entering the old highway. A highway that buckled and collapsed as a result of the heat from the fire below.
We got out and walked along what is now known as “Graffiti Highway” (for obvious reason as you can see in the pictures). It was hard to imagine this ever being a regular highway with all the mogul-like bumps and giant crevices in the road. At one time steam had poured from these fissures as well. Now all that’s left is a broken road.
The underground mines fires could last for two centuries. Centralia will soon be completely gone, just some fields and trees and overgrown roads, unnoticed as cars speed by. Just another story hidden in these hills.