CENTRALIA

A once prosperous coal-mining town reduced to a ghost town after a fire that started in 1962 continues to burn underneath the streets, making the air toxic and the land treacherous.

Main Street, Centralia, PA | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb​

Tucked away where District 12 meets District 13 in The Hunger Games - also known as central Pennsylvania, is a town called Centralia...or at least what remains of it.

Coal was king during the Industrial Revolution, though the history of mining coal goes back long before then. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the growth of industry was due largely in part to the coal that was used to power steam engines, heat buildings, and generate electricity. Despite this, the coal deposits beneath the area that would come to be known as Centralia were largely overlooked before the Mine Run Railroad was constructed in 1854, allowing coal to the transported out of the valley.

The area was originally called Bull's Head after a tavern that bore the same name. In 1842, the land was bought by the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company. A mining engineer names Alexander Rae relocated to the area with his family in and began planning a village. Rae planned a layout of streets and lots for development, giving the town the name Centreville, though it was later renamed Centralia so as not to cause confusion for the U.S. Post Office, who already had a Centreville in Schuylkill County. 

Getting to Centralia means small, winding, icy roads and one-car-at-a-time covered wooden bridges | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb​

Coal mines opened in rapid succession in Centralia. The first two mines, Locust Run Mine and the Coal Ridge Mine, opened in 1856. These were followed by the Hazeldell Colliery Mine in 1860, the Centralia Mine in 1862, and the Continental Mine in 1863. Centralia's coal sales expanded to larger markets in eastern Pennsylvania with the help of the railroad and Centralia was finally incorporated as a borough in 1866.

As the Civil War was winding down, another war was brewing in the coal mines of Pennsylvania, this one between employer and employee. The Molly Maguires were a secret society known for their activism among Irish-American and Irish immigrant coal miners in Pennsylvania. Centralia was a hotbed of Molly Maguires activity in the 1860s as they pushed to organize a mineworkers union to improve wages and working conditions for miners. Members of the Molly Maguires were not afraid of resorting to violence to push their cause and several murders and incidents of arson were committed at their hands. The town's founder, Alexander Rae, was one of the victims murdered by members of the Molly Maguires on October 17, 1868 as he traveled by buggy between Centralia and nearby Mount Carmel.

Twenty suspected members of this activist group were convicted of murder and other violent crimes, including three men convicted for Rae's death. All of those that were convicted were executed by hanging between 1877 and 1878 for their crimes.

A local legend in Centralia tells of a curse that was put upon the land by Father Daniel Ignatius McDermott after he was assaulted by three members of the Maguires in 1869. Father McDermott was the first Roman Catholic priest to call Centralia home and after the assault he stated that there would be a day when St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church would be the only structure remaining in Centralia.

St. Ignatius Cemetery in Centralia | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb

Perhaps citizens of Centralia should have taken Father McDermott's words more seriously as a warning or prophecy, but hindsight is 20/20, and the town continued to grow, reaching a peak population of 2,761 in 1890. At its peak, Centralia boasted seven churches, five hotels, 27 saloons, two theaters, a bank, a post office, and 14 general and grocery stores.

As the United States entered World War I, coal production decreased in the area as many of the young miners enlisted in the military. All things considered, fighting in a war overseas was probably still a safer bet than mining coal. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 resulted in the Lehigh Valley Coal Company closing five of its mines in and around Centralia. Though the five mines were officially closed for business, bootleg miners would continue to extract coal from the pillars left in the old mines meant to support their roofs. This went about as well as could be expected and led to the collapse of many of the defunct mines, which would complicate future efforts to seal off abandoned mines when they would run into these collapsed areas.

 

By the middle of the 20th century, the population of Centralia had declined to just under 2,000 residents. Coal mining continued in the area until the 1960s with many of the workers and their families calling Centralia and the surrounding area home. On May 7, 1962, the Centralia Council met to discuss preparations for the upcoming Memorial Day celebrations and one of the issues they were looking to get settled at that meeting was how to clean up the Centralia landfill. The old town dump, which had been west of the St. Ignatius Cemetery, was forced closed by new state regulations. In order to curtail illegal dumping around the town, a new landfill was opened earlier that year in an old 50-foot-deep strip mine that had been cleared by Edward Whitney in 1935. The 300-foot-wide, 75-foot-long pit was to be inspected by the Pennsylvania Department of Mines and Mineral Industries regularly in order to prevent a destructive mine fire. Inspector George Segaritus expressed concerns about the pit when he noticed holes in the floor - such mines often cut through older mines underneath - and informed city councilman Joseph Tighe that the pit would require filling with an incombustible material.

Pennsylvania state law prohibits dump fires but nonetheless, the Centralia city council set a date and hired five members of the local volunteer firefighter company to clean up the landfill. On May 27, 1962, a fire was ignited to clean the dump and water was used to douse any visible flames that night. Mysteriously, flames were seen again on May 29 and another attempt was made to thoroughly douse the fire with water and put it out for good. Flames roared to life again the following week on June 4, seemingly out of nowhere, and the Centralia Fire Company once again brought out their hoses to put the flames out, this time bringing in a bulldozer to stir up the garbage so that the firemen could douse concealed layers of burning waste. This process revealed a hole that was several feet high and as wide as 15 feet at the base of the north wall of the pit that had been previously concealed by garbage, thereby preventing it from being sealed with the incombustible material. This large hole led directly into the winding labyrinth of old mines underneath Centralia.

An unsettled energy rippled through the city officials of Centralia and beyond and tentative efforts were made to solve the issue with the landfill, which from all indications continued to burn based on the reports of residents who could still smell the odor of smoldering trash and coal for months following the original cleanup efforts. By midsummer, ominous wisps of smoke were swirling from fissures in the north wall of the pit. 

Sugarbomb and Flowerbomb on the old Pennsylvania Highway 61 | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb

A mine inspector that was brought in from Mount Carmel used gas detection equipment on the gases emanating from the pit wall and concluded that it contained concentrations of carbon monoxide that were typical of coal-mine fires.

All indications were that the town of Centralia and its residents were going about their lived atop a tinderbox that had just been ignited.

Despite the imminent danger posed by the fire, the Centralia Council decided that it was probably best that their lips not be too loose about the origins of the fire and a letter from the Council to the Lehigh Valley Coal Company described a fire "of unknown origin" that had started "during a period of unusually hot weather."

 

In the spirit of American politics, members of the city council, various local and state organizations as well as mining industry leaders debated back and forth about what should be done about the issue, while continuing to actually do nothing. As proposals were being submitted and rejected and meetings were being held, state mine inspectors were in Centralia-area mines almost daily to check the level of carbon monoxide. The carbon monoxide reached lethal levels on August 9, and all mines in the Centralia area were closed the next day.

 

The slow wheels of politics grinded along and on August 22 a first attempt to excavate the area and stop the fire was made. Engineers from the Department of Mines and Mineral Industries did not believe the fire was very big or active. They expressly forbid any exploratory drilling in order to assess the perimeter or depth of the fire and instead estimated these factors based on the amount of steam issuing from the landfill rock. This project was ultimately ineffective - unless the goal was to breach subterranean mine chambers and allow more oxygen in to further fuel the fire.

Centralia Mine Fire 1969

A small part of the Centralia mine fire as it appeared after being exposed during an excavation in 1969

A second excavation project was attempted in October 1962 but was abandoned six months later when funds were depleted. A third attempt to stop the progress of the fire was put forth over a year after the fire had originally been ignited but it was quickly abandoned in late 1963 due to the cost.

Coal mining in Centralia was stopped in the 1960s when most of the companies that owned the mines shut down and rail service ended in 1966. Meanwhile, the fire continued to burn beneath Centralia, snaking through the seemingly endless labyrinth of old mines providing it a seemingly endless source of fuel, and life above ground went on. Maybe people forgot about the underground fire, pushed it to the back of their minds, assuming that if there was really something to worry about officials would tell them or possibly even assuming the fire had burnt itself out, chewed its way to the end of an old mine and put itself out. The latter scenario is what officials assumed would happen; eventually the fire would just burn itself out, it couldn't but burn forever.

In 1979, locals became more acutely aware of the problem looming beneath their feet from John Coddington, the mayor of Centralia at the time. Coddington was also the owner of a local gas station and noticed that the dipstick he had inserted into one of his underground tanks to check the fuel level seemed really hot. He tied a thermometer to a string and lowered it into the tank, no doubt shocked and more than a little concerned when we withdrew the thermometer it read that the gasoline in the tank was 172°F.

 

By the 1980s, residents of Centralia began to notice adverse health effects that were associated high levels of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide as well as low oxygen levels.

Centralia drew national attention in 1981 when a sinkhole measuring 4 feet wide by 150 feet deep suddenly opened up in the backyard of a house where 12-year-old Todd Domboski was playing. He managed to grab a tree root and hang on until his cousin, 14-year-old Eric Wolfgang, pulled him out of the hole. Hot steam billowed from the sinkhole and, when measured, was the steam was found to contain lethal levels of carbon monoxide.

In 1983, the U.S. Congress allocated more than $42 million for relocation efforts of Centralia residents, though residents of Centralia still remained bitterly divided over whether or not the fire posed a direct threat to the town. Residents couldn't agree on the amount and kind of risk posed by the fire, despite the very visible evidence of it quite literally appearing in their backyards. Nearly all Centralia residents accepted the government's buyout offers and more than 1,000 people moved out of the town. Over 500 of the now-abandoned structures in the town were demolished and by 1990 the population of Centralia had shrunk to only 63 remaining residents.

In 1992, Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey invoked eminent domain on all property in Centralia, condemning all the buildings in an attempt to get all of the remaining residents to vacate the area. A subsequent legal effort by residents to overturn the action failed.

Old Pennsylvania Highway 61 | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb

Pennsylvania Route 61, which had run through Centralia and had been repaired numerous times over the decades since the fire began. The coal mine fire would cause portions of the road to collapse and crack, forming large fissures which would often spew out poisonous gases from the fire burning underneath. Route 61 was finally ruled a lost cause and blocked off by berms to keep cars from driving on the old roadway. The current route was formerly a detour around the damaged portion during the repairs and became a permanent route in 1993.

Old Pennsylvania Highway 61 | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb

In 2002, the U.S. Postal Service discontinued Centralia's ZIP code, which had formerly been 17927. By 2006, only 16 homes were still standing by 2006, which was reduced to 11 by 2009 when Governor Ed Rendell began the formal eviction of the remaining Centralia residents. In 2010 only five homes remained, along with the occasional foundation with front steps that lead to nothing. 

In the mental image you get when you imagine Centralia is something akin Silent Hill, you wouldn't be far from the truth. The town of Silent Hill was inspired by the story of Centralia and the fire that burns beneath it. It's difficult not to draw comparisons beneath an inferno beneath your feet and religious representations of Hell and admittedly it makes one hell (pun intended) of a backstory for a creepy fictional town.

The Centralia fire now underlies over 400 acres and is spreading along four fronts through the abandoned mines with no sign of stopping. It's estimated that the fire has access to coal fuel that could allow it to burn for at least another 250 years.

One of the current lines of fire is just beneath the St. Ignatius cemetery, a former resident with family buried in that cemetery joking that Centralia is "the only place you can be buried and cremated at the same time!"

The estimated population of Centralia in 2017 was down to the single digits - 5 - though this fluxuates at any given time as people visit the area to see the "real life Silent Hill." If you're looking for an ominous siren to herald an onslaught of mutated and terrible monsters trying to attack you or a guy wearing a bulky pyramid shaped helmet and a skirt made of sewn flesh to cleave you in half, you'll probably be disappointed.

Censign.jpg

The sign at the beginning of Route 61 in Centralia.

What you will find is barren streets lined with the barely visible remains of houses and businesses as well as several signs warning of an underground fire, unstable ground, and dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.

Route 61 has been affectionately named "Centralia Graffiti Highway" as visitors to the ghost town will walk over the berm of dirt put in place to block the road from vehicle traffic and spray paint everything from Silent Hill related drawings to neon colored penises. The old highway is so heavily colored in a tie dye of graffiti that it can be seen from the air via Google Earth. 

St. Ignatius Cemetery in Centralia | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb

While you most likely won't meet Pyramid Head or any of the other Silent Hill creatures on the streets of Centralia, the toxic smoke and steam still billowing from the countless cracks along the old highway and the constant knowledge that a fiery sinkhole could open up beneath you at any moment are enough to feel a similar sense of impending doom.

Strip and open-pit mining are still active in the area around Centralia. An underground mine only three miles to the west of Centralia employs about 40 people - but I'm sure that's fine....

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