Friday, August 14, 2009

Centralia, PA

This was a world where no human could live, hotter than the planet Mercury, its atmosphere as poisonous as Saturn's. At the heart of the fire, temperatures easily exceeded 1,000 degrees. Lethal clouds of carbon monoxide and other gases swirled through the rock chambers.

Centralia was incorporated as a borough in 1866. The anthracite coal industry was the principal employer in the community. Coal mining continued in Centralia until the 1960s, when most of the companies went out of business. Bootleg mining continued until 1982. Strip and open-pit mining is still active in the area, and there is an underground mine employing about 40 employees three miles to the west.

The borough was also a hotbed of Molly Maguires activity during the 1860s and 1870s. The borough's founder, Alexander Rea, was one of the victims of the secret order when he was murdered just outside of the borough on October 17, 1868. Three individuals were convicted of the crime and hanged in the county seat of Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania on March 25, 1878. Several other murders and arsons also occurred during this period.

The borough was served by two railroads, the Philadelphia and Reading and the Lehigh Valley, with the Lehigh Valley being the principal carrier. Rail service ended in 1966. The borough operated its own school district with elementary schools and a high school within its precincts. There were also two Catholic parochial schools in the borough. The borough once had seven churches, five hotels, twenty-seven saloons, two theatres, a bank, post office, and fourteen general and grocery stores. During most of the borough's history, when coal mining activity was being conducted, the town had a population in excess of 2,000 residents. Another 500 to 600 residents lived in unincorporated areas immediately adjacent to Centralia.

It is not known for certain how the fire that made Centralia essentially unlivable was ignited. One theory asserts that in May 1962, Centralia Borough Council hired five members of the volunteer fire company to clean up the town landfill, located in an abandoned strip mine pit next to the Odd Fellows Cemetery. This had been done prior to Memorial Day in previous years, when the landfill was in a different location. The firefighters, as they had in the past, set the dump on fire, and let it burn for a time. Unlike in previous years, however, the fire was not extinguished.

Other evidence supports this theory, as stated in Joan Quigley's 2007 missive, such as the fact that one of two trash haulers (Curly Stasulevich or Sam Devine) dumped hot ash and/or coal discard from coal burners into the open trash pit. The borough, by law, was responsible for installing a fire-resistant clay barrier between each layer but had fallen behind. This action allowed the hot coals to penetrate the vein of coal underneath the pit and subsequent subterranean fire. Quigley cites "interviews with volunteer firemen, the former fire chief, borough officials, and several eyewitnesses, as well as contemporaneous borough council minutes" as her sources for this explanation of the fire. Another theory of note is the Bast Theory. Basically, it states that the fire was burning long before the alleged trash dump fire. However, due to overwhelmingly contrary evidence, few hold this position and give it little credibility.

The fire remained burning underground and spread through a hole in the rock pit into the abandoned coal mines beneath Centralia. Attempts to extinguish the fire were unsuccessful and it continued to burn throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Adverse health effects were reported by several people due to the byproducts of the fire, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide and lack of healthy oxygen levels.

In 1979, locals became aware of the scale of the problem when a gas-station owner and then mayor, John Coddington, inserted a stick into one of his underground tanks to check the fuel level. When he withdrew it, it seemed hot, so he lowered a thermometer down on a string and was shocked to discover that the temperature of the gasoline in the tank was 172 °F (77.8 °C). Statewide attention to the fire began to increase, culminating in 1981 when 12-year-old resident Todd Domboski fell into a subsidence four feet wide by 150 feet (46 m) deep that suddenly opened beneath his feet in a backyard.

In 1984, Congress allocated more than $42 million for relocation efforts. Most of the residents accepted buyout offers and moved to the nearby communities of Mount Carmel and Ashland. A few families opted to stay despite warnings from state officials.

In 1992, Pennsylvania claimed eminent domain on all properties in the borough, condemning all the buildings within. A subsequent legal effort by residents to have the decision reversed failed. In 2002, the United States Postal Service revoked Centralia's ZIP Code, 17927.


Only one home remains standing in Centralia although most of the abandoned buildings have been demolished by humans or nature. At a casual glance the area now appears to be a field with many paved streets running through it. Some areas are being filled with new-growth forest. Most of Centralia's roads and sidewalks are overgrown with brush, although some areas appear to be mowed.The remaining church in the borough which used to hold weekly Saturday night services remains silent in the bowels of Centralia, and the borough's four cemeteries are slowly crumbling due to the carbon monoxide of the long burning underground fire. Centralia's cemeteries now have a far greater population than the town, including one on the hilltop that has smoke rising around and out of it.

The only indications of the fire, which underlies some 400 acres (1.6 km²), spreading along four fronts, are low round metal steam vents in the south of the borough, and several signs warning of underground fire, unstable ground, and carbon monoxide. Additional smoke and steam can be seen coming from an abandoned portion of Pennsylvania Route 61, the area just behind the hilltop cemetery, and other cracks in the ground scattered about the area. Route 61 was repaired several times until its final closing. The current route was a detour around the damaged portion during the repairs and became a permanent route in the mid-1990s; mounds of dirt were placed at both ends of the former route, effectively blocking the road. Pedestrian traffic is still possible due to a small opening about two feet wide at the north side of the road, but this is muddy and not accessible to the disabled. The underground fire is still burning and will continue to do so for a predicted 250 more years.

Prior to its demolition in September of 2007, the last remaining house was notable for the five chimney-like support buttresses along each of two opposite sides of the house, where the house was previously supported by a row of adjacent buildings before it was demolished. Another house with similar buttresses is visible from the northern side of the cemetery, just north of the burning, partially subsumed hillside.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania did not renew the relocation contract at the end of 2005, and the fate of the remaining residents is uncertain.

It is expected that many former residents will return in 2016 to open a time capsule buried in 1966 next to the veterans' memorial.


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  2. Great information. As of January, 2016 there are 7 remaining homes and 11 residents, the youngest in his 30's. The time capsule was opened early in 2015 due to being damaged by vandalism. Sadly, the contents were damaged or destroyed by water getting in. What was salvageable was turned over to those who put the item into the capsule or their surviving heirs. Centralia is a wonderful vacation spot. You can visit the deserted town, see the graffiti highway, hike all you want. The best part though is all the great fun you can have in the area. The Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine and Anthracite Museum are 2 miles to the south. The still free entrance and parking Knoeblels Grove amusement park is 6 miles to the north, and there are many other great attractions within a 30-45 minute drive, including the wonderfully restored Eckley Miner's Village in Freeland. If you stop to visit, but sure to be respectful of the town, and haul out any trash you create. Centralia was once a beautiful, thriving mining community. Sadly all the residents were forced to leave due to the still burning mine fire. I have been through the town many times since the 1960's, and have helped during the monitoring of the mine fire. Upon returning to the town after the relocation I was moved to write a historical novel, "Centralia PA, Devils Fire," that metaphorically demonizes the mining companies. There are many conspiracy theories that say the mining companies caused the fire so the mineral rights could be re-purchased (the state passed legislation in 1952 mandating that mining towns must be permitted to purchase the mineral rights from the mining companies - only Centralia, PA took advantage of this deal!) I also have more information at and on my Centralia PA Facebook page.