In 1962, Centralia, PA was a prosperous mining town and thriving as part of small-town America. Mining had been the long-time primary business of the town, with the first one opening over 100 years prior. Everything changed however, when a coal mine under the town caught fire, forcing its residents to evacuate and earning the reputation as a physical manifestation of hell on earth.
The story of Centralia begins in 1841 when settlers first moved into the area thanks to the construction of the Reading Road (now Route 61) that united several areas in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region. Mining operations followed soon thereafter with the first mines opening in 1856, which brought a period of growth and prosperity to the region. In the 1960’s the area became a hotbed for U.S. operations of the Molly Maquires, an Irish coal miner activist group which lead to a rapid rise in violence, including the murder of the town’s founder, Alexander Rae. A legend among locals in Centralia tells that Father Daniel Ignatius McDermott, the first Roman Catholic priest to call Centralia home, cursed the land in retaliation for being assaulted by three members of the Maguires in 1869. Violence ensued until several key members of the Molly Maquires were hanged for their crimes in 1877.
The coal industry in the region continued to boom, and according to numbers of Federal census records, the town of Centralia realized its maximum population of 2,761 in the year 1890. At its peak the town had seven churches, five hotels, twenty-seven saloons, two theaters, a bank, a post office, and 14 general and grocery stores.
In the 1920’s, demand for anthracite coal in Pennsylvania reached its peak. However, between coal miners enlisting in World War I and the stock market crash of 1929, the coal industry in the region collapsed. As a result, bootleg miners still continued mining in several idle mines, using techniques such as what was called “pillar-robbing,” where miners would extract coal from coal pillars left in mines to support the ceilings. This caused the collapse of many idle mines, and would end up complicating the prevention of the forthcoming mine fire by making it more difficult to seal off the abandoned mines.
In 1962, an exposed coal vein caught fire in the town landfill and quickly spread underground. Some say the fire was started by garbage collectors dumping hot coal ash into the open pit while others claim the blaze began after the local fire department set the trash on fire in an attempt to clean the pit. Attempts to extinguish or contain the fire were unsuccessful.
In 1979, locals became aware of the scale of the problem when a gas-station owner and then mayor, John Coddington, inserted a dipstick 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.
Despite the visible evidence of the fire, Centralia residents were bitterly divided over the question of whether or not the fire posed a direct threat to the town. While some residents moved, most remained in place until 1984, when the U.S. 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 Pennsylvania officials.
Legal battles between the residents and the government have been bitter over the future of the town. In 2002, the United States Postal Service revoked Centralia’s ZIP code, 17927, and the original Route 61 was re-routed as the original road suffered extensive heat damage. All properties in the borough were claimed under eminent domain by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1992 and most of the original buildings and homes have been torn down, but 8 residents have won their right to stay. Those residents will be allowed to live out their lives there, after which the rights of their properties will be taken through eminent domain. Once that occurs, the remaining buildings will be razed and it will be as though the town had never existed.
As for the fire, it rages on below the surface. Smoke can be seen billowing from sinkholes and fissures all over the former town. Officials expect the fire to rage on underground for at least 250 more years. It’s an incredible sight to see now; at a casual glance, the area now appears to be a field with many paved streets running through it. Structures that haven’t collapsed are being reclaimed by nature and some areas are being filled with new-growth forest. Where houses and schools and businesses once stood, only smoke and debris remain. It’s a town that fell apart and the earth has reclaimed.