Centralia, PA: The Town That Has Burned For Fifty Years

Centralia, Pennsylvania was once a very run of the mill coal-mining town, with some history that includes Gaelic and Irish settlers in the 1800s of the Molly Maguire brood. It was once prosperous, with churches, schools, saloons, stores, and over three thousand residents. Just off the now-abandoned PA route 61, a bird’s eye view still shows the lattice-work of roads and street intersections that used to signify a settling of people.

Today, it is abandoned and overgrown, most of the buildings demolished, thick brush and trees where parking lots once stood, and roads that are covered almost completely in graffiti.

Looking closer, what is left of Centralia looks like the setting of a horror movie: asphalt roads have burst open, with steam rising from their innards; holes in the ground occasionally will show a glimpse of fire. Warning signs are everywhere indicating that the ground is prone to give way suddenly, and that walking through Centralia may be dangerous or even fatal. The roads are not accessible by car anymore, with the state having blockaded them more than twenty years ago. It’s not uncommon for teenagers to walk through the blockades and some even manage to get an all-terrain recreational vehicle on the road.

Centralia town burning
[Image via Jrmsk|Wikimedia Commons|Cropped and Resized|CC BY-SA 2.5]

Centralia caught on fire in 1962 and it’s been burning ever since. The theories vary about how exactly the town caught on fire, but there is no question as to why it keeps burning: it sits atop a large supply of coal, where miners dug expansive tunnels for years prior to the fire.

Now, those same tunnels provide the route for the fire to continue to burn. Many people agree the fire began in the town’s landfill and somehow spread throughout the mineshafts, making the fire impossible to put out. The people of Centralia were not aware that things were as desperate as they were until the earth literally started opening up and sulfurous fumes and smoke began to escape. A 12 year old boy nearly died when he fell through a hole that opened up in his backyard in 1981. A 14 year old boy pulled him to safety.

Centralia Pennsylvania has burned for 50 years
[Image via Brian W. Shaller|Wikimedia Commons|Cropped and Resized|CC BY-NC-SA 3.0]

After twenty years of attempting to fight the fire, with the federal government’s help, the cause was abandoned. The remains of the town are expected to burn for another 250 years with the rich supply of coal that is fueling the fire. The town was officially condemned by the government in 1992, but a dozen or so residents refused to leave their homes. They finally settled a lawsuit that allows them to live the remainder of their lives in their homes, but their homes fall under government imminent domain and will be bull-dozed after their deaths.

Although signs say that death is a hazard of walking around Centralia, recent drone activity over the area shows that many people, particularly teenagers, take to the abandoned Route 61 often, with no such reported injuries in years. Some area residents say the smoke coming from the open earth doesn’t appear as frequent or as much, leading them to believe the fire is dying down or headed elsewhere.

There are several other places in the world where long-term coal mine fires are burning, including other places in the United States. Not all places have to be evacuated – it simply depends on the activity and amount of fire and how close to the surface of the earth it burns.

While many have given Centralia the moniker of “one of the creepiest places in the USA,” many locals say it’s not very creepy, according to Business Insider. Instead, they say, it’s simply tragic. Whether or not one likes local haunts or just a place full of history, Centralia is an interesting place to visit for its unique heritage and long-burning fire.

[Image via Brian W. Shaller|Wikimedia Commons|Cropped and Resized|CC BY-NC-SA 3.0]

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