Until I read “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson, a wonderful book by the way, I had never heard of Centralia, PA and the fact that a coal mine has been burning underground there since 1962. I mentioned this to my husband, Paul and he said “it’s been burning there since the early 60s and it could burn for another 250 years.” So he has been living with this knowledge for many years and just never shared it with me. He is however, a walking encyclopedia of bits of knowledge.
This event really got my attention; I had no idea a coal mine could burn endlessly on and on underground or that it had ever happened in the real world. So today when the weather forecast stated is was to be a warm balmy 60 degrees we were thinking about where to take a day trip and Centralia popped into my mind. I wanted to see this place with my own eyes! So we gathered up our collie, Gunnar and off we went.
The fire began in 1962 when the Centralia Borough Council hired members of the volunteer fire department to clean up the area landfill, just as they had done in previous years. But this year, unlike in previous years, the fire was not completely extinguished. It is thought that an exposed vein of coal was ignited allowing the fire entry into the labyrinth of coal mines under the town where it became an inferno.
For almost twenty years many attempts were made to put out the fire to no avail. Then one day in 1981 a 12-year-old boy was playing in his backyard when a hole, approximately 4 ft wide x 150 ft deep, opened up under his feet. He was saved from being swallowed up by his cousin, who was playing alongside him that day.
At that point the state of Pennsylvania stepped in and condemned the entire town. Most of its residents were relocated at a cost of $42 million. Their homes were then demolished. The few remaining residents fought to keep their homes and were finally allowed to do so. However, the homes were purchased by the government and when the last of the family leaves the home, it will be demolished as well.
Finding Centralia today was easy, but I have to say it wasn’t what I expected. There were no spirals of smoke filling the air as it seeped through the earth as I had seen in so many pictures. In fact, we didn’t see anything misting up from the ground and caught just one whiff of a sulphur smell as we walked about the area.
We did enjoy walking down the section of route 61 that was closed off due to damage from the mine burning underground. The town had attempted to repair the road several times, but finally relinquished it to the mine, turning the portion of the road that had been created as a detour into the permanent road.
The road appeared to have heaved and buckled in several areas and was left with large and deep crevices in some. But today, no sign of continued action underground. Above ground this portion of route 61 that was lost to the world seems to have been found by teenagers through the years. It was covered with graffiti, empty beer cans were hung strategically in a tree near the road and on this day, it was being walked by many other site seers.
Other than the few remaining homes, there are only empty roads that have fallen into deep disrepair. The old home lots are empty and being overgrown by trees and undergrowth. The sidewalks and driveways remain in some places, but are lost in others.
Streets barren of homes.
vent pipe in the area the fire first started and headstones from the 1800s.
It was a beautiful day and a nice trip, but I couldn’t help having a sad feeling as we left Centralia. A town who’s disappearance meant the loss of not simply a structural town, but a place that meant home, family and history to so many.