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The making of a ghost town: Centralia Pennsylvania and the coal fire of 1962

Posted by mandyf on January 9, 2012

Centralia, Pennsylvania, was once a booming town that was built on coal mining, but that was back in the 1800’s. As time marched on Centralia slowly died out bit by bit and offered little reason for anyone to actually want to visit aside from seeing family or friends. In reality, in the latter half of the 1900’s it was just another small American town with around 3,000 or so people still working the coal angle to make their daily wage. Why any of this or Centralia itself is worth noting is that in 1962 that all changed making the town perhaps the last real “ghost town” to manifest in the U.S.

For some 47 years now people driving Route 61 have encountered a detour that took them around who knows what before rejoining Route 61 again. That who knows what is the Town of Centralia. If you have a fairly new map chances are Centralia isn’t on it anymore, even some GPS systems fail to register it, almost as if it were a dead zone or black hole of some sort that just isn’t there. The reality is Centralia is still there, it just isn’t a place you really want to spend time.

Reports filed after the incident that basically kill Centralia are that of a few men that took refuse to be burned in an abandoned portion of a strip mine that had been considered tapped out for some time. The fire perhaps got a little larger than was expected according to some while others say the actual fire was not built exactly where it was reported. Either way the result was that it leaped to a nearby healthy vein of coal and ignited. That fire that started in 1962 is still burning today.

Initially they thought the fire was put out and everyone generally went on with life for a couple days or so before it was realized the fire was still raging. Nobody ever seemed to consider, or at least voice the notion, that the fire was likely still burning, just underground where it was unseen. The science behind this is that the fire itself traveled through the vein. While the area seen from the exterior of the vein by the men was in fact extinguished, there are plenty of air pockets underground, especially in a area that has been mined on and off for better than a century. As the fire moved it jumped from one vein of anthracite to another and quickly became a flame that may not go out for centuries.

When this became evident the engineers did their best to try to find a way to contain the fire rather than stop it which was then realized to be futile. The only idea that even seemed remotely viable was to dig trenches around the most active areas with the hopes that isolating them would stem the spread at least and perhaps save the town. The cost was so prohibitive and as time was of the essence and the government never stepped up to the plate with a real emergency response it never happened.

By 1969 a few families were moved out. They did finally try digging a trench that they tried to extinguish the fire with fly ash and clay seals but by then it was far too little and far too late. Nobody seemed willing to pay the money to do the job right even though experts stated that the job had to be done non-stop around the clock. to this day some still insist had that been followed the fire may actually have been contained, but by dragging their feet and pinching pennies they missed what may have been their last window to get conditions to a level that was at least somewhat manageable.

For about the next dozen years the town was still on the map and people lived there, however the conditions just got worse and worse. In 1981 it was reported that in a pair of isolated spots the ground actually opened up creating sink holes not that unlike is seen in the movies depicting massive natural disasters. The most notable case was that of a young boy that actually had this happen below his very feet and only stayed alive by grabbing hold of a root and clinging for his life in the most literal sense until he was rescued. At that point the government actually did step in and made plans to relocate the entire town. It was deemed Centralia was unsafe and beyond saving at that point. Not everyone in Centralia agreed though.

It wasn’t until 1983, nearly two full years later that a referendum was brought to the town concerning a mass government paid relocation. By that point the fire had been burning for 21 years and was said to getting stronger on three of the four fronts it put up. There was some exploration into a plan that would have involved massive trenching that would almost completely destroy the town, but at least showed some promise of actually containing and maybe extinguishing some of the fire. It was not going to be a 100% solution, but some though it was worth doing from an environmental standpoint. The cost of around $660 million proved too high for the bean counters and it was decided it would be far cheaper to buy the town for $42 million, relocate everyone, and just let the fire burn on.

Not everyone was willing to move however and as late as 1997 44 people still called Centralia home. So long as the residents living in the homes pay their property taxes the state is allowing them stay. How many people are actually still living there is unknown, but it is believed the number has dropped steadily and that maybe fewer than twenty people remain. The main roads have been closed off, those that remain have not seen a dime of work in some 15 years at least and have become primarily

unusable due to neglect and weathering. many others have been reclaimed by the surrounding nature. There are some dirt roads which could more aptly be described as paths, but for the most part Centralia is severed from the world.

No good piece of history would be complete without at least one conspiracy theory, and Centralia surely has one. There are some people that insist the fire has been allowed to burn because there is a plot to get them (The town) to give up their mineral rights as coal lies beneath nearly the whole in a spidery pattern and in huge pockets further down, in some cases perhaps to low to economically harvest. That matters not, and these people have refused to sell their land to the government believing one day the fire will be put out and they or their heirs will be very rich for waiting it out.

What we do know about the Centralia fire currently is that it is producing a steady stream of carbon monoxide and sulfur among numerous other chemicals. Due to the manner the coal veins run it is also a fairly safe bet the fire will eventually begin burning under the neighboring town of Ashland that lies about two miles away. It is known in 1983 the fire covered about 350 surface acres beneath the ground. It was estimated this had increased to around 430 acres by 1991, the last time anyone actually took a somewhat comprehensive measurement. based on that along with the knowledge of the coal deposits surrounding the known burn areas this could increase to around 3700 surface acres around 2090. When the fire will go out if some intervention from man is not possible to extinguish it through technological advances or at least stemming the spread with known techniques is a guess no one is prepared to make.

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