Centralia was incorporated as a borough in 1866 when coal was discovered in the area. Coal mining gave birth to the town and it would prosper for almost 100 years. When energy demands started to shift more toward petroleum, the coal mining industry saw a decline.

The coal companies closed operations in Centralia in the 1960s, but bootleg mining of the abandoned mines would continue until 1982. For decades an undetected underground mine fire slowly burned through a major vein of a large coal deposit.

By the mid-1980s the Pennsylvania state government finally realized the severity of the issue, and by 1992 it had ordered the forceful permanent evacuation of residents.

Map it!

Centralia
Centralia today

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Centralia Fire

CentraliaIn 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 the stick 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).

CentraliaState-wide awareness would slowly increase until it would finally receive national attention in 1981.

Then 12-year-old resident Todd Domboski almost fell into a 4 ft-wide by 150 ft-deep (46 m) sinkhole in his backyard.

It was quickly discovered the miners removed enough earth under Centralia that the infrastructure was no longer safe.

Centralia

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Relocation

CentraliaExperts quickly determined the area was unsafe and beyond repair. The sinkholes were the least of the residents’ problems; an underground fire spews noxious all over town and the water table has been poisoned due to a century of mining activities.

In 1984, the U.S. Congress approved spending of more than $42 million to subsidize residents in their relocation efforts. Most of the residents accepted buyout offers and moved to the nearby communities of Mount Carmel and Ashland.

CentraliaA few families opted to stay despite warnings from Pennsylvania officials.

In 1992 Pennsylvania claimed eminent domain on all properties in the borough, condemning the buildings within.

A subsequent legal effort by the remaining residents to have the decision reversed failed. Finally, In 2002, the U.S.P.S. revoked Centralia’s ZIP code of 17927.

Centralia
An abandoned building in Centralia, Pennsylvania

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Source of the Fire

CentraliaExperts debate how the fire that made Centralia unlivable was ignited. One theory asserts it was started in May 1962 when the 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 in a controlled burn.

However unlike previous years, the fire was not extinguished correctly.

Centralia

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 discarded 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 they fell behind schedule, leaving the barrier partly incomplete.

CentraliaThis allowed the hot coals to penetrate the vein underneath the pit and light the 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.

Through a hole in the rock pit, the fire managed to spread into the abandoned coal mines beneath Centralia. Multiple attempts to extinguish the fire were unsuccessful, and it continued to burn throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Adverse health effects were reported by several residents due to the byproducts of the fire: carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and a lack of breathable oxygen levels.

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Centralia Today

CentraliaVery few homes remain standing in Centralia; 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.

In 2010, only five homes remained as state officials tried to vacate the residents and demolish what was left of the town.

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

Despite all this, a few local residents refuse to leave. Centralia’s population has dwindled from over 1,000 residents in 1981 to 9 in 2007.

The underground fire still burns and is estimated to continue for another 250 years.

Centralia
Centralia, PA is smoking

Map it!

Watch: Great documentary about “The Town that Was.” Centralia, PA:

(thanks to S-I reader Nathan Doyle for the video lead)

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28 COMMENTS

  1. Hi There,

    I am developing a play about Centralia with my theatre company that will premiere in Brooklyn NY this March. We really love your article and were wondering if we could use some of the information. Shoot me an email if you’re up for discussing it!

    Thanks,
    Nicole

  2. I’ve been to Centralia and explored it on two different occassions. Interesting details I found out by speaking to a Geography student from IUP (Indiana State University of Pennsylvania) is that the fire is expected to only burn for another 15-20 years, not the 250 years as stated in the article. The fires have burnt so much fuel (coal/anthracite) already that once it reaches the highway (Route 61) there will not be much to burn and will eventually extinguish itself.

    Its pretty neat looking at all the buildings in the town. Most are abandoned including the town hall and fire station, but it really looks surreal as there is still a appearance of order in the town as if someone comes by at least on a monthly basis and cleans the town hall.

    • you will be very disapointed if you are looking to walk a ghost town,. the majority of the buildings are long gone. the fire station/ police station is still there a garage and maybe 3 homes still lived in. i live about 4 miles from the former town of centralia.

      • it’s not only the ghost town thing, it’S about the atmosphere in the area… i first heard about centralie while i was looking for infos about silent hill, since then i want to visit the place too but since i’m from germany i’m afraid that’s not gonna happen anytime soon…

  3. Going on a road trip with my girlfriend this Saturday. Not sure if my escape will survive the roads. i hope so. I will take plenty of photos

  4. I’m wondering, if, or when someone will STEAL the Centennial Vault contents before 2016? And Who is going to open it? If it was Buried 1966 there could be some really valuable things in their, Comic books, Coins, ETC. Would be ashamed to let it get Stolen by someone!

    My 2 Cents Worth.

    • It’s buried in the ground surrounded by concrete. don’t think this will happen unless the purp has a backhoe and some time to kill.

  5. i am going there with my best friend kayla and her sister.. we have this website to save this land and if you want to sign it here is the website i hope you guys care.. please sign it thank you.. http://www.thepetitionsite.com/m/135/130/207/fix-repair-and-put-centralia.pa-back-on-the-map/ … please save this land because it needs to put back to a beautiful town like it was.. thank you and my name is kelly sharp and if you want to get a hold of me my email address is browneyedevil7@yahoo.com..

  6. I just went there yesterday! Make sure you don’t miss it! We drove completely through the town by accident and had to back track. The abandoned highway is at the south end of the town, and we almost missed that too. Google maps has a pretty good satellite view of the town that you should bring if you want to explore. Definitely planning another trip back when it’s cold, so I can see the ground smoking a little better.

  7. My wife and I went through Centralia as a completely impromptu side trip on our way home from MD to MA just a week ago. Ironically, we ran into another couple also from MA. We wandered around aimlessly until i fired up the iPad and got google maps up. The fact is that the town is nearly empty now, with only the streets, stop signs, and fire hydrants showing where the homes and buildings once stood.

    We walked down the closed part of 61, but it no longer is belching smoke, and in fact, the trees and shrubs have returned along its side, where once the heat and toxic gasses had killed all the greenery. If you look under the new green, you can see the bleached out remains of all the dead trees from those days.

    The only place we found “hot spots” was up around behind the cemeteries, There you can see patches of what look like rusted rocks. There you can find small fist-sized holes, and if you put your hand in the hole, you can feel the heat coming out of them. Not enough to burn you, but enough to let you know that it is pretty hot down deep.

    We also ran into a former resident who was there with his son ATV-ing around the west end of town. He pointed out where his house was, and where the school and church once were. He claimed the people that left in the late 80’s got the best deal from the state for their property, and that would include his family. Those that left before, or later did not get so generous an offer. The few hold-outs still there, and we only saw maybe 3-4 houses left, are only being offered 120K for their homes. He also informed me of something I did not know. I had assumed that strip mining was the primary type of mining done there, but he said that very deep shaft mines were under the town, some with auditorium-sized chambers, and long railway tunnels in and out. It is these deep shaft mines that are burning, not some random seam near the surface. Very interesting chat.

    Just west of town, down 61 heading towards Mt Charmel (I think) is a large strip mine still in operation. Interestingly, there is a wind farm along the ridges east of town. Way-Cool side trip…

  8. Very cool!. Or hot as the case maybe!. Very taken with this site and your attention to detail on many subjects. Well done!. If you have an interest in abandond places you might find Tyneham in Dorset England interesting. One of my favorete abandond places and a very sad but interesting story. Many thanks and keep up the good work. Nick Aitch ( UK ) 😉

  9. I love reading everything about Centralia! I’m a newcomer so I’ve been reading all the old posts. Thanks for posting this! Silent Hill the movie was actually based loosely on the town of Centralia. I watch a short documentary on the subject not long ago. You mentioned that some areas appeared to be mowed; In a different documentary a man was interviewed whose family was Centralia; he cuts the grass on the land where his family used to live as well as several other lots periodically.

  10. i was born at 504 west park st. had a working strip mine next door as a kid. got relations buried there. going up tomorrow.

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