The Strange Story of Centralia

I’ve driven through different parts of Pennsylvania over the years but never to Centralia. That might be because Centralia is not easy to find, by road or by map.

Centralia was a small coal mining town in the Appalachian mountain area of Pennsylvania, dating from 1866. With coal mining at its peak in the 1890’s the population reached 2,800 but subsided after that to a more consistent 2,000, where it stayed for quite a while. The real decline though, started later in the twentieth century.

Centralia PA
Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church overlooking the remains of Centralia PA

In 1962 there was a fire at the local landfill that changed the whole future of the town. I’ve read several explanations but the most popular seems to be that the fire department deliberately set the fire to clean up the landfill, which was a common practice. However, the landfill was on top of some mine shafts and not only was the fire not extinguished, it actually spread into the mine shafts where it was impossible to reach. The result was that it continued to spread throughout mines, and worked its way beneath the town itself.

In the 1980’s there were clear signs that carbon monoxide from the fire in the mines was having an effect on people’s health and there was significant subsidence going on. This set off the real demise of the town as people moved out (taking buyouts) and by the nineties, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania used “eminent domain” to take control of the town and move out the rest of the residents. There are still a few people left as they refused to move but there’s very little left of the town. The roads remain, a couple of well-cared-for graveyards, and a white church sitting radiantly on a hill surrounded by trees. Buildings have been demolished and a more natural habitat has grown up in their place.

PA Route 61
The abandoned section of PA Route 61, now covered in graffiti and providing a playground for locals with their 4x4s

One road that attracts some attention is the abandoned section of PA highway 61 (the road was rerouted) which has severe subsidence and can often be seen with smoke from the underground fire making its way up through the broken surface. Combined with all the colourful graffiti that covers it, it can be quite a strange sight. A strange sight to match a strange story. And still the fire burns on.

Centralia PA
Graffiti-covered guard rail along the abandoned section of PA Route 61 in Centralia

You can find more info about Centralia at

http://www.centraliapa.org/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centralia,_Pennsylvania