There is a small town in Pennsylvania called Ashland where old Route 61’s northbound traffic is temporarily branched onto a short detour. Exactly why the detour is circumventing a perfectly serviceable road is not immediately clear; however, few passersby pay it any mind – a detour is nothing unusual. But anyone who ventures along the original Route 61 highway will soon encounter a town filled with overgrown streets, ominous warning signs, and great cracks in the earth expelling steam and smoke. There are the smoldering remains of the borough of Centralia.
The coal mining town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, was never a large community, but tit was once a lively and industrial place. At its peak it was home to 2,761 souls, but today the population of its cemeteries far outnumber that of its living residents. The series of events that led to the community’s demise, slowly diminishing its numbers to less than a dozen, began in the 1960s.
In 1962, workers set a heap of trash ablaze in the community landfill, a pit that had once been part of a mine. The burning of excess trash was a common practice, yet at that particular spot there existed a dangerous condition: an exposed vein of anthracite coal. The highly flammable mineral was unexpectedly ignited by the trash fire. The flames on the surface were quickly and successfully extinguished, and the firefighting equipment was packed up. But unbeknownst to the townsfolk, the coal continued to burn underground. Over the following weeks it quickly and quietly migrated into the surrounding coal mines and beneath the town, causing great concern once it was discovered.
Soon the Pennsylvania department of Environmental Resources began monitoring the fire by drilling holes into the earth to determine its extent and temperature. As a precaution, the Department also installed gas monitors in many homes within the affected area, but even so many residents complained of symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure. The fire continued to gradually move its way through the underground coal veins, possibly accelerated by the air allowed in by the monitoring boreholes.
The fire had little impact on residents’ day-to-day lives, but in 1969, seven years after the fire was started, the Department of Environmental Resources was forced to acknowledge that the fire was not running out of fuel or burning itself out, so a more involved effort was undertaken. Workers dug containment trenches and installed clay seals, but the subterranean fire was too vast to be defeated with such methods. In the 1970s, concerns over the severity of the extensive subterranean fire were stirred again when a local gas station owner discovered that the fuel in his tanks was a troubling 180 degrees Fahrenheit.
Numerous attempts were made to extinguish or contain the underground fire over the next two decades. The mines were flushed with water and the burning coal excavated, but these efforts were unsuccessful. The work continued for years at great expense, with no appreciable progress.
In 1981, after Centralia had been simmering for nearly 20 years, a 12-year-old boy named Todd Domboski was nearly swallowed by the earth when the ground crumbled beneath his feet. As the 4-foot-wide, 150-feet-deep sinkhole vomited concentrated carbon monoxide, the boy pulled himself from the edge with the help of his cousin. It was not the first nor the last sinkhole caused by the fire, but it was certainly the most sobering. The harrowing incident drew national media attention.
At that point, about $7 million had been spent in the firefighting effort. Experts determined that the only remaining effective option would be a massive trenching operation, at the cost of about $660 million, with no guarantee of success. Left with such unpalatable options, the state of Pennsylvania basically condemned the entire town and spent $42 million in government funds to relocate most of its residents.
The fire continues to burn today beneath about 400 acres of surface land, and it’s still growing. There is enough coal in the eight-mile vein to feed the fire for up to 250 years, but experts believe that it may burn itself out in as few as 100 years. A few residents remained in the borough after the buyout, but their numbers have dwindled since then to about a dozen. Most of the unoccupied homes and buildings have been razed, and large portions of the town are being reclaimed by nature. The area is now largely comprised of wild meadows crisscrossed with overgrown asphalt roads, and the occasional hillside riddled with smoking crevasses.
In its prime, Centralia was a vibrant community with five hotels, seven churches, 19 general stores, two jewelry stores, and about 26 saloons. Today it is a modern host town whose guts have been burned out and whose main path of ingress has been closed or detoured. Residents are expected to return in 2016 to open a time capsule that was buried in the town in 1966, back when the town’s future was still somewhat optimistic. Its future now is decidedly more grim. There are currently no further plans to extinguish the fire, and most modern maps no longer show a dot where Centralia once stood.