If you drive north on Route 61 in northeastern Pennsylvania, you will come across an innocent looking detour at the top of a low mountain. Thinking nothing of it, you follow the signs around something unseen, perhaps road construction up ahead or a bridge repair. Upon closer inspection however, it seems to be a permanent closure. You’re soon back on the highway and greeted by an eerie site, the ghost town that is Centralia, Pennsylvania. It was the inspiration for the town in the horror movie Silent Hill. Vacant, weed filled lots occupy a grid of empty streets. Here and there, tufts of white smoke appear to be coming from the earth itself.
What on earth could have caused the abandonment and demolition of an entire town?
In began innocuously enough in May 1962, when a careless trash fire was started in a landfill next to an open coal strip mine. The pit was doused with water for hours and fire thought to be out. Oh but it wasn’t. This is the Pennsylvania Coal Region, once home to hundreds of deep mines, now largely abandoned. The fire snaked underground along old coal veins, venting hot smoke up through cracks in the earth. Eventually it crept underneath quiet Centralia itself, venting poisonous gases up through the basements of homes and businesses. With a slow horror, residents realized that the underground fire had reached their town. It could not be extinguished, or even burn itself out in the near future — not until ALL the coal under the mountain was consumed.
As the fire worked its way under row after row of family homes and businesses, the threat of fires, asphyxiation, and carbon monoxide poisoning became a daily fact of life for Centralia’s residents. For the next two decades, the town battled the fire, flushing the mines with rivers of water, excavated the burning veins, digging trenches, back-filling the holes, digging AGAIN and AGAIN in an vain attempt to find the boundaries of the fire.
By the 1980s, the fire had affected over 200 acres and homes had to be abandoned as carbon monoxide had reached life threatening levels. A study concluded that the fire could burn for another 100 years or more and spread over 3,700 acres of the mountain. The government eventually became involved and Centralia was declared municipalis non grata. Rout 61 had to be detoured around the borough. The town was slowly abandoned, house by house, street by street, properties condemned, citizens relocated, and homes demolished. all costing about $42 million. A few die hard residents remained, their hopes pinned on continued efforts to contain the blaze. The town hoped to dig a 500-foot deep trench completely across the hilltop on which Centralia sat, holding back the fire and saving half the town. To no one’s surprise, the expensive trench was never dug.
Ironically today, the Centralia Fire Department is the only modern building still remaining, along with a half dozen houses and the Assumption BVM Church up on the mountain side. 522 homes are gone in all. The hillsides are peppered with holes spewing noxious gases. Large cracks and pits make most streets through town undrivable. Though there are no visible flames, you can feel the heat radiating from the breaches in the earth. Tall metal pipes emerge from the ground about 8 feet tall, ringed by a small protective fences. In winter, like the geysers at Yellowstone National Park, snow never sticks because the ground is too warm around the smoke vents.
Over 54 years and 42 million dollars later, the fire still burns on several fronts underneath Centralia and the surrounding mountain. But the cracked sidewalks, vacant streets and empty plots remain, along with a handful of aging holdouts. By 2000, the fire had moved into Saints Peter and Paul Cemetery, with white smoke eerily wafting up around the grey tombstones. In 2004, the PA Department of Environmental Protection explicitly discouraged visitors from stopping in Centralia. Signs warn:
Curious people like myself irresistibly come anyway, renaming it Helltown USA, drawn to the eerie, empty streets, peppered with fissures oozing white smoke. The old road into town is covered with the sometime graphic graffiti of thousands of visitors (Graffiti Highway). A PBS Documentary on the mine fire was made in 1982, interviewing several Centralia residents. In 2013, the seven remaining elderly residents reached an agreement with the state allowing them to remain in their beloved homes until they died. I grew up in the same county as Centralia, and as a young boy, I witnessed the rebellion, sad evacuation, and slow demolition of this quaint little mountain town. The residents certainly did not deserve this end. But when mankind plays recklessly with natures resources, Nature has a way of always winning in the end.
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