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Centralia’s Fire Down Below

As you drive north up Route 61 through Columbia County, the road suddenly narrows and swerves off to the right for a mile or so. You see empty shacks and abandoned cars by the roadside, and a huge sign screaming “Warning – Danger.”

The sign is unequivocal in its message. The words “Underground mine fire” grab the attention, and the road sign continues with dire warning of serious injury or death to any who walk or drive there. In smaller print, you read of dangerous gases and of ground prone to sudden collapse. What the sign

doesn’t tell you is that the mine fire has been burning for more than forty years, and all but emptied the once-prosperous town of Centralia.

As you drive north up Route 61 through Columbia County, the road suddenly narrows and swerves off to the right for a mile or so. You see empty shacks and abandoned cars by the roadside, and a huge sign screaming “Warning – Danger.”

As you drive north up Route 61 through Columbia County, the road suddenly narrows and swerves off to the right for a mile or so. You see empty shacks and abandoned cars by the roadside, and a huge sign screaming “Warning – Danger.”

The sign is unequivocal in its message. The words “Underground mine fire” grab the attention, and the road sign continues with dire warning of serious injury or death to any who walk or drive there. In smaller print, you read of dangerous gases and of ground prone to sudden collapse. What the sign doesn’t tell you is that the mine fire has been burning for more than forty years, and all but emptied the once-prosperous town of Centralia.

Of the twelve hundred people who lived and worked in Centralia at its peak, fewer than a dozen remain. As they moved out, all the houses and businesses that once lined the streets have been demolished. The streets themselves split, crack, and subside as the coal seam beneath them burns away and crumbles, and acrid steam vents through the cracks. Snow that covers the surrounding area in winter soon melts away on the warm ground.

The fire began in 1962, when a burning trash pit in the local dump spread to one of the mines that honeycomb the area. Underground mine fires are not that rare in hard-coal areas like that part of Pennsylvania, and most people just wait for them to burn out. One burned underneath the nearby town of Carbondale from the early 1930s until 1965, when six deaths by asphyxiation pressed the Bureau of Mines, the federal government body responsible for controlling underground fires, into action. They dug out the Carbondale fire and poured wet slurry into the hole to prevent it starting up again.

But Centralia proved a tougher nut to crack. Without any serious damage or injury to spur them

to action, the residents were reluctant to take desperate measures. The gentle measures open to the Bureau of Mines, such as sinking vent pipes into the ground, did not staunch the fire.  Nearly 20 years later, when the town’s plight was featured in a Time Magazine feature, the town was still mostly occupied, but the situation was getting worse. Trees were dying from the roots up. Gas stations were closing down as temperatures in their underground tanks rose as high as 172 degrees. And there were documented cases of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Six families moved out when carbon monoxide monitors registered dangerous levels in their homes. The Bureau of Mines began buying up the homes of families in the highest risk areas and demolishing them, beginning with 27 families in the opening months of the 1980s. In early 1981, about eighty percent of the town’s electorate voted two-to-one to move out if necessary. It was not a binding referendum, so as the federal firefighting measures stepped up, some stepped to one side while others stayed put. Carbon monoxide monitors and canaries were commonplace in the town as people began to monitor the air safety, but many people hung on even when the U.S. government offered to buy out their properties. They thought that like many fires, it would peter out soon enough and that the government was just trying to land-grab. In 1991, the state actually bought these peoples’ homes, but they continued to live there and pay their property taxes to avoid forcible eviction.

The subterranean Centralia fire burns on. When Weird Pennsylvania last visited what’s left of the town in the snowy winter of 2005, steam and smoke were still rose through the soil and vented through the fissures that peel apart stretches of Route 61. A foot of snow covered unplowed road and roadside, except where the fire was burning down below. There, the ground was clear, warm to the touch, and not even moist. Cars from as far afield as Missouri parked briefly at the head of the old road to scope out the area. High school children on a snow day were photographing the area for a local history project. And three massive trucks, each as high as a three-story house, drove along the road, carrying their loads of anthracite from a nearby mine. As I shouted up to the driver, he told me that the coal would go to an electricity generating plant to keep the air conditioners running the next summer. Summer seemed a long way away on that road, as the nor’easterly gusts brought the wind-chill down into the single digits. Meanwhile, thirty feet below the ground, the temperature has been clocked at close to 1,000 degrees. And with 37,000 acres of coal below the ground, it could continue that way for centuries to come.

Centralia’s 1000 Years of Hell

When I visited the town of Centralia I was met by detours and barricades that closed off some of the roads that have had huge fissures open up in them, spewing fire and brimstone. Walking around I had to be careful not to breathe in the noxious gases.

Throughout the area, toxic fumes fill the air and the smoke rises off the ground like a Hadean fog. The surrounding towns are considering digging a 500-foot deep trench around the mountain that Centralia is built on, in hopes of saving nearby communities from the same hellish fate. 

To help alleviate the hot gases building pressure below the ground, the hills were speared with large venting pipes. But that did not help. As time went by, the heat under the ground became more and more apparent. Snow would not stick in winter, giant cracks appeared right on Rte 61, that ran through the town, basement and garage floors were hot to the touch. In 1979 one gas station owner found the temperature of his tanks to be 173 degrees. Just a dozen feet lower, the thermometer read over 1000 degrees! It was as if the dark abyss itself was coming to Pennsylvania to claim its own. 

It’s an amazing tragedy, and one that does not seem like it will ever be resolved by a happy ending. Centralia is now Helltown, and it seems like the Satan is here to stay. But on an even worse note--what if these seams of coal continue into other coal deposits in Pennsylvania? What then? Experts told me that there is 24 million tons of coal in Centralia alone--enough to burn for 1,000 years. Go, if you dare, to see this modern ruin, a fiery tragedy that has taken 40 years to get this far, and still has at least 960 to go.  –Dr. Seymour O’Life, Ph.D

You can read more about Centralia and Pennsylvania’s many other weirdly abandoned places in Weird Pennsylvania.

Weird Pennsylvania

 

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