Centralia Mine Fire
No one knows exactly how it started, but a coal vein has been burning under the Pennsylvania mining town of Centralia since 1961. Some trace it back to careless trash incineration in an open pit mine igniting a coal vein. The fire crawled, insidiously, along coal-rich deposits far from the miner's pick, venting hot and poisonous gases up into town, through the basements of homes and businesses.
With dawning horror, residents came to realize that the fire was not going to be extinguished, or ever burn itself out -- at least not until all the interconnected coal veins in eastern Pennsylvania were spent in some epic, meatless barbecue. As the underground fire worked its way under rows of homes and businesses, the threat of fires, asphyxiation, carbon monoxide poisoning, and long-term health impact became a daily concern.
The government eventually stepped in, and Centralia joined an elite club of communities, including Love Canal and Times Beach. Declared municipalis non grata, Centralia was slowly abandoned as houses were demolished or burned, and citizens relocated.
We first visited in the mid-1980s, when 80% of Centralia had already been abandoned. The hillsides were punctured with craggy vent pipes spewing noxious gases. Large, cracked holes and pits threatened the roads through town. Though there were no visible flames, you could feel the heat radiating from the latest breaches. It was said that snow never stuck here in places, because the ground was so warm...
Remaining residents had their hopes pinned on an ambitious plan to contain the blaze, the last in a series of elaborate schemes. We heard the details at the Centralia branch of the county fire department, the only new building constructed since the fire started. They hoped to dig a 500-foot deep trench completely across the hill which Centralia sprawled, holding back the fire and saving nearby Ashland (beloved by tourists for its Anthracite Museum, mine tour, steam train ride, and statue of Whistler's Mother). We imagined a future tourism windfall for Centralia itself, reborn as Helltown USA, bus tours guided by residents in red devil tights and horns.
Today, still no trench, but charred remains of Centralia hang on. A bypass from Ashland to Mount Carmel makes it harder to find. The road heading south out of town is closed, officially barricaded (Rt. 61 has since been rerouted to town). Signs warn of the noxious emissions in the area.
On a bench at the little crossroads park, an old timer provides the latest tally: "522 homes gone, people moved out, condemned and bought out by the government." There are only twenty people left now.
He's been in Helltown for 65 years, and, all things considered, doesn't think the place is so bad. "The media played up the whole thing."
It's dusk, and we don't see any signs of the fire. Has it finally gone out?
"Nah," says the old timer, "Fire moved up that way." He points over our shoulders, and, sure enough, lazy smoke curls out among the trees and a couple of doomed 2-story frame houses....
Update - July 2012: The last handful of residents in Centralia lost their appeal of a court decision upholding eminent domain proceedings, so they must leave. September 2007: Tenacious residents of Centralia number nine or so; most of the building are gone. The $42 million dollar government relocation program started in 1984 finally ended in 2005. The trench plan is off, and there are no new big ideas to contain the fire which could burn for a few more centuries. Mark you calendars for the year 2016, when relocated townspeople may return to unearth a time capsule, buried in 1966, for the town's 150th anniversary. Good account in The Day the Earth Caved In by Joan Quigley, Random House, 2007.
September 2004: The Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection continues its warning discouraging visitors to Centralia. "Walking and/or driving in the immediate area could result in serious injury or death. There are dangerous gases present, and the ground is prone to sudden and unexpected collapse."
June 2000: The town is now more accessible with Rt. 61 opened up. The fire continues and has moved up into the cemetery, smoke visible wafting up from around the gravestones.
Note: Though the residents are cordial and friendly, Centralia is not an official tourist attraction. The gases are considered dangerous, so proceed at your own risk.