While browsing the internet looking for the location of an attraction, I came across the town of Centralia. Honestly, it was pretty unassuming. I saw a link to it and decided to check out the story. What I found was literally the stuff of movies and myth. So, you guessed it! We had to visit Centralia – A Town On Fire.
According to multiple accounts, Centralia, Pennsylvania dates back to 1749 when colonial settlers bought the land from the Native Americans. The land transferred ownership over the years until it was purchased by the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company in 1842. Originally named Centreville, in 1865 it was changed to Centralia due to a preexisting city with the name Centreville located in Schuylkill County.
This city had controversy from the beginning. The town’s founder, Alexander Rae, was murdered by members of the Molly Maguires, an Irish secret society, around 1868. Following this, more murders and arsons took place that were also attributed to the Molly Maguires. Some rumors say that descendants of the Molly Maguires lived in Centralia until the 1980s. But, all of this is not what caught my attention. It is what happened in 1962.
In 1962, the local government of Centralia hired members of the volunteer fire company to clean up the town landfill. I t was located in an abandoned strip-mine. In previous years, they let the fire burn down and then they extinguished it. Not this year. It was not fully extinguished. There was an unsealed opening in the pit. This allowed the fire to enter the abandoned coal mine below it. The left over coal in the mine began to burn and the fire spread through the underground maze of coal mines.
No one really knew the scope of what was going on until 1979. The mayor, who owned a local gas station, dipped a stick into an underground fuel tank to determine how much fuel was in the tank. He noticed the stick was hot when he brought it back up. So, he turned around and lowered a thermometer into the tank. When he retrieved it, the thermometer read 172°F (77.8°C). This is when attention on the town began to increase. In 1981, a 150 foot deep sinkhole opened up under a local boy’s feet. His older cousin pulled him from the hole before he fell to his death or was consumed by a lethal plume of carbon monoxide.
After this, some people started to move. And in 1992, the governor invoked eminent domain on all properties in Centralia and condemned the buildings in the city. In 2002 Centralia had its zip code revoked. In 2009, the Governor of Pennsylvania began formally evicting the remaining Centralia residents from their properties. Some stalwart residents continued to fight and won the right to stay in their homes until they died. Once they are no longer living, their homes and property belong to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
The fires have been burning for more than 50 years. From what I understand, fires are still burning and the fire continues to spread. Different research suggests that the fire could burn for another 250 years. Because of the fires and smoke coming up through the ground, Centralia has been the source of inspiration for rides, stories and movies. The writers for the movie Silent Hill were inspired by Centralia and used its features to describe the fictional city in the film.
One section of the highway was closed off and traffic rerouted because the fires came up through the road and destroyed parts of it. Now, this stretch is known as Graffiti Highway. Why? Because, sometime after it was closed off, graffiti began to appear on it. Now, people come from far and wide to see it and others to participate in decorating it. It is on the south side of the town as you are heading to Ashland. You can pull over and park right by the north end of it. It has a graffitied yellow directional sign with a black arrow. You can’t miss it. You will see cars parked on both sides of the road. And, while you walk the abandoned piece of highway, be careful as ATVs, motorcycles and even trucks still drive down it. Take a look at some of what we found.
We drove all over the area looking for evidence of fire. We went up and down every single road. We even drove off-road and down narrow overgrown roads. As we were driving down them, you could see where old sidewalks once existed and where concrete steps went up to houses. Now, you just see fields and fields of vegetation. Only a handful of houses still exist. The ones occupied by Centralia’s 10 residents (as mentioned earlier). We did come across steam vents that are supposed to mark the dangerous area. No steam came out of them. And I did explore the trails and areas around them. No sign of smoke or fire.
We did come to the end of one road that had a six to seven foot wall of rock and dirt pushed up to stop vehicles from driving any further. We parked and Noah and Trevor explored the area on the other side of the mound. We saw old power poles and miles of old electric line. Some still on poles. But most was either stuck in trees or on the ground. We hiked for a while finding bricks, concrete and other remnants of houses.
On the way back we noticed a structure behind a lot of brush that we missed as we trekked inward. The house had been burned. I am not sure if it was because of the coal mine fires or if it was because of the condemning of the city and the burning of buildings. It was a brick house and the brick remained, as did some of the roof. The interior was burned. That is, except for a newspaper from 1987. Weird.
At the end of the day, we had driven and hiked all over the area. We saw no signs of fire. We have no idea if they are still burning. But it sure was fun exploring what used to be a little bustling town that was condemned because of underground coal fires. If you decide to go, I would still proceed with caution as we did. Safe Travels.