Every town has a story. In that sense Centralia, Pennsylvania is like any other town. People lived there and raised families. They attended the local churches and went to nearby schools. Each of them had hopes and dreams for the future. However, all of this is in the past, as the story of Centralia is not a happy one. Today, due to a mine fire, the town is gone.
Where is Centralia Located?
Centralia is found within the famed anthracite coal region of the Appalachian Mountains. The town is located in Columbia County, Pennsylvania, USA at the intersection of PA routes 61 and 42. To the west are the towns of Shamokin and Mt. Carmel. To the south is Ashland.
The borough of Centralia, PA was founded in 1866 by Alexander Rea. It was a coal mining town and peaked in population around 1890. According the US census, it had nearly 2800 residents as well as two theaters, five hotels, seven churches, twenty-seven saloons, one bank, one post office, and fourteen general/grocery stores.
By the mid-1900s, the town was on the decline as the demand for anthracite coal dropped and many mining jobs moved elsewhere. In 1950 the population was around 2000. However, Centralia remained a pleasant, closely knit town where people lived and raised families.
Centralia Mine Fire
The course of history would forever change for Centralia on May 27, 1962. According to David DeKok in his book Fire Underground, on this day the local firefighters set the town landfill on fire in order to clean it up. This was in preparation for the upcoming Memorial Day holiday.
The landfill sat atop an old strip mining pit. When it was not fully extinguished, the fire was able to continue burning and entered the abandoned mines around the pit. As time went on, the fire grew and spread. Efforts to control it failed. Slowly, the fire move under the town and directly affected the residents.
By the early 1980s after two decades of uncontrolled burning, the fire presented real health and safety hazards to the people of Centralia. Carbon monoxide gas seeped into homes and sinkholes opened up as the land subsided.
- Learn how a sinkhole nearly killed Todd Domboski
- Read about the history of Centralia from 1977 to 1984
In 1984, a voluntary program was begun to move residents from their homes. Many accepted buyout offers for their properties and moved elsewhere. After leaving, their homes were leveled. In 1992, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania used eminent domain to take control of all the property within the town. The remaining buildings were condemned and the residents asked to leave. Many did, but a few remained and sued for their right to stay.
The lawsuits would last for nearly another two decades. During this time, the town’s population continued to decline as residents willingly left or were evicted from their homes. In 2013, the lawsuit ended and the eight remaining residents were allowed to stay as long as they lived. Today only a few buildings remain within the borough.
Just like the ghost towns of the American West Centralia, Pennsylvania is a sad reminder that not every town lasts forever. Except for the streets, a few homes, several graveyards, and a church, little remains of the once thriving town. Yet, just below the surface, the mine fire continues to burn.
Sources: Wikipedia, Fire Underground by David Dekok