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
With the recent passing of Carl Womer of Wood St. does that put the home on a schedule for demolition? The recent lawsuit won allowed residents to stay until death and then the government would own the property correct? I see his daughter must reside there but does she own the house? Same with the former mayor that live on Troutwine St. , with his death afew years ago is his house in trouble too?
That’s a great question. Inevitably one day these homes are going to be demolished. Technically none of the former owners, even if still living, “own” their homes/parcels. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has held the deeds since they were forcibly taken by eminent domain in the 90s.
You can confirm this by going to the Columbia County GIS portal. It shows that the Womer’s property is owned by the state. In fact, the only thing standing that doesn’t appear to be held by PA is the Municipal Building!
In the 2013 agreement with Pennsylvania, those who were part of the lawsuit could stay in their homes until they died. However, that right couldn’t be transferred. I am not sure how that exactly applied to the Womers. Though, if Kathy Womer was living in the house at the time of the settlement, I suspect she will be able to stay.
I wrote the book “Centralia PA, Devils Fire” – This is what “Silent Hill” should have been!
This story is based on an actual town legend and actual history. All historical details are factual, the demons represented are metaphorical. This is a unique story written on three levels. The first is the “campfire tale” level, basically just a fun novel to tell around the campfire. The second is the metaphorical level, where the demons represent the mining companies and mining interests and those fighting the demons represent the residents and others working for the miners and the town. The final and most important level is the overall
reason for writing this novel – the personal beliefs of the author; on big business, politics religion and humanity in general. When you comprehend the story at this level you have read it correctly (it may take more than one reading to grasp the full complexity of the story.)
I think this very suspicious of the Government not to exhaust every effort to save this city I didn’t read that the Army Corp of Engineers helped.Was there a local National Guard Base there that’s usually made up of local towns people..Is there any activity at the mines now any more attempts to stop the fires?
Today the state of Pennsylvania still occasionally monitors the mine fire to note its progression. And, there is definitely mining going on near Centralia. Much of it is strip mining.
You should check out this article: http://www.centraliapa.org/centralia-pa-worth-saving/ It explains a little more about the unfortunate reasoning behind why less was done to save the town.
Why not just use the Heat of the Fire to Power Geothermal Power Generation for PA?
It’s Gonna Burn! it’s Gonna KEEP Burn’n. Use it.
Sure, eventually the ground will give around the Wells used to tap the Heat, but That’s Minor… Move out and bore New ones.
Just a Thought.
The Energy Company can even contribute to the displaced when it sells Electricity to NY.
Hi William. It’s certainly an interesting idea! We talked about something like it a few months ago if you want to read more here: http://www.centraliapa.org/electricity-centralia-mine-fire/
Why not just pour concrete into all the holes where the fire is still going, it would put out the fire.
Hi Joe. Good idea. Unfortunately, there are so many openings from old mine entrances, portals, and vents the likelihood of this working is low :-\
I’ve been aware of the Centralia saga/tragedy for quite awhile now, but have recently started consuming as much info as I can about the situation there, and at fire sites around the world.
I say saga, because, WOW!, what an incredible, amazing story. I say tragedy because its obvious: the loss of a hometown, people’s health, their well-being , friendships…..as well as the loss of the residents respect for the local, state and federal governments who truly, TRULY, screwed the pooch on this matter. It really DIDN’T have to happen like this.
But now, it is what it is (jeez, I hate that figure of speech, don’t you?). The beautiful, American hometown of Centralia has almost completed its long journey into memory and oblivion. Don’t EVER forget it’s story. Please.
PS: hey Todd D., if you ever see this, I feel for what you went through that day. It couldn’t have been easy to roll that out of your mind, if it indeed has. You played such a huge, yet undesired, roll in the story of Centralia. Don’t hate me for saying this, but: thank God for Centralia that you had your close call. The powers that be might never had gotten their collective heads out of their butt if you hadnt. You are strong in my thoughts and prayers, Todd.
(If any Centralia buffs ever want to chew the fat about the mine fire, please respond on this blog and we can go from there.
I VERY vaguely remember, when I was a kid, during the late 80’s or early 90’s, my grandparents talking about a town called “New Centralia”, where the residents of Centralia were, I’m assuming, moving to. I know I’m really reaching here, but I know I remember overhearing them talking about “New Centralia”. Was there ever such a place? Does anybody else know anything about it?
I new I wasn’t imagining things!
Great investigating skills!
Truth be known, lots of people in Centralia wanted little or nothing to do with Dave Dekok, whose reporting on the fire and the town was viewed as anything but “fair and balanced.” Talk with Father Sam Garula.
What is the current state of the town? What did the government do as a result?
Can people go visit the town ?
Yes you can! Just be respectful of the place (no littering, stealing signs, etc) and the people who still live there.
New Centralia is actually located outside of Kulpmont PA in a development called Den Mar Gardens.
Anyone know if there are intact church records or archives of Centralia newspapers or photographs? I am a great granddaughter of Owen P & Sarah Cain ( buried at St. Ignatius) Thank you!
You can get a free trial from newspapers.com for 7 days, and find all kinds of info on there. The papers date back to the 1800s I believe. They ask for a cc number, so don’t forget to cancel before the 7 days is up. Hope that helps!
Hello, Dede Sullivan. Yes, to that question. Call St. Mary’s over in Mt. Carmel (570) 346-7429. They govern over the Roman Catholic archives for Centralia.
Is anyone else disturbed by the fact that there is a freaking HUMAN RIB CAGE in the third picture?!?!? Please tell me someone else saw that!
Pretty sure it’s a deer carcass!
Hi! I notice there is a river nearby. Since there is already an unextinguishable heat source, has anybody explored the possibility of using the heat from the fire for hydro electrical or thermo electrical purposes? Seems like all this heat is going to waste. I’m not engineer but that’s kinda what they do.
I would love to speak with any remaining residents in the town. How would I go about doing that? I work for a major newspaper in the US and we would love to write a story about the town and the remaining residents!
Saint Mary’s in Mount Carmel has the Roman Catholic archives for Centralia. They may be able to help direct you.
After seeing the documentary on PBS of this town, it really moved me. As a matter of fact it brought me to tears. It’s amazing how our government can send men to the moon and bring them back but yet they can’t stop a fire in your town.
Me and my colleagues drove up there to your town from Washington DC and what we saw was shocking personally I kind of felt embarrassed to be an American I don’t see how our government can turn their backs on the whole entire town.
I need to get ahold of John lokitis if anybody sees him can you please give him my number I have something he might be interested in as far as his town Centralia is concerned 410-371-5542
Without giving too much away since I work in Washington DC I have found out a lot of things
I first heard about Centralia, PA’s story on NPR (12/01/2019)…then, catapulted by curiosity and humbleness, I started ‘Googling’ for more and as much information as I could find about this tragic story.
After reading reading multiple comments from multiple articles and blogs I felt myself getting fired up. Once again it all comes back around to government or what we call government. Over the years I’ve gradually been convinced that our government cares very little about her citizens and more about how their pockets can be filled with more and more money and their heads with more and more power. We have a government who thrives on a “you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours” way of running our country…this is nothing new. So many people can see right through this story and the unfortunate circumstances that took place so many years ago…SO MUCH MORE COULD HAVE AND SHOULD HAVE BEEN DONE TO SAVE THIS COMMUNITY, HUMANITY, HISTORY, etc. I have my opinions as to why very little effort was made to rescue this once thriving city in America. It’s hard to swallow that our government can just turn their heads on tragedy but it gets easier and easier for them every single day, especially when the benefit of doing so grows exponentially.
I’ve been fascinated by this story since I first heard about it about 10 years ago. I recently got a big break in my genealogy and found that I have roots in Centralia. My great great great grandfather Michael Barrett immigrated to the United States from Ireland and census records show he was a mine worker in Centralia from around 1870 until his death in 1891. He lived at the corner of North St. and Locust Ave. and is buried with his wife at St. Ignacious cemetery. One of these days, I would like to make a trip up there to visit his grave and where the old home stood. His kids didn’t stay in Centralia, they left after labor issues in 1876, but it’s interesting to find ties to the town.
i am so sad @ my school
why? what happened?
This is really sad. I hope the government has plans to save this city