For Centralia, Pennsylvania, coal was both its fortune and its downfall. There are actually two types of coal in Pennsylvania – anthracite and bituminous. Anthracite is the type of coal which is located in Centralia and mined there beginning the mid-1800s. It is also the type of coal that fuels the mine fire which burns under the town today.
Coal is a rock which is found in layers called coal beds or coal seams. It was formed millions of years ago, when decaying plant matter became trapped under layers of soil. This process prevent further decomposition and held in the carbon. Time and pressure slowly worked their magic, turning the matter into rock.
Bituminous coal is softer and is classified as a sedimentary rock. Anthracite is hard, having been exposed to more heat and pressure over time. It is usually classified as a metamorphic rock because of this.
Anthracite coal is found in the northeastern mountains of Pennsylvania. Because of the terrain there, the coal seams tend to be at steep angles and in some places are nearly perpendicular to the ground!
On the other hand, bituminous coal is found in the western areas of Pennsylvania. Here, the coal beds are less steep. They often run parallel to the ground, making them easier to mine.
Anthracite coal is much less common than bituminous in PA. This makes the northeastern area of the state special when it comes to coal mining. For decades, this was good for Centralia and the surrounding communities.
Compared with bituminous, anthracite coal is tougher to light. But once ignited, it burns hotter and cleaner. This makes it especially well-suited for heating homes and businesses.
Bituminous is found in greater quantities, is easier to light, and burns dirty. For these reasons, it is primarily used in large scale industrial applications. This includes the production of steam for electricity.
Anthracite made the northeastern coal region of Pennsylvania rich. However, it was also its downfall. As the home and commercial use of anthracite coal declined in early 1900s, so did the fortunes of the anthracite coal miners.
In Centralia, PA the final blow came with the ignition of a coal mine fire under the town in 1962. The anthracite coal burned hot and long, endangering the town above. It also was found in steep seams, making it nearly impossible to reach and extinguish.
The anthracite coal, which started as a blessing for the town and the people who lived there, became a curse which the village could not shake.