Centralia PA Early History
Before the town of Centralia, PA existed, there was a vast expanse of mountain wilderness inhabited by tribes of Native Americans. That changed in 1749 when the Native Americans living in what is now Columbia County, Pennsylvania sold their land to colonials for 500 pounds.
In 1770, colonial settlers surveyed and explored the wilderness land while building the Reading Road. This important trail linked Reading to the western frontier outpost of Fort Augusta. The fort was located along the Susquehanna River at the site of present-day Sunbury. Modern Route 61 largely follows the path of the historic Reading Road.
By 1793, Robert Morris had acquired the land which would one day become Centralia, Pennsylvania. Morris was a Revolutionary War hero and signer of the Declaration of Independence. He went bankrupt in 1798 and was sent to debtors prison.
At an auction held in Philadelphia in 1830, a former French sea captain named Stephen Girard purchased Morris’ lands for the total amount of $30,000. Girard had heard there was anthracite coal in the area. His later survey of land confirmed this to be true.
Although, Girard did little with the land he purchased. In 1832, Johnathan Faust opened the Bull’s Head Tavern in the area. This gave the town its first name – Bull’s Head.
Mining Begins and Centralia Founded
In 1842, the land surrounding Bull’s Head was purchased by the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company. A mining engineer named Alexander Rea moved his family there and began drawing up plans for a town which included a network of streets and lots.
Rea named the town Centreville, as he hoped it would become the center of commerce in the region. However, he later changed it to Centralia, PA as the U.S. Post Office already had a Centreville in Schuylkill County.
Large scale mining did not begin in Centerville until the Mine Run Railroad was completed in 1854. Suddenly, massive quantities of anthracite coal could be efficiently transported out of the mountains to market.
Shortly thereafter mining camps began to spring up in the surrounding forests, and people moved into the growing town. In 1856, the Locust Run Mine and Coal Ridge Mine were opened. Soon the Hazeldell Colliery began operations in 1860. Finally, the Centralia opened in 1862 and the Continental in 1863.
Centralia continued to thrive and expand. The borough was officially incorporated in 1866. Around this time, the population stood at about 1,300 residents. To put that into perspective, the Pennsylvania State Capitol of Harrisburg only had about 23,000 people living there.
Unfortunately, Alexander Rea met an untimely end on October 17, 1868. On that day, he was traveling between Centralia and the neighboring town of Mount Carmel. He was murdered in his buggy by a gang of the Molly Maguires.
The Molly Maguires were a group of Irish-American miners who disliked the Anglo-Americans that owned the mines. Their uprising and criminal acts live on in the legends and folklore of the region even today.
Centralia Pennsylvania Peaks
The town of Centralia, PA peaked in the late 1800s. In 1890, the federal census put the town’s population at 2,761. At that time, the vibrant borough had five hotels, 27 saloons, seven churches, two theaters, one bank, and a post office, as well as 14 general and grocery stores. The production of anthracite coal had brought prosperity to the village.
However, it was not to last. In 1917, the United States became involved in World War I. Many young men left coal mining towns, like Centralia, causing production to decline. After the war, a series of strikes further weakened anthracite output.
In response, new forms of energy arrived on the market. Most prominent of these was cheap fuel oil. With high heat and a relatively clean burn, it further chipped away at the demand for anthracite coal.
Things only got worse when the stock market crashed in 1929. This forced the Lehigh Valley Coal Company to close five of its mines in and around Centralia, PA.
During these tough economic times, many desperate miners turned to “bootleg mining.” Bootleg miners would enter abandoned mines and begin extracting coal from them. Many times, they used a technique called “pillar robbing” which would remove that coal that supported the roof of the mine. This led to collapses and ground subsidence.
While things picked up a bit in 1941 with the outbreak of World War II, any hopes were short lived. The Centralia Council, still holding onto the prospect of coal’s future riches, acquired the rights to the minerals beneath the town in 1950. The town’s population was 1,986 that year.
Still, anthracite coal mining was slow to die in the region. It continued through the early 1960s, at which time nearly all of the remaining companies shut down. With little work, people began to leave.
It was during this time of change that the now infamous Centralia mine fire began in the spring of 1962. Stay tuned for the second part of the town’s history from 1962 to the present day.