If you drive north on Route 61 in northeastern Pennsylvania, you will come across an innocent looking detour at the top of a low mountain. Thinking nothing of it, you follow the signs around something unseen, perhaps road construction up ahead or a bridge repair. Upon closer inspection however, it seems to be a permanent closure. You’re soon back on the highway and greeted by an eerie site, the ghost town that is Centralia, PA. It was the inspiration for the town in the movie Silent Hill. Vacant, weed filled lots occupy a grid of empty streets. Here and there tufts of white smoke appear to be drifting from the earth itself.
What could have caused the abandonment and demolition of an entire town?
In began innocuously enough in 1962, when a careless trash fire was started in a landfill next to an open coal pit strip mine. The pit was doused with water for hours and thought to be out. But it wasn’t. The fire snaked underground along old coal veins, venting hot smoke up through cracks in the earth. Eventually it crept underneath the quiet town itself, venting poisonous gases up through the basements of homes and businesses. With a slow horror, residents realized that the underground fire had reached their town. It could not be extinguished, or even burn itself out in the near future –not until all the coal under the mountain was consumed.
As the fire worked its way under row after row of family homes and businesses, the threat of fires, asphyxiation, and carbon monoxide poisoning became a daily fact of life. For the next two decades, the town battled the fire, flushing the mines with rivers of water, excavated the burning veins, digging trenches, backfilling the holes, digging AGAIN and AGAIN in an vain attempt to find the boundaries of the fire.
By the 1980s, the fire had affected over 200 acres and homes had to be abandoned as carbon monoxide had reached life threatening levels. A study concluded that the fire could burn for another century or more and spread over 3,700 acres of the mountain. The government eventually became involved and Centralia was declared municipalis non grata. The town was slowly abandoned, street by street, properties condemned, citizens relocated, and homes demolished. A few die hard residents remained, their hopes pinned on continued efforts to contain the blaze. The town hoped to dig a 500-foot deep trench completely across the hilltop on which Centralia sat, holding back the fire and saving half the town. To no one’s surprise, the expensive trench was never dug.
Ironically today, the Centralia Fire Department is the only modern building still remaining along with a half dozen houses and the Assumption BVM Church. 522 homes are gone in all. The hillsides are peppered with holes spewing noxious gases. Large cracks and pits make the streets through town undrivable. Though there are no visible flames, you can feel the heat radiating from the breaches in the earth. In winter, like Yellowstone National Park, snow never sticks because the ground is too warm in some places.
Over 54 years and 42 million dollars later, the fire still burns on several fronts underneath Centralia and the surrounding mountain. But the vacant streets and empty plots remain, along with a handful of aging citizens. By 2000, the fire had moved into Saints Peter and Paul cemetery, with white smoke wafting up around the tombstones. In 2004, the PA Department of Environmental Protection explicitly discouraged visitors from stopping in Centralia. Signs warn:
UNDERGROUND MINE FIRE. Walking or driving could result in serious injury or death. Dangerous gases are present. Ground is prone to sudden collapse.
Gawkers like myself irresistibly come anyway, renaming it Helltown USA, drawn to the eerie streets, rent with fissures oozing white smoke. In 2013, the seven remaining elderly residents reached an agreement with the state allowing them to remain in their beloved homes until they died. I grew up in the same county as Centralia and as a young boy, witnessed the sad evacuation and slow demolition of this quaint little town. The residents certainly did not deserve this. But in the end, nature would not be tamed by man..
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