I was surprised when I first heard about Centralia, a borough (a self-governing municipal entity that is usually smaller than a city) and a near-ghost town in Columbia County. Its population has radically dwindled from over 1,000 residents in 1981 to 8 in 2014, and so is the least-populated municipality in Pennsylvania. But If you look at it, seems a very pleasurable city. So why everybody ran away ?
Founded in 1862, Centralia came out because of the booming coal mining industry. Under the town lays a particular type of coal, called Anthracite coal (also known as Black Diamond, a much cooler name), once in high demand for heating homes. This underground mine surrounds the area, providing massive quantities of this mineral source. In fact, approximately 95% of all anthracite coal in the U.S. is in Pennsylvania. Some estimates the total amount of coal under Centralia before mining began at 25 million tons. So it’s no surprise that Centralia prospered for a while with over 2.000 residents during its success peak.
The “Centralia Mine Fire” began in the days before Memorial Day in May of 1962. The exact nature of what locals refer to as “The Incident” causes arguments even today. Nobody can be completely sure of what actually happened. The most accepted theory states that Centralia’s volunteer fire department intentionally set fire to the town trash dump, in order to decrease the amount of waste before Memorial Day, since it was located near the town cemetery. The volunteer firefighters didn’t notice that, hidden beneath the trash bin, there was an opening to the mine shaft. Consequently the fire spread into the coal mine underground. There were strict regulations requiring that the entrances to unused mines must be sealed off to prevent such fires, but this opening was simply overlooked. Another popular theory about the start of the fire that began in 1962 claimed that a fire from a mine explosion during the 1930s was never extinguished and caused the most recent fire.
Anyway, the fire didn’t seem to be posing any danger to Centralia or the surrounding towns, so everybody gave up, also because planning a solution to stop fire (digging a massive trench around where it had spread) would have cost over a half a billion dollars. At this point, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania closed a handful of mines near the Centralia mine due to dangerous gases traveling through the connected areas into those other mines, but otherwise ignored the situation. The residents of Centralia were frightened at first, taking the fire in stride. But, after few years, they benefited from the ground being heated. For example, their sidewalks and driveways no longer needed shoveling during the cold, snowy months. Others benefited from having warm soil in their gardens and could harvest tomatoes in winter.
Then in 1981, the Centralia Mine Fire brought national attention to the small Pennsylvania coal town. Twelve-year-old boy Todd Domboski (on the right) was cutting through his grandmother’s backyard when the ground opened up beneath his feet. Heat from the mine fire warmed the ground and opened a sinkhole. Domboski managed to stop his slide into the sinkhole and a fiery, smoke-filled death below by grabbing a tree root and shouting for help. If his cousin wasn’t quickly help pull him out, Todd Domboski most likely would have died from inhaling the carbon-monoxide filled smoke.
This near-death tragedy made headlines across the U.S. and spurred the government into action. The U.S. Congress earmarked $ 42 million for the purpose of buying out and relocating all of Centralia’s citizens. In the end, Pennsylvania spent about $52,000 per house on average to relocate the residents of Centralia.
While most of the citizens eventually chose to take the money and leave town for a safer place to live, a handful of residents refused to leave their homes. Everybody has problems to leave the places where their families grew up and lived, is a natural law. They claimed that their houses were safe despite the fumes and other dangers because they weren’t in the path of the fire. Nevertheless, Pennsylvania’s government declared eminent domain in 1992, meaning that the government could seize private property so long as they compensated the property owners. Those who remained in Centralia became actual squatters.
Nowadays, Centralia is virtually a ghost town. The properties that the state either purchased or seized have been leveled, and the vegetation has been allowed to grow without artificial limitations.
The Centralia Mine Fire has burned for over fifty years without slowing down. Some estimates claim that there is enough coal under Centralia to fuel the fire for another 250 years or so. Needless to say, the town will not be rebuilt anytime soon, though the handful of remaining locals do note it has become something of a tourist attraction, with a few thousand people a year paying a visit.
There was also a time capsule buried in Centralia in 1966. The few citizens left in town plan to dig it up in 2016. I swear that if I hear such another amazing story located in Pennsylvania, I will have a new country to visit in the near future. I wanna be there to see what's inside that capsule....