Saturday, November 22, 2014

Urban Legends - The Town That’s Been Burning for Over Half a Century

Surfing on the Internet in search of new mysteries to talk about I found out something very strange. I’ve already talked about the Ringing Rocks County Park. And again today’s weirdness is located in Pennsylvania. What if I tell you there exists a city which has been burning for almost 50 years. And is still burning now. 

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.

But the problems began in the 1960s. Lots of people were moving away from using coal for heating purposes, reducing the mineral demand.  As a result, the population of the town had decreased to between 1,100 to 1,200 people. In addition, mining companies had removed approximately 50 to 70 percent of the usable coal beneath the town and the surrounding area by 1962. No large scale mining took place in town anymore, though other veins of coal continued to be mined elsewhere in the area.

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.

The fire was discovered on May 27th 1962, and the Department of Environment Resources and the Centralia authorities tried to put out the fire during the summer. It’s no surprise they miserably failed. A lack of funds severely restricted the firefighting efforts then, when it was most beatable. They tried to extinguish the fire several more times over the next twenty years, trying such things as digging deep trenches, as well as flushing the fire by dumping wet sand in tunnels, in both cases to cut it off from spreading, among several others extinguishing methods.  The government spent around $7 million trying to put the fire out, but the fire has always won since then.

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.

But the bad news came from a gas station owner, who discovered in 1979 that the fire had heated his underground fuel tanks to a 172 degrees Fahrenheit. While not anywhere near the 500°F ignition critical level , it was nonetheless a sign of just how hot the ground was getting in certain areas. Gasses and heat from the fire also began to kill vegetation above ground, leaving clear marks around the city limits (and the photo up here is a clear example).

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.

The residents who remained in town underwent a lengthy court battle with the state in order to keep their homes. They argued that the government buyout originated from an underhanded plan to gain valuable mineral rights. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania denied everything,  arguing this has never been their intention and that the buyout does not impact mineral rights. As of June 2014, the 8 remaining residents of Centralia have been given the right to live out the rest of their lives in the town with the government taking possession of their land after their deaths. It’s a pretty sad price for loving their own homes…

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....


  1. Has the time capsule been opened yet? It's exciting!

    1. As what I know it was opened a year and a half earlier (probably the situation was too exciting) and when they openend it......IT WAS WATER-FILLED. I saw that Bill Lowenburg tweeted about this and I quote "The Centralia capsule was water-filled. If you ever make a time capsule, keep it above ground!". Have a great day darling :*

  2. "It’s a pretty sad price for loving their own homes…" Are you serious?? THE TOWN IS ON TOP OF A HUGE FIRE. IT IS NOT SAFE TO LIVE THERE. Those people are being stupid and should have left.

    1. Well, sure it was not a smart idea growing or even building a town in that area in the first place

    2. they most likly built the town before the fire


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