This is a guest blog by my Sweetums, Wil Elrick, who has been writing about places to put on our – and your – bucket list.
By Wil Elrick
After last weeks’ story about The Winchester Mystery House, I wanted to contribute more posts about the weird, wacky, haunted and wild places that we have on our bucket list for adventuring. So without further ado, let’s get to my choice for this week – Centralia, Pennsylvania.
If you have never heard of Centralia, you are not alone because today this once booming mining town is basically a ghost town with a population of fewer than 10 people. Centralia was established in the 1770s during the construction of the Reading Road (Route 61 today) but did not officially become a town until 1842 when it was initially named Bull’s Head, Pennsylvania. That name was changed in 1865 to Centreville (nowhere near as interesting as Bull’s Head) but the U.S. Post office already had a Centerville in Pennsylvania so town leaders decided on Centralia.
This also coincided with the boom of mining in the area as two coal mines opened up, providing jobs and drawing more people to the community. The coal mines which breathed life into the town would also be the cause of the town’s death only slightly more than 100 years later.
In late May of 1962, a fire began in the town’s landfill, which was newly located in an abandoned strip-mining pit. Two different theories on the fire exist. One says the blaze was started by the fire department for an annual cleaning of the dump and was never properly extinguished. The second theory holds that a trash hauler dumped hot coals into the landfill.
Who should get the blame no longer matters because that landfill fire managed to leak down into the abandoned mines below the town and then into the veins of coal running under the town. The fire continued to burn in the subterranean maze and, while officials knew about it, the fire did not seem to be a big problem at that time. In 1979, when the temperature in an underground gas tank was measured at 172 degrees, which was very unsafe. Then in 1982, a 12-year-old boy fell into a sinkhole that opened up in his backyard. The boy was pulled from the sinkhole without injury, but when officials examined the hole they learned it contained steam with toxic levels of carbon monoxide.
The town’s residents became quite divided over the dangers and responses to the fire. The government instituted a larger investigation and it was determined that a lot of the town was in danger of collapse. Residents were required to relocate. In 1983, Congress allocated more than $42 million to hasten the resident relocations. The vast majority of residents took the offer and moved, but several dozen remained. The 1990 census showed that 63 people still resided in the town.
In 1992, the Pennsylvania governor used the state’s power of imminent domain and condemned the town and all structures therein. A few residents won a court battle to sty for the remainder of their lives.
State Route 61, which had served for more than 200 years, was routed around the town in 1993 due to various damage, but the detour is now recognized by the state as the official route and dirt mounds block the route through the old town and the post office discontinued the town’s zip code in 2002. While Centralia receives more attention, the nearby town of Byrnesville also had to be abandoned due to the underground fire.
You can still visit Centralia today, but only by walking. Most of the buildings have been razed and the few that weren’t are being reclaimed by nature but the layout of the town is visible in the roads running through it. The municipal building does still stand, along with a local volunteer fire department and a few resident homes. St. Mary’s Catholic Church continues to hold weekly services.