Centralia as seen from South Street, July 2010
Map showing Centralia in Columbia County
Map showing Columbia County in Pennsylvania
|• Mayor||Carl Womer|
|• Total||0.24 sq mi (0.6 km2)|
|• Land||0.24 sq mi (0.6 km2)|
|• Water||0 sq mi (0 km2) 0%|
|• Density||42/sq mi (16/km2)|
|Time zone||Eastern (EST) (UTC-5)|
|• Summer (DST)||EDT (UTC-4)|
Centralia is a borough and a near ghost town in Columbia County, Pennsylvania, United States. Its population has dwindled from over 1,000 residents in 1981 to 10 in 2010, as a result of a mine fire burning beneath the borough since 1962. Centralia is the least-populated municipality in Pennsylvania.
All properties in the borough were claimed under eminent domain by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1992 (and all buildings therein were condemned), and Centralia's ZIP code was revoked by the Postal Service in 2002. State and local officials reached an agreement with the seven remaining residents on October 29, 2013 allowing them to live out their lives there, after which the rights of their properties will be taken through eminent domain.
Many of the Native American tribes local to what is now Columbia County, Pennsylvania sold the land that makes up Centralia to colonial agents in the year 1749 for the sum of five hundred pounds (over half a million pounds or $800,000 in today's money). In 1770, during the construction of the Reading Road, which stretched from Reading to Fort Augusta (present day Sunbury), settlers surveyed and explored the land. A large portion of the Reading Road became what is now Route 61, the main highway east into and south out of Centralia.
In 1793, Robert Morris, a hero of the Revolutionary War and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, acquired a third of Centralia's valley land. When he declared bankruptcy in 1798, the land was surrendered to the Bank of the United States. A French sea captain named Stephen Girard purchased Morris' lands for $30,000, including 68 tracts east of Morris', because of the anthracite coal in the region.
The Centralia coal deposits were largely looked over before the construction of the Mine Run Railroad in 1854. In 1832, Johnathan Faust opened the Bull's Head Tavern in what was called Roaring Creek Township; this gave the town its first name, Bull's Head. In 1842, Centralia's land was bought by the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company, and Alexander Rae, a mining engineer, moved his family in and began planning a village, laying out streets and lots for development. Rea named the town Centreville, but in 1865 changed it to Centralia because the U. S. Post Office already had a Centreville in Schuylkill County. The Mine Run Railroad was built in 1854 to transport coal out of the valley.
The first two mines in Centralia opened in 1856, the Locust Run Mine and the Coal Ridge Mine. Afterward came the Hazeldell Colliery Mine in 1860, the Centralia Mine in 1862, and the Continental Mine in 1863. The Continental was located on Stephen Girard's estate land. Branching from the Lehigh Valley Railroad, the Lehigh and Mahanoy Railroad came to Centralia in 1865 which expanded Centralia's coal sales to markets in eastern Pennsylvania.
Centralia was incorporated as a borough in 1866. Its principal employer was the anthracite coal industry. Alexander Rea, the town's founder, was murdered in his buggy by members of the Molly Maguires on October 17, 1868, during a trip between Centralia and Mount Carmel. Three men were eventually convicted of his death and were hanged in the county seat of Bloomsburg, on March 25, 1878. Several other murders and incidents of arson also took place during the violence, as Centralia was a hotbed of Molly Maguires activity during the 1860s. A legend among locals in Centralia tells that Father Daniel Ignatius McDermott, the first Roman Catholic Priest to call Centralia home, cursed the land in retaliation for being assaulted by three members of the Maguires in 1869. McDermott said that there would be a day when St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church would be the only structure remaining in Centralia. Many of the Molly Maguires' leaders were hanged in 1877, ending their crimes. Legends say that a number of descendants of the Molly Maguires still lived in Centralia up until the 1980s.
According to numbers of Federal census records, the town of Centralia came to its maximum population of 2,761 in the year 1890. At its peak the town had seven churches, five hotels, twenty-seven saloons, two theaters, a bank, a post office, and 14 general and grocery stores. Thirty-seven years later the production of anthracite coal had reached its peak in Pennsylvania. In the following years production declined due to many young miners from Centralia enlisting in World War I. The year 1929 saw the crash of the stock market, which led to the Lehigh Valley Coal Company closing five of its Centralia-local mines. Bootleg miners still continued mining in several idle mines, using techniques such as what was called "pillar-robbing," where miners would extract coal from coal pillars left in mines to support their roofs. This caused the collapse of many idle mines, further complicating the prevention of the mine fire in 1962 when an effort was made to seal off the abandoned mines.
In the year 1950, Centralia Council acquired the rights to all anthracite coal beneath Centralia through a state law passed in 1949 that enabled the transaction. That year, the federal census counted 1,986 residents in Centralia.
Coal mining continued in Centralia until the 1960s, when most of the companies shut down. Bootleg mining continued until 1982 and strip and open-pit mining are still active in the area. There is an underground mine employing about 40 people three miles to the west.
Rail service ended in 1966. Centralia operated its own school district, including elementary schools and a high school. There were also two Catholic parochial schools. By 1980, it had just 1,012 residents. Another 500 or 600 lived nearby.
Most of the property has now been condemned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The habitable areas were put up for auction, and in 2010 an anonymous buyer purchased nine land deeds, four of them inhabitable.
In 1962, a fire started in a mine beneath the town and ultimately led to the town being almost entirely abandoned.
There is some disagreement over the specific event which triggered the fire. David DeKok, after studying available local and state government documents and interviewing former borough council members, argues in Unseen Danger and its successor edition, Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire, that in May 1962, the Centralia Borough Council hired five members of the volunteer fire company to clean up the town landfill, located in an abandoned strip-mine pit next to the Odd Fellows Cemetery. This had been done prior to Memorial Day in previous years, when the landfill was in a different location. On May 27, 1962, the firefighters, as they had in the past, set the dump on fire and let it burn for some time. Unlike in previous years, however, the fire was not fully extinguished. An unsealed opening in the pit allowed the fire to enter the labyrinth of abandoned coal mines beneath Centralia.
Joan Quigley argues in her 2007 book, The Day the Earth Caved In, that the fire had in fact started the previous day, when a trash hauler dumped hot ash or coal discarded from coal burners into the open trash pit. She noted that borough council minutes from June 4, 1962 referred to two fires at the dump, and that five firefighters had submitted bills for "fighting the fire at the landfill area". The borough, by law, was responsible for installing a fire-resistant clay barrier between each layer,[clarification needed] but fell behind schedule, leaving the barrier incomplete. This allowed the hot coals to penetrate the vein of coal underneath the pit and light the subsequent subterranean fire. Another theory of note is the Bast Theory. According to legend, the Bast Colliery coal fire of 1932 was never fully extinguished. In 1962, it reached the landfill area.
In 1979, locals became aware of the scale of the problem when a gas-station owner and then mayor, John Coddington, inserted a dipstick into one of his underground tanks to check the fuel level. When he withdrew it, it seemed hot, so he lowered a thermometer down on a string and was shocked to discover that the temperature of the gasoline in the tank was 172 °F (77.8 °C). Statewide attention to the fire began to increase, culminating in 1981 when a 12-year-old resident named Todd Domboski fell into a sinkhole 4 feet (1.2 m) wide by 150 feet (46 m) deep that suddenly opened beneath his feet in a backyard. His cousin, 14-year-old Eric Wolfgang, pulled Todd out of the hole and saved his life. The plume of hot steam billowing from the hole was measured and found to contain a lethal level of carbon monoxide.
In 1984, the U.S. Congress allocated more than $42 million for relocation efforts. Most of the residents accepted buyout offers and moved to the nearby communities of Mount Carmel and Ashland. A few families opted to stay despite warnings from Pennsylvania officials.
In 1992, Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey invoked eminent domain on all properties in the borough, condemning all the buildings within. A subsequent legal effort by residents failed to have the decision reversed. In 2002, the U.S. Postal Service revoked Centralia's ZIP code, 17927. In 2009, Governor Ed Rendell began the formal eviction of the remaining Centralia residents.
Very few homes remain standing in Centralia. Most of the abandoned buildings have been demolished by the Columbia County Redevelopment Authority or reclaimed by nature. At a casual glance, the area now appears to be a field with many paved streets running through it. Some areas are being filled with new-growth forest. The remaining church in the borough, St. Mary's, holds weekly services on Sunday and has not yet been directly affected by the fire. The town's four cemeteries—including one on the hilltop that has smoke rising around and out of it—are maintained in good condition. There is also a notice board posted near Hammie Hill, about 500 yards from the cemetery, protesting the evictions and demanding Governor Corbett intervene.
The only indications of the fire, which underlies some 400 acres (1.6 km2) spreading along four fronts, are low round metal steam vents in the south of the borough and several signs warning of underground fire, unstable ground, and carbon monoxide. Additional smoke and steam can be seen coming from an abandoned portion of Pennsylvania Route 61, the area just behind the hilltop cemetery, and other cracks in the ground scattered about the area. Route 61 was repaired several times until its final closing. The current route was formerly a detour around the damaged portion during the repairs and became a permanent route in 1993; mounds of dirt were placed at both ends of the former route, effectively blocking the road. Pedestrian traffic is still possible due to a small opening about two feet wide at the north side of the road. The underground fire is still burning and may continue to do so for 250 years.
Prior to its demolition in September 2007, the last remaining house on Locust Avenue was notable for the five chimney-like support buttresses along each of two opposite sides of the house, where the house was supported by a row of adjacent buildings before it was demolished. Another house with similar buttresses was visible from the northern side of the cemetery, just north of the burning, partially subsumed hillside.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania did not renew the relocation contract at the end of 2005, and the fate of the remaining residents is uncertain.
In 2009, John Comarnisky and John Lokitis, Jr. were both evicted, in May and July respectively. In 2010, only five homes remain as state officials try to vacate the remaining residents and demolish what is left of the town. In May 2009, the remaining residents mounted another legal effort to reverse the 1992 eminent domain claim. In March 2011, a federal judge refused to issue an injunction that would have stopped the condemnation. In February 2012, the Commonwealth Court ruled that a declaration of taking could not be re-opened or set aside on the basis that the purpose for the condemnation no longer exists; seven people, including the Borough Council president, had filed suit claiming the condemnation was no longer needed because the underground fire had moved and the air quality in the borough was the same as that in Lancaster.
The Pottsville Republican & Herald reported in February 2011 that the Borough Council still has regular meetings. The news story reported that the town's highest bill at the meeting reported on came from PPL, a power utility, at $92 and the town's budget was "in the black".
On August 28, 2011, The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church celebrated 100 years of worship. This church is located on the north hill overlooking the town. It was allowed to stay because of its distance from the mine fire.
On October 31, 2013, eight remaining residents settled their lawsuit. As part of their settlement, they received a cash payout of $349,500 and permission to stay in their homes for as long as they live, finally ending the 20-year legal battle.
Several current and former Centralia residents believe the state's eminent domain claim was a plot to gain the mineral rights to the anthracite coal beneath the borough. Residents have asserted its value to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, although the exact amount of coal is not known. This theory stems from the municipality laws of the state. According to state law, when the municipality can no longer form a functioning municipal government, i.e. when there are no longer any residents, the borough legally ceases to exist. At that point, the mineral rights, which are owned by the Borough of Centralia (they are not privately held) would revert to the ownership of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
As of the census of 2010, there were 10 people ( 52% since 2000), 5 households ( 50%), and 3 families ( 57%) residing in the borough. The population density was 42 people per square mile (16/km²) ( 52%). There were 6 housing units ( 62.5%) at an average density of 0.4 units per square mile (.015 units/km²). The racial makeup of the borough was 100% white.
Of the five households, none had children under the age of 18, two (40%) were married couples living together, one (20%) had a female householder with no husband present, and two (40%) were non-families. One of those non-family households was an individual, and none had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.0 persons, and the average family size was 2.33 persons.
The age distribution of the population was erratic, with no residents under the age of 18, one aged 25–29, one aged 50–54, one aged 55–59, four aged 60–64, two aged 70–74, and one aged 80–84. The median age was 62.5 years, and there were five females and five males in total.
In the 2000 census, the median income for a household in the borough was $23,750, and the median income for a family was $28,750. The per capita income for the borough was $16,083. None of the population was below the poverty line.
Though it originally fielded its own three-man department (one full-time chief and two part-time officers) during the latter part of the twentieth century, Centralia Borough is now patrolled by the Pennsylvania State Police Bloomsburg Station.
The borough is served by the non-active Centralia Fire Company. Their only emergency unit is an ambulance.
Every few years, a reporter will write a piece about the remaining residents of Centralia, wondering why they have not left. It has also been the subject of numerous non-fiction books and histories, including first-person accounts of exploration.
Centralia has been used as a model for many different ghost towns and physical manifestations of Hell. Prominent examples include Dean Koontz's Strange Highways and David Wellington's Vampire Zero. Centralia was also an inspiration for Silent Hill, the film adaptation of the video game, and Nothing But Trouble.
Knoebels Amusement Resort, in nearby Elysburg, features The Black Diamond, a dark ride/roller coaster based on the theme of a haunted coal mine. Near the end of the ride, trains pass a swirling, fiery vortex. Although this resembles popular depictions of the gates of hell, a sign identifies the location as Centralia.
Officials and experts say that the amount of coal located around and under Centralia will sustain the fire for close to a thousand years.
The town of Centralia is featured in Lisa Scottoline's novel Dirty Blonde (2006).
Centralia had a segment entitled "City on Fire" on the television series America Declassified which aired December 1, 2013. A geoscientist took a small drone equipped with an infrared camera and surveyed the top surface of the town from about 200 feet in the air. The purpose of the test was to see if the coal fire was still burning below the surface, or has diminished. His conclusion was that the fire was indeed still burning at a significant rate.
- Brennender Berg, Saarland, Germany
- Burning Mountain, New South Wales, Australia
- Smoking Hills, Northwest Territories, Canada
- Times Beach, Missouri
- Door to Hell, Derweze, Turkmenistan
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Centralia, Pennsylvania.|
- Earth is burning in Centralia
- First Hand Account of Centralia With Pictures
- Everything2 account of the full history of the fire and political excuses for not putting out the fire in its first year
- Centralia Mine Fire - Town Atop a Burning Coal Mine
- O.T.I.S.(Odd Things I've Seen): A Firsthand Account of Centralia, PA
- The Town That Was: Chris Perkel and Georgie Roland's Documentary Film about Centralia, PA
- Offroaders.com Centralia photo album
- History of the Centralia Project
- Centralia Mine Fire
- Centralia Mine Fire
- Fifty years of fire in the abandoned US town of Centralia, BBC News, 8 August 2012
- Columbia County Parcel Viewer Interesting tool to use to see who still owns property in Centralia instead of the government