centralia pennsylvania cemetery

Centralia Pennsylvania: The unforgettable fire

by Michael on May 28, 2012

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Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again. But what if you can’t go home again because it no longer exists? Centralia Pennsylvania used to have a Norman Rockwell atmosphere: Little League games, Memorial Day parades and  neighbors looking out for neighbors. But now it no longer officially exists.

At one time Pennsylvania was the Saudi Arabia of coal, particularly anthracite coal, the best in the world. The mines produced jobs and formed the focus of civil life.  The great wealth that was created over a century ago is still visible in rows of crumbling mansions and massive granite courthouses.

The coal starts burning

Until 1962, Centralia was a typical mining town in Pennsylvania. That is until one day a fire started in a trash pit.  This being coal country, coal seams run near the surface. Eventually the trash fire lit a seam and the huge wealth of anthracite under Centralia caught fire. What is coal’s great underlying purpose? It burns readily and it burns fiercely hot.

Centralia Pennsylvania before the fire Centralia Pennsylvania – Before the fire Centralia Pennsylvania coal mine fire Centralia – Today

At first the people of Centralia didn’t realize the gravity of their situation. They made a few attempts to put out the fire but burning coal is not easily extinguished. Gradually over the next two decades the fire burned closer to town until it was literally burning right underneath their noses. Gases from the fire leached into basements and steam vents had to be installed in yards.

Centralia coal mine fire walking Heat from the fire is felt through thick shoes when walking in Centralia.

On Valentine’s Day in 1981, a young boy fell into a sinkhole created by the fire. If he hadn’t grabbed hold of a tree root he would have been incinerated. At this point the townspeople realized the impending danger from the fire below. Within two years a plan was implemented to remove the remaining residents.

Centralia becomes a ghost town

Today there are about five occupied houses in Centralia. The houses that remain are rowhomes, a style of architecture that depends on the structural support of neighboring homes to stay upright; without their neighbors they would collapse. As the residents die off or move out, their houses are demolished. In order to remain standing, the homes left behind need brick structures reminiscent of the buttresses on a medieval cathedral to avoid falling down. They have lost the support of their neighbors; both morally and physically.

Centralia Pennsylvania home The few remaining homes need extra support now that their neighbors are gone.

The fire still burns

If rust never sleeps, fire never stops raging. The setting resembles a scene more like Dante’s Inferno than the surrounding bucolic countryside. The unrelenting gray pallor makes it look the surface of the moon with burned out trees.  The trees wilt from the massive heat reaching their roots, much like the town itself they are dying from within.

Centralia Pennsylvania undergound coal mine fire Trees burning from below.

I placed my hand on the ground and felt the heat coming up from within. The sulphurous air is a constant reminder of the poisonous atmosphere. As the fire finds new seams it is gradually eating away at what remains of the town. It has now reached the edge of the old Russian cemetery. The burial site of generations of miners and their families is now in danger; as if the fire is not content to only chase out the living but must also disturb the dead.

A piece of Centralia survives the fire

There is one poignant reminder of what once was in Centralia and what might have been. In front of the abandoned Veteran’s Memorial a white marble slab is embedded in the ground. It marks the site of a time capsule that was buried in 1966 to celebrate the town’s centennial. It is due to be opened in 2016. When the capsule was buried the fire was only a few years old and considered a minor nuisance. When they were choosing items typical of that era to bury, who could have known that they would soon be burying the town itself?

Centralia time capsule YouTube Preview Image

You might also be interested in another modern ghost town. Picher Oklahoma was abandoned in 2009 due to contamination from lead mines.

I’m fascinated by modern-day ghost towns, can you suggest any others to visit?

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

jerry May 28, 2012 at 9:29 pm

Modern day ghost towns. How about Chernobyl?
Or Detroit.

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Michael May 29, 2012 at 12:50 pm

As you may recall, I wrote about trying to convince Larissa to go to Chernobyl for our 25th anniversary: http://www.changesinlongitude.com/visit-chernobyl-25th-anniversary-1986/

As to Detroit, it’s been getting a bit of tourism from people who are interesting in seeing abandoned manufacturing sites. Although we hear it is also becoming a destination for the arts community due to low rents and available buildings. Hopefully Detroit will be picking up soon. I’d love to go there someday.

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Jen April 23, 2013 at 10:44 am

This is an amazing photo essay on Detroit -
http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1882089,00.html

I can’t stop looking at it. I go back to it every few months.

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Michael April 23, 2013 at 7:07 pm

Thanks for the link Jen. Detroit has some incredible sights.

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Barbara May 29, 2012 at 12:20 am

Hi Michael and Larissa,
This is so tragic. I imagine that is really something that you never forget after seeing it.

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Michael May 29, 2012 at 12:22 pm

That’s so true. Someday we’ll add our story about Picher, Oklahoma. It’s another mining town that had to be abandoned, but for different reasons.

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