Centralia: The Abandoned Pennsylvania Ghost Town Where an Eternal Fire Rages

Centralia: The Abandoned Pennsylvania Ghost Town Where an Eternal Fire Rages

Located in the beautiful mountains of central Pennsylvania, was once a thriving mining community populated by over two thousand people. This town, once a home to several hotels, banks, theaters, and even it’s own school district, is now one of the least populated municipalities in the whole of Pennsylvania. But that has a lot to do with a fire that has been raging for over fifty years.

In 1962, a mysterious fire tore through an abandoned strip mine, causing a chain reaction when it broke through a rock pit, settling the rest of the town’s coal mines alight. Despite the tireless efforts of firefighters, the town was unable to quell the flames, and the underground has been a furnace ever since.

I have heard the residents say that the fire was caused by a landfill burning in the underground mine. This theory is based on the common practice of fire fighters burning down trash located in nearby landfills, and th common thought is that this particular fire had been extinguished improperly. Despite the typical agreement on this theory, they still do not know how the mine fire started and there has never, to my knowledge, been an official statement either.

ADVERTISEMENT

This was a world where no human could live, hotter than the planet Mercury, its atmosphere as poisonous as Saturn’s. At the heart of the fire, temperatures easily exceeded 1,000 degrees. Lethal clouds of carbon monoxide and other gases swirled through the rock chambers. – David DeKok (1986)

Before I arrived in Centralia, I imagined the town as a scene from depths of Hell; empty streets where tongues of flame spring from the cracked pavement, licking at your heels as thick grey fog restricts your vision, making every step a treacherous gamble. Roger Avery, writer of the film Silent Hill, has spoken about using the town of Centralia to inspire the eerie visuals of his film, so my preconceived visions of a cinematic nightmare were well placed.

When I arrived, though, the sights were far different than I had expected. It wasn’t scary at all, in fact, it was eerily beautiful. I pulled the car up and immediately, unmistakably, noticed  it; an odd steam rising from the ground, out of deep cracks in what was once Pennsylvania Route 61, but now lay crushed up and pushed out of the way. There were still bounties of thick, green grass growing in the tiny cemeteries perched behind the puffing steam. It wasn’t nightmarish at all, in fact, it was beautiful.

I couldn’t wait to  escape from the car and begin exploring.  As I made my way down the streets of rubble, I came to the realization that I was losing sunlight, and though I wanted to see it all before the sun finally set, I’d have to make this visit a quick one.

Entire streets once lines by homes, churches, and grocery stores, now lay completely abandoned. Lone stop signs sit perched at corners of empty streets, and giant poles jut into the sky, devoid of purpose, their wires no longer connected to a source of power. It was a strange feeling, knowing I was standing in a modern ghost town; a place that was once so alive only fifty years prior. It was even stranger knowing that below my feet, a fire raged that may very well continue to burn for another fifty years.

The steam itself, though deadly, isn’t all that impressive. It’s the what remains of Centralia that stirs your mind. As you wander the cracked streets and wonder what the town used to be like before the disaster, your imagination paints a picture that becomes more and more flooded with activity as it’s filled with busting shops, children making their way home after school, and the mailman delivering letters to rows of mailboxes. Now, only five of those homes remain.

In 1984, most of Centralia’s residents relocated, accepting buyout offers from the government, though a few remained in protest, refusing to leave their lifelong homes in spite of the toxic fumes. They were able to live in relative peace until Bob Casey, then governor of Pennsylvania, declared eminent domain in 1992, condemning all buildings. The dwindling residents fought back in court, failing to reverse the decision. In 2002, the U.S. Postal service revoked Centralia’s zip code, 17927, forcing the locals to receive their mail via post office box. Finally, in 2009, Governor Ed Rendell began the formal eviction of the remaining citizens of Centralia.

As the sun set on the desolate village, I made my way through one of the remaining cemeteries. As my time in Centralia came to an end, I could hardly think of a better symbol to describe this place than the tiny graveyard just beyond the rubble. While most of the town had fallen either to nature or a wrecking ball, here sat a well-kept reminder that this was once something more than a mere curiosity, a defiant memento of a town erased by a bizarre accident. The freshly cut grass, carefully trimmed around each headstone, proved that while these people may be gone, there are still a few who remember that they once existed.

Also, someone drew a gigantic penis on the street.


MORE GREAT STORIES FROM WEEK IN WEIRD:


Join the Traveling Museum of the Paranormal and get awesome perks!

15 Comments

  1. Jake Williams

    05/09/2011 at 1:24 PM

    This place looks beautiful! The photographs are gorgeous and reading the article made me feel a little sad. Would love to visit for myself. Do you have any tips on visiting?

    • Robyn

      05/09/2011 at 6:29 PM

      My only tips would be to leave yourself enough time to explore, There is a lot I missed and I will be returning again soon. It is best to visit in the fall or winter, the steam is much more dramatic then. I suggest purchasing your zombie makeup before you go there, the wal-mart down the street has a poor selection.

  2. BookOfTheDamned

    05/09/2011 at 2:28 PM

    Excellent piece, Robyn! I visited Centralia several years ago in the dead of winter. Its PA after all so I Didn’t stick around long. I can say that I know what is meant about the sadness there. It hangs in the air (or the steam!). Really enjoyed this! Thanks!

    • Robyn

      05/09/2011 at 6:30 PM

      Very glad you liked it!

  3. John Dockum

    05/09/2011 at 5:25 PM

    Weird…just weird. Great piece Robyn.

    • Robyn

      05/09/2011 at 6:30 PM

      Thanks John, Shouldn’t we be fighting about something?

      • Greg Newkirk

        05/09/2011 at 6:35 PM

        FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT! That’s why we have these fancy new nested comments!

      • John Dockum

        05/09/2011 at 6:38 PM

        We’ll disagree eventually. But not on this.

  4. S. Hill

    05/10/2011 at 7:58 AM

    One interesting point (brought out in David DeKok’s book Fire Underground) is the conspiracy ideas held by a few of the remaining residents. They believe the fire was a deliberate to get them out so the coal under the town could be mined. Some believe it is not dangerous (!?) even though a few people nearly died in ground collapse events or, more often, deadly high levels of carbon monoxide in the homes.

    Ground and air monitoring equipment installed by the state and federal agencies has been repeatedly vandalized (run over, crushed, shot). I can’t comprehend how people can have such a warped sense of reality to think this way. It’s disturbing. Also interesting (but somewhat odd) is the graffiti that decorates old warped Rt. 61. You might have missed the “penis trail” which is probably hundreds of cartoons in all colors and sizes drawn on the roadway. But also, there are reflections of what the youth of the area think of life in the coal regions. It isn’t pretty. To me, Centralia represents a sad state of affairs in many ways. It’s a loss of hope that things can be made better or fixed – whether that be your livelihood, your local community problems or the world in general. It makes me sad to visit there. But, is sure is weird.

    • Greg Newkirk

      05/10/2011 at 10:29 AM

      Oh man, there’s a penis trail?! Time to go back.

      We went and visited Centralia one night in, jeez, had to be like 2005, and I remember Foust sticking his face right into the steam and taking deep breaths. Brain damage?

      It’s definitely a depressing visit, though, I can agree to that. But you can always cheer yourself up at the gravity hill just down the road.

      • S. Hill

        05/10/2011 at 11:04 AM

        I dare you to try and find any cartoon character on that abandoned road that does NOT have a penis drawn in. 🙂

  5. Tony Hart-Wilden

    05/10/2011 at 8:53 AM

    Great article and pictures. I remember seeing a documentary about Centralia over 20 years ago in England. Its amazing to think the same fire is still burning under whats left of the town. Anyone know why the steam is more prominent in the winter ? Is it to do with the ground freezing and there being more water present.

  6. S. Hill

    05/10/2011 at 11:02 AM

    When you have more seepage from the surface into the warm underground layers, such as from rain or melting snow, it will be smokier. Summer is a bad time to go because it’s too warm and dry. However, you can always find some hot spots and steam, it seems. Try putting your hands along the cracks in the closed road. Some portions are hot, some not. Also of note, the fire will not extend further into the cemetery (so won’t smoke the bodies) because of geologic conditions. I have some good photos from last fall, I’ll have to find a way to post them publicly (you can see them if you are already my FB friend…)

  7. Martin Ebon

    05/30/2011 at 12:58 PM

    so is this place haunted or something?

  8. Mick Barbaross

    10/30/2015 at 10:35 AM

    I’ve often wondered what people meant when they said a “Pennsylvania Steamer.” This must be what they were referencing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Shares