The Town That Was

Centralia, PA – In the 1950s, boroughs throughout Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region began dumping garbage into abandoned mine pits. Once full, a controlled-burn was undertaken to make room for subsequent dumps. What then was seen as a practical solution to increasing waste eventually wasted a town.

In Centralia, sometime in 1962, one of these burns wasn’t properly extinguished and a coal vein ignited. Authorities moved to put out the subterranean fire and for roughly 10 years believed that they had.

In the 1970s, the air began smelling of sulfur and residents suffered from symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure as smoke rose from the ground. A gas station owner, realizing his underground tanks seemed unusually hot, alerted authorities upon discovering the fuel was near its flash point. Officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources bored holes in the ground to get a temperature reading. The results were a shocking 1,500 degrees.

The holes had the unfortunate affect of providing oxygen for the fire. An engineering nightmare, officials scrambled to extinguish the fire, using clay seals and by flushing water into the pit. When these failed, they created a barrier of fly ash hoping to smother it, but the burn was so intense that it jumped the barrier.

As the state mulled its options – either cut a dragline at considerable cost or move the people –  the situation became more perilous. In 1982, the ground crumbled beneath the feet of a 12-year-old boy, who was spared certain death in the 150-foot sinkhole by clinging to a tree root until help arrived.

Finally, the state moved to seize Centralia through eminent domain, sparking a fierce outcry among its 400 families, many of whom believed the state was merely trying to steal the borough’s mining rights. Nonetheless, many allowed the state to purchase their properties at fair market value, moving to nearby towns like Ashland. In 2002, the U.S. Post Office revoked Centralia’s zip code, making it officially a town that was.

Today, only six holdouts remain in Centralia, now considered public land. All of its buildings, including its church, have been demolished, leaving behind a grid of overgrown streets and asphalt slabs. Rumors that the fire now threatens nearby Ashland are unfounded, according to Tony Loftus, a tour guide and engineer at the Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine tours in Ashland and lifelong resident there. “It’s not even a consideration,” he says of the threat. “Keep in mind that in 48 years the fire has only burned four miles east to west.”

Loftus also downplays the conspiracy theories that to this day swirl around the fire. “The only way to put out the fire is to dig out the coal,” he explains. “But as of today, there haven’t been any steps taken to start this process.”

Loftus says Centralia has attracted thousands of visitors over the years, which is probably why none of the remaining residents would speak with The Feral Scribe. “They don’t want to rock the boat, but I’ll tell you what,” he says with a grin, “I wish I could sell tickets there.”

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