13 June 2012

Forgotten Cities: Centralia, PA - Fire Down Below

by Anna C. Bowling

From the air, the once bustling town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, looks like a vast field crossed with ribbons of concrete. Incorporated to provide a home for coal miners in the 1860s, Centralia had its first brush with infamy when the town’s founder, mining engineer Stephen W. Rea, met a grisly end at the hands of the Molly Maguires in 1868.

The true horror, though, was nearly a hundred years to come. In May of 1962, volunteer firefighters attempted to clean the town landfill by setting it alight, as was standard procedure. Fine for the previous years, when the landfill was located elsewhere, but this new landfill, located near the Odd Fellow Cemetery, in an abandoned strip-mine pit changed everything.

Fire seeped through an unsealed opening in the pit and ignited the coal underground, and it continued to burn…and burn…and burn. By 1980, residents reported health problems due to the carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide released into the air, polluting the oxygen levels. Only the quick action of his cousin saved a child from being swallowed by a sinkhole that suddenly opened under his feet in 1981, toxic steam billowing from the hole. Despite numerous efforts, countless hours and millions of dollars spent to extinguish the underground fire, the fact became clear. Centralia was no longer fit for habitation.

The US Congress allocated over forty million dollars to relocate Centralia’s residents, with most of them accepting the buyout offers and beginning new lives elsewhere. A few hardy souls remained, despite the government’s warnings, and in 1992, an invocation of eminent domain condemned all buildings within the township. A decade later, the US Postal Service revoked Centralia’s zip code. A time capsule, buried in 1966, remains, with a to-open date of 2016.

Now, nature overtakes the land where homes and businesses once stood, new forest growth taking hold of abandoned ground. Steam rises from a hill beyond one of the town’s cemeteries, and signs warning of the fire and possible ground collapse stand guard at the borders. Still, Centralia, a ghost town of the twentieth century, beckons to urban explorers. Centralia inspired the popular movie and computer game series, Silent Hill, as well as the Dean Koontz novel, Strange Highways. What other stories walk these empty streets?
Centralia Route61

By Macaddct1984 (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Writing historical romances allows Anna C. Bowling to travel through time on a daily basis and make the voices in her head pay rent. Her current release, ORPHANS IN THE STORM, is available from Awe-Struck E-books.