Pennsylvania Highways
Centralia Mine Fire


ATTENTION:  Due to the continuing fire, possible mine subsidence, and gas emissions, people are advised against traveling to Centralia especially those with respiratory problems.  If you do venture there remember that it is still a borough, not a tourist destination, so respect people's property.  The remaining population is friendly and perhaps might even tell you a story or two.
Location of Centralia
Location of Centralia.  (PennDOT)
 
Aerial picture of Centralia from 1993
Aerial picture of Centralia from 1993.

If I said I can show you a town that is continually burning, you would think I was crazy.  However, that has been the case of Centralia, Pennsylvania, which is located in the Anthracite-rich mountains of Columbia County.  Although the town itself is not burning, what is located under it is burning:  coal.

In early 1962, a decision was made to utilize a strip mine near the Odd Fellows Cemetery to become the borough's new landfill as the old one was reaching capacity.  The pit had many holes from previous mining attempts that, according to the Department of Mines and Minerals Industry, would have to be filled with incombustible material.  This was to be done in case a fire broke out, it would not spread to local mines.  With the holes sealed, the pit passed inspection and the Commonwealth issued permit WD-443-R.

The problem that was foreseen and supposedly prevented occurred in May 1962 when a fire, now referred to as "The Incident" by locals, broke out at the landfill.  It was reported and appeared to be extinguished after many flare-ups.  However, a few days later the firemen made a shocking discovery of a hole almost 15 feet long and sever feet high near the north wall of the pit near the cemetery.  It had been hidden under garbage and not sealed as instructed.  This was the gateway for the fire to spread into the mines.

In July 1962, the Department of Environmental Resources began to monitor the fire by drilling boreholes to check the extent and temperature.  Some believe that these provided the fire an easy source of oxygen.

On May 22, 1969, the first three families were moved from Centralia, just as action was being taken to control the blaze.  A trench was dug near the cemetery to stop the spread, but was only performed in one shift per day and halted for the Memorial Day holiday.  If the crews would have worked in three shifts and did not stop, the fire could have been quenched as Tony Gaughan mentioned in the book "Slow Burn."  He added that the project was only $50,000 from completion.

The town was brought to the national spotlight when on February 14, 1981, the ground under which Todd Domboski was playing on in his grandmother's backyard opened.  The hole was about four feet in diameter and approximately 150 feet deep.  He held onto exposed tree roots and was pulled out by his cousin.  Mine subsidence was just one of the dangers facing the residents, along with health and respiratory problems incurred due to the noxious gases emanating from the ground.

By 1983 an ambitious plan was proposed to buy all of the residences out and dig a 500-foot-deep trench around the town to stop the fire from spreading and endangering the Borough of Ashland less than two miles away.  Many former and current residents of Centralia believed that this was a ploy by the federal government to strip-mine the town to get to the rich deposits of coal below.  However, the $660 million price-tag and no guarantee that this would stop the fire made the government balk, and so the fire is left to burn itself out.  The citizens voted in favor of a federal government buy-out 345 to 200.  In November 1983, $42 million was allocated to purchase homes of those who wanted to leave, which was a stark contrast from the $7 million spent from 1962 to 1984 to fight the fire.

In 1991, twenty-six homes along PA 61 west of Centralia were purchased, drawing a close to the chapter of Centralia.  A town which had a population of 1,100 at its height dwindled to 46 with only a few structures left standing, all of which are owned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; however, the residents still have to pay property taxes.  There were 16 properties left by 2006 and two years later that number was down to 11.  The final chapter may be written for Centralia soon enough, as the state is now trying to complete the demolition of the borough 48 years after the fire started.  Steve Fishman, attorney for the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, said that "benign neglect" on the parts of state and local officials left the remaining five houses stand with a population of around a dozen by 2010.  He said that the Commonwealth is moving as quickly as it can to take possession of the remaining homes so they can be torn down.  In March 2010, a Columbia County judge will decide how much the owners should be paid for their properties.

Clip from Daily Planet from 2002 about
Centralia.  (Discovery Channel Canada)

Distance sign and route marker in Ashland after the PA 54 intersection.
(Jeff Kitsko)
Northbound at the closed section of PA 61 south of the town.  The new PA 61 veers off to the right to bypass the fire damaged section of highway.  (Jeff Kitsko)
Northbound approaching the center of Centralia at the main intersection where PA 61 turns to the left to continue north, and straight ahead, PA 42 starts and continues north to Bloomsburg.  (Jeff Kitsko)
This is the borough building which is the center of government for Centralia.  I was surprised to see an ambulance and ironically a fire truck sitting in the garage.
(Jeff Kitsko)
A sign of support from the remaining population, which is attached to a tree at the PA 61/PA 42 intersection.  This particular heart is no longer there, but another with
a different design has taken its place.  (Jeff Kitsko)
Heading southbound on Locust Street.  The warning sign ahead on the left says "FOG AREA" which is a reference to the smoke and steam that results when precipitation falls on the heated highway.  (Jeff Kitsko)
One of the remaining vents that is spewing smoke from the fire below the town, and is threatening the cemetery in the background.  (Jeff Kitsko)
One of many warning signs posted by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.  This one was posted on Locust Street in front of the vent pictured above.  (Jeff Kitsko)
Looking back at the borough from the closed section of PA 61.  (Jeff Kitsko)

Abandoned PA 61

In early 1994, due to the movement of the fire, a portion of then PA 54/PA 61 had to be closed south of Centralia because of buckling of the pavement.  PA 54 was eventually moved south to bypass the borough completely and PA 61 was moved to Byrnsville Road, which is located below the original route as seen in the map below.

Location of the closed section of PA 61
Location of the closed section of PA 61.  (PennDOT)

Looking southbound on the former alignment, which was US 122 prior to 1963.
(Jeff Kitsko)
Around the bend in the picture above and you see why PA 61 was closed.  Due to
the heat from the fire, the highway buckled.  (Jeff Kitsko)
With the fire directly below, smoke pours out of the cracks in the highway.
(Jeff Kitsko)
Casualties of the fire are the trees whose roots were burned, and prevented them
from drawing water and nutrients from the ground.  They illustrate the path of the fire
towards PA 61.  (Jeff Kitsko)
Looking northbound at the southern end of the abandoned section of PA 61.  The spay painted message in the middle of the picture says "Highway to Hell."
(Jeff Kitsko)

Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government, and the Centralia Mine Fire
by David DeKok (2000)

More information about the borough and the fire, from all points of view.  The author covered the mine fire for more than eight years as a reporter for The News-Item based in Shamokin.


Images of America:  Centralia
by Deryl B. Johnson (2004)

The infamous borough has had a varied past.  See how it evolved through the years from coal town to ghost town.


The Town That Was
directed by Chris Perkel and George Roland (2007)

A documentary which was filmed over a period of four years with interviews with former residents to Congressmen.  The focus of which is the youngest remaining Centralia, John Lokitis, and his fight to keep alive his hometown which is literally disintegrating beneath his feet.  


Silent Hill
directed by Christophe Gans (2006)

Searching for the answers to her daughter's unexplainable nightmares and references to a town named "Silent Hill," Rose Da Silva takes a trip there to find some meaning.  However, she gets more than she expected.  Centralia inspired screenwriter Roger Avary for his vision of the fictional town of Silent Hill.

Lodging AREA LODGING
Frackville

Directions:  Printer-friendly PDA Friendly

Links:
PA 61
Abandoned PA 61 - Andy Field/Alex Nitzman
Abandoned PA 61; Centralia - Adam Prince
A Brief History of The Centralia Mine Fire - PA Department of Environmental Protection
Borough of Centralia - Rita Marie Long
Centralia! - Bill McGuire
Centralia:  A Modern Ghost Town in the Pennsylvania Coal Country - Carl Weese
Centralia By Air/Saunter to Centralia - Gerry Murray
Centralia, Columbia County, Pennsylvania, USA
- Jolyon Ralph
Centralia Mine Fire - Doug Kirby/Ken Smith/Mike Wilkins
The Centralia Mine Fire - John Krygier
Centralia 1999 - Tom Gryn
Centralia, Pa. - Doug Thompson
Centralia, PA - Sonny Windstrup
Centralia, PA:  Modern Day Ghost Town - Nathan Bramble
Centralia Pennsylvania - Offroaders Online
The Centralia Project - John Bragazzi/Bethany Rusen
First National Bank of Centralia - Rick McDonnell
Modern Ruins:  Centralia, PA - Karl Jorgensen
PA 54 and Centralia - Steve Alpert
Remembering Byrnsville - Mike Reilley
Toxic Terror in Centralia, PA - Weird US


Back to Pennsylvania Highways
Back to Pennsylvania Highways Features
Page updated March 10, 2011.
Content and graphics, unless otherwise noted, copyright Jeffrey J. Kitsko. All rights reserved.
Information courtesy of "Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government and the Centralia Mine Fire" by David DeKok, Offroaders Online, Rick Mason of PennDOT District 3, The Associated Press, Nathan Bramble, and Bill McGuire.