The 48 Year Fire Burning Beneath a Pennsylvanian Ghost Town

Highway cracked by underground mine fire.Photo: Julie and Bills pictures
Centralia, Pennsylvania is a small borough and a complete ghost town. In 1981, one thousand people called it home; in 2007, there were nine. What chased away the population of this small town? A burning mine fire beneath the borough that has been burning since 1962.

In 1992, all properties in Centralia were claimed under eminent domain by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Every home and building was condemned. Centralia’s zip code was revoked in 2002.

Here is a bit of history: In 1841, Johnathan Faust opened the Bull’s Head Tavern in what was a roaring township. In 1854, Alexander W. Rea, a civil mining engineer for the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company, moved to the site and paved roads. The town was known as Centreville until 1865. Since there was already a Centreville in the county, the post office made them change it and Rea renamed it Centralia.
Abandoned buildings in CentraliaPhoto: julie and billls photos

The anthracite coal industry was the principal employer in the community. Coal mining continued in Centralia until the 1960s, when most of the companies went out of business. Bootleg mining continued until 1982. Strip and open-pit-mining is still active in the area, and there is an underground mine employing about 40 people three miles to the west.

It is not known for certain how the fire that made Centralia essentially uninhabitable was ignited. One theory asserts that in May 1962, the Centralia Borough Council hired five members of the volunteer fire company to clean up the town landfill, located in an abandoned strip mine pit next to the Odd Fellows Cemetery. This had been done prior to Memorial Day in previous years, when the landfill was in a different location. The firefighters, as they had in the past, set the dump on fire and let it burn for a time. Unlike in previous years, however, the fire was not extinguished correctly.

Other evidence supports this theory that the stories of one of the two trash haulers (Curly Stasulevich or Sam Devine) dumped hot ash and/or coal discarded from coal burners into the open trash pit. The borough, by law, was responsible for installing a fire-resistant clay barrier between each layer, but fell behind schedule, leaving the barrier partly incomplete. This allowed the hot coals to penetrate the vein of coal underneath the pit and light the subsequent subterranean fire.

The fire remained burning underground and spread through a hole in the rock pit into the abandoned coal mines beneath Centralia. Attempts to extinguish the fire were unsuccessful, and it continued to burn throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Adverse health effects were reported by several people due to the by-products of the fire.

Locals became aware of the scale of the problem when a gas-station owner and then mayor, John Coddington, inserted a stick into one of his underground tanks to check the fuel level. When he withdrew it, it seemed hot, so he lowered a thermometer down on a string and discovered that the temperature of the gasoline in the tank was 172 degrees.

Statewide attention was brought to the fire when in 1981, 12-year-old resident Todd Domboski fell into a sinkhole 4 feet wide by 150 feet deep that opened beneath his feet in his backyard. His cousin Eric Wolfgang’s quick thinking saved Todd’s life, as the plume of hot steam billowing from the hole was measured as containing a lethal level of carbon monoxide.

In 1984, the United States Congress allocated more than $42 million for relocation efforts. Most of the residents accepted buyout offers and moved to nearby communities.

Today, just a handful of homes are still standing in Centralia and the town appears to be one large field with paved roads running through it. The only indications of the fire, which underlies some 400 acres spreading along four fronts, are low round metal steam vents in the south of the borough and several signs warning of underground fire, unstable ground and carbon monoxide. Smoke can be seen coming from an abandoned portion of Pennsylvania Route 16, the area just behind the hilltop cemetery, and other cracks in the ground scattered about the area. The underground fire is still burning and will continue to do so for a predicted 250 more years.

Though a ghost town, it is believed that many residents will return in 2016 to open a time capsule that was buried in 1966 near the Veteran’s Memorial.

Several former Centralia residents believe the state’s eminent domain claim was a plot to gain all mineral rights to the coal beneath Centralia. Residents estimate its value to be in the billions of dollars, although the exact amount of coal is not known.