A few weekends ago, Nick, Chris, Polina and I drove out to explore Centralia, Pennsilvania.
The story began sometime in 1962 along the outskirts of town when trash was burned in the pit of an abandoned strip mine, which connected to a coal vein running near the surface. The burning trash caught the exposed vein of coal on fire. The fire was thought to be extinguished but it apparently wasn’t when it erupted in the pit a few days later. Again the fire was doused with water for hours and thought to be out. But it wasn’t. The coal then began to burn underground. That was in 1962. For the next two decades, workers battled the fire, flushing the mines with water and fly ash, excavated the burning material and dug trenches, backfilled, drilling again and again in an attempt to find the boundaries of the fire and plan to put the fire out or at least contain it.
All efforts failed to do either as government officials delayed to take any real action to save the village. By the early 1980s the fire had affected approximately 200 acres and homes had to be abandoned as carbon monoxide levels reached life threatening levels. An engineering study concluded in 1983 that the fire could burn for another century or even more and “could conceivably spread over an area of approximately 3,700 acres.”
As time passed, each feeble attempt to do anything to stop the fire or help the residents of Centralia would cost more and more due to the fires progression. Over 47 years and 40 million dollars later the fire still burns through old coal mines and veins under the town and the surrounding hillsides on several fronts. The fire, smoke, fumes and toxic gases that came up through the back yards, basements and streets of Centralia literally ripped the town apart. Most of the homes were condemned and residents were relocated over the years with grants from the federal government although some die-hards refused to be bought out and some still remain in the town. Today Centralia is a virtual ghost town with only a few remaining residents. As they continue to live in their beloved homes now owned by the federal government, people pass every day along Route 61, most totally unaware of the history surrounding them and the sad story of Centralia.
(More about Centralia on Wikipedia)
We decided to go check it out for ourselves. We rented a car, and took the three hour drive out there.
Exploring Centralia was quite dramatic. The entire town is deserted, and during our initial drive through town, we actually missed it on the side of the road – the site where the town was is now simply a large overgrown, tree and shrub filled field, with an eirey grid of cracked, decaying streets crisscrossing the highway. There’s one house that still remains, and the owner was recently featured in the documentary “The Town That Was”. Just up on the hillside outside of town is where the mine fire wasteland starts. We drove the car a little ways up the side of the hill, and then hiked the surrounding area. All over the place, there are piles of broken rocks and garbage, with strange, smelly plumes of hot, wet smoke and gasses seeping out. When we first approached the plumes of smoke, we thought since it was hot and wet that it must just be steam. However, a little later in the day, as Polina and I began to develop headaches, we realized that the smoke was a mixture of smoke, steam, and other noxious gasses.
Up on the smoking hill, at the very top, there’s an old orthodox cemetery – considering its surroundings, its very well maintained, with a fresh driveway of asphalt just outside the gate.
After exploring the hillside we went over to the abandoned section of the highway, and took a long walk down the cracked, overgrown, abandoned piece of road. Over the years, almost every inch of the asphalt has been covered with grafitti from the local kids who hang out there. The road slopes downwards, and in the middle of the strip, there’s a large, smoking crack, where the fire has ripped apart the asphalt. Smoke pours out, and it appears to be widening – new cracks can be seen opening up all over the place.
Exploring Centralia was surreal, and a great experience. It’s amazing that the whole town was abandoned so completely – and will stay abandoned. According to some estimates, there’s 200 more years of fuel in the mines below.
On our way back to NYC, we made a quick stop in Pottsville, PA, the home of the the Yuengling Brewery, America’s oldest brewery. We also checked out some old mining areas in Pottsville.
While exploring, myself, Chris and Nick all took lots of video clips and pictures. Lisa Daly edited our video clips together – check it out below, as well as the photos of Centralia, Pennsylvania on Flickr.