Home / The Great Disappearing Act of Centralia, Pennsylvania

The Great Disappearing Act of Centralia, Pennsylvania

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One of my favorite themes in art is entropy: drawing, paintings, architecture, and photography. I find beauty in the concept that time and decay are inseparable, and for some strange reason I just like seeing what time does to all the things in this world.

This means I was the kid in high school who, in photography class, took really lame pictures of crap like tattered vinyl chairs in abandoned warehouses. Then, cooped up in my bedroom that smelled of socks and Marlboro Lights, I would look at my photographs while listening to Metallica and wondering why more girls (read: any girls) didn’t want to sleep with me. You’ll be relieved to know I did grow out of that phase, mainly because I figured out why girls didn’t want to sleep with me. I’m a freakin’ ogre, that’s why.

Of course, entropy touches more than just vinyl chairs, and on much bigger scales, too.

One could argue that the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania wasn’t so much the victim of entropy as it was the victim of a terrible accident that just took several decades to reach its conclusion. Decay happens naturally and isn’t sparked by human intervention. Centralia was set on fire, in a manner of speaking. Somewhere out there is the guy who started that fire. And he must feel like a real loser.

By the 1960’s, Centralia had become quite a happenin’ little coal miner’s town, like a lot of those in the hills of Pennsylvania. It had a general store, a nickelodeon, some nice Catholic schools (with seven churches to match), and more than a few saloons -– twenty-seven to be exact — but even an idyllic little town produces its fair share of trash. By 1962 the glorious, patriotic heap of red-blooded American garbage in the town’s dump started to offend the olfactory palate of even the hardiest townsfolk. Someone devised what was arguably the best solution at the time – to burn the heap of trash to the ground and have the volunteer fire brigade hose down whatever was left. This was before us liberals invented “the environment,” so it was perfectly acceptable at the time.

The ingenious Centralians, never ones to waste, turned an anthracite coal strip mine (an above ground mine, what we commonly think of as a “quarry”) into the garbage dump in question after it had exhausted the mine’s capacity – or so they thought.

The good news is that they did get rid of all that nasty trash. It was a pyrrhic victory, however. The conflagration ignited a vein of coal. That coal vein led to the mines that we more often associate with mining – the underground ones.

A sign on State Route 61 leading into Centralia,
warning travelers to stay the hell away.

Simply put, it has been burning ever since.

It burned, in fact, for nearly two decades without terribly remarkable consequence. There were occasional, sporadic complaints of carbon monoxide poisoning from some of the residents, but nothing more. Despite the fact that it seemed to manifest itself very little in the lives of Centralians, local firefighters made constant efforts to stop the fire. They flooded the mines and sealed them. They dug up the burning coal and replaced it with earth. And they prayed their asses off at those seven churches.

At some point in the 1970’s, legend has it that a gas station owner dropped a dipstick into an underground gasoline tank to check the level. He noticed it felt warm when he retrieved it, so he dropped a thermometer in next. His gasoline was a balmy 180 degrees Fahrenheit.

The term you’re looking for is, “Oh shit.”

That was generally considered the beginning of the end. The ground began to rend. If you were lucky, it would just split a street in half and spew noxious gas and smoke. Sometimes it would open its maw in the woods and the temperatures would kill the vegetation, dry it out, and set it on fire. If you weren’t so lucky, it would just split your house or business in half.

The mine fire cut a quaint little swath of destruction
through this quaint little burg.

The townsfolk held out hope that the fire would be extinguished. “Bah!” old miners would cackle to each other in one of the remaining saloons, seated on either side of a smoking chasm. “You call this a smoking chasm? When I was growing up, we used to play stickball in chasms smokier than this! Deeper too!”

Soon thereafter, the ground nearly swallowed up 12-year old Todd Domboski. He was out playing, most likely stickball, when the ground beneath his feet just sorta, well, opened up. The hole beneath him was 80 feet deep and, by all accounts, hot and smoldering. He deftly clung to some tree roots and clumps of earth and was promptly pulled to safety. He later recounted his first reaction was that he was being sucked into Hell, as Father Patrick had warned him about, for having “impure thoughts.”

Some fled the rapidly (and literally) crumbling town, but most held out. By 1983 various authorities had spent more than $40 million to battle the subterranean blaze to no avail. Congress had a better idea in 1984. They allocated another $42 million to Centralia, but not to fight the fire; rather, to relocate its victims.

And so the great exodus began. The population rapidly declined. Homes and businesses split in half, collapsed, burned, or all three. Roads became impassable and superheated cracks in the ground made the landscape look more and more like Sodom. Or Gomorrah.

Route 61: Uneven pavement, indeed.

Then in 1992 the state of Pennsylvania invoked the power of eminent domain. It dissolved the town and ordered all of the former town’s buildings condemned. Many residents, now squatters in their own homes, continued their strangely admirable and altogether obstinate defense to continue their lives there. By 2002 the United States Postal Service had cruelly revoked Centralia’s beloved zip code, 17927. Fate and flame, it seemed, weren’t the only forces determined to wipe Centralia off the map.

Sadly, there’s not much left to tell of the story. Centralia is destined to go out with a whimper. According to the 2000 census, 21 people still lived in the town, and that number is surely smaller today. The state actively demolishes the condemned houses of each resident that leaves, ensuring no one could reassume their perch.

Geologists estimate the fire will continue for another 250 years.

I find the Centralia story fascinating and I’ve been trying to pinpoint exactly why. Humanity is no stranger to seeing its settlements and habitations obliterated by nature. There are dozens of examples that we can all cite without hesitation, but three things almost always characterize those catastrophes.

First, the circumstances are almost always swift and brutal, as in earthquakes, hurricanes, or wildfires. Second, there’s always something substantial left behind, even if it’s pretty beaten up. You could stand in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, look around, and still tell you’re in New Orleans. Third, these places can come back. San Francisco is back to normal after the 1989 Loma Prietta quake. Indonesia, even after the mind-shearing devastation of the tsunami a couple of years ago, is still there, and Indonesians are getting on with life.

Downtown Centralia today.

Centralia, however died a slow death. There’s nearly — and soon to be exactly — nothing left. And it’s not coming back. What a wretched fate.

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About Tim Greathouse

During the week, Tim Greathouse is a freelance writer, father and homemaker. Each weekend he dons a suit and performs wedding ceremonies for remarkably cool couples all over his home state of Ohio.
  • John

    Wow, really creepy. I’m a primary school teacher and stumbled across a report a couple of lads did on the town. I’m going to use it as a stimulus for some creative writing as I’m so inspired.
    Great article Tim, well done Sir.

  • Rich Reidinger

    we rode our motorcycles out to centralia this past weekend. what a place! it was mostly deserted…we stopped to see the smoke coming out of the ground and the deserted part of route 61. Got an eerie feeling while i was there, to be in an actual ghost town was something.

  • Mario

    Really cool article. I like reading about that sort of stuff.

  • duane

    A remarkable story, Timothy. Thanks for telling us about it. Well written, too.

  • Hey Mauri–thanks for the corrections. I had to rely on information on the internet for my sources, and needless to say much of what I read was of dubious origins. Once I get a job I plan on buying some good old-fashioned books on the topic to try to get my facts straight.

  • Mauri

    A well-written piece about the unfortunate demise of this town… for the most part. Unfortunately, some of what you write is completely untrue. Homes and businesses did NOT subside into the ground, nor did any structures catch fire from the underground mine fire. The fire remained on the extreme south side of the town, as many of the old miners who knew the layout of the coal below has predicted it would. The north side of the town, which oddly enough is the most vacant, was completely untouched by the fire; some surmise that this is because the watertable below prevents the spread of the fire to that section. If you live close enough to visit the town, I highly recommend it.

  • Donnie Marler

    Very interesting and sad article. While not identical in process, my own hometown and surrounding communities nearly died out following the closure of the lead mines in the early 1970’s.
    I can understand, in a way, the desire of the townspeople to hang on as long as they could. The mines had been the largest employer in this area for over a hundred years. When they pulled up stakes and shut down, it was devastating to the local economy.
    Our old towns of Leadwood, Rivermines, Elvins, Esther, and Flat River, MO faded into history. What was once a vibrant and vital part of the Old Lead Belt no longer exists.
    We have reinvented ourselves and our way of life, but it was hard to let the past go. I hope the former residents of Centralia can find peace wherever they settled down.

  • S.T.M

    Very interesting stuff and really fascinating as a read. How did the town get its name, BTW. I’m curious …. it sounds like it should be a place on the other side of the Pacific, in the desert about 30 miles outside Alice Springs.