Picture this. It's the early 1960's, and you just happen to be visiting the bustling town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. Located in Columbia County, the town boasts multiple churches, hotels and taverns. Along with two theaters, a bank, it’s own school district, police office, and post office. Not to mention the fourteen stores! You can see the 2,000+ residents homes lined up throughout the town. Beautiful, right?
Now picture this. You visit again in 2008, driving down Route 61. The road seems to have changed a bit, but its right around this turn coming up. You come to a stop sign. Now, take a look around. There's nothing there. Nothing except lots of overgrown plants, and a couple of houses. Where did it all go? Let's start from the beginning.
The town (originally known as "Bulls Head") was started in 1841 with the opening of the "Bulls Head Tavern" by a Mr. Jonathan Faust. He, however, did not own any of the land. In 1860 when the town went to form a post office, it was suggested they change their name. For a few years it had been called "Centreville", but the name was taken, so "Centralia" was then formed. When 1865 came around, the Lehigh and Mahanoy Railroad Co. decided to run a railway line through the town. This opened the door for the town, and it began to grow dramatically. Coal Mining was the way the majority of the town made their living, just like most others in PA.
It wasn't until 1962 that trouble began. There was an abandoned strip mine right next to one of the local cemeteries that they had decided to use to burn the towns garbage. They had done this before in others places, so they went on with their work. Dump the garbage, light the fire, and put the fire out. Except this time, it was different. The workers had thought the fire was out, but it wasn't. In fact, it had gone deep into one of the fissures of the old mine. And let's just say, it has been burning since.
Attempts were made to extinguish the fire, but all were failures. Due to the poisonous fumes coming out of the ground, the state did monitor the area for the residents’ safety. Holes were drilled and vents were put in to help relieve some of the stress down below. In 1969, the first few families had left the town. By the time 1980 had rolled around, nothing had improved. Buyouts were offered to the residents of the town. Many of the homes were in danger, and some had already experienced damage due to the fire. They were given practically nothing for their homes at this time.
In 1983 the government stepped in yet again, and took a vote with the remaining residents. Any deed holding citizen was able to cast a vote whether they wanted a buyout or not. By a vote of 345 to 200, the town voted to leave. A total of $42 million was paid out. The abandoned homes were marked and demolished. By this time, the fire had spread to about 350 acres. Each year, this number increases, and all efforts to extinguish the fire have been abandoned - just like the town.
Today, there are about 5+/- homes still in Centralia. Each of these homes are owned by the state, but they are allowing the people to stay. It is said the fire will burn for at least another 1,000 years, spreading more and more each year. If you stand at the top of the pit (the site of the garbage dump - which looks like it is still being used today..) you can see the fumes arising from the ground below you. The smell is enough to turn anyone’s stomach. The trees have been bleached white, due to the toxic fumes.
But, that’s not all. If you were to drive out of the town, you would notice part of the road is closed. If you were to take a walk on that road, at first it looks perfectly fine. Then you start to see the road take on sort of a wavy form. Then the cracks appear. This was old Route 61, which due to the damage, had to be re-routed to go around the area. Again, fumes arise from the cracks and the pavement is warm to the touch. As always, ignorant people feel the need to spray paint the grounds. I guess there were no homes for them to destroy, so this was the next best thing. (Shame on you!)
Standing on a street corner, viewing what was once this perfect little town is more
depressing than anything. As you look around you can see sidewalks, driveways and steps leading to non-existent houses. A town, forced out of their homes for no other reason than human error. And due to that error, the earth below is a raging ball of fire. The cemetery behind the pit still stands. But who knows for how much longer. And oddly enough a time capsule is set to be opened in 2016, in the small park that remains on the corner of Park and S. Locust Ave. It's a memorial park, but not for anything related to the catastrophe that occurred. If it weren't for the warning sign on the abandoned portion on the road, (which, we noticed was missing during our last visit..) you would never know what lurks below your feet. And driving through, you surely would never realize that there was once a town here.