Centralia, Pennsylvania was incorporated in 1866, having been around for 15 years as Bull’s Head. By that point, it had already been transformed from a dustry hamlet to a full-blown mining community. Centralia and neighboring Byrnesville happened to sit upon an absolutely massive bed of anthracite coal. Notoriously difficult to burn, anthracite wasn’t used commercially until the early 20th century, when the Lackawanna railroad began using it exclusively, touting the mineral’s virtually nonexistent soot production (it lacks bitumen) as a benefit.
By 1882, almost half a million tons of coal were being mined annually by a variety of collieries, meaning that great wealth was pouring out of the burough, though in truth, its residents throughout its life were poor Irish and Slavic immigrants. By the 1950s, Centralia was a hodgepodge of cultures, clean enterprise and shady doings. On May 27th, 1962, the city’s trash dump (an abandoned mine) was set on fire in order to clean it up for the town’s Memorial Day celebrations. When the stubborn fire refused to die completely, workers noticed that burning debris had fallen down into an old mine shaft. Although anthracite coal doesn’t burn easily, those with any prescience relayed the danger of fire in a coal mine to the local governing body. An unnamed contractor proposed digging the debris out (a procedure which would cost $175), but the Pennsylvania Department of Mines turned him down.
The seven or eight mile seam of coal stretched underneath (even beyond) the entirety of Centralia, some 7 square miles. By the 9th of August, all other mining operations were closed down: as the fire spread (it reached 1000°F), the carbon monoxide made further operation impossible. The lethargic Department of Mines sprang into action… sort of.
An effort to dig out the burning coal was retarded by the added air (and hence combustion) that the workers introduced. The fire continued to spread.
In March, 1963, a plan to smother the fire with water and crushed rock failed when this mixture was introduced into the fire, rather than around it. The fire continued to spread.
In October, plan to dig a gap in the seam of coal (like firefighters do with brush), but before the shovels even hit the seam, they were too late. The fire continued to spread.
Not until 1967 did authorities again try to douse the fire with more water/rock slurry, this time beginning at the edges of the fire. Long before the procedure could have any effect, the money ran out, and people began to consider the idea that Centralia was breathing its last breath. According to Richard Cowen, the projected cost for combatting the fire ran as high as $5 million (equivalent $28 billion today), compared to an estimated property value of only $500’000.
The following year, a rash of mysterious illnesses began to crop up. Pet canaries died all over Centralia. The fire had become so pervasive (still 800°F, based on test boreholes within city limits) that gasses like carbon monoxide were leaking into homes. Carbon monoxide poisoning produces nausea, headache, fatigue, and under extreme enough circumstances, anoxia and death.
Finally, in 1969, the federal government stepped to help. The Federal Bureau of Mines initiated a project to blow waste ash into the fire, which had already stretched far beyond the city limits. The fire, more advanced than anyone had anticipated, refused to die. Out of ideas, the feds abandoned Centralia, providing only a few carbon monoxide detectors for some families, failing even to educate the population about the dangers of CO poisioning.
Ten years passed, and things continued to get worse. In December 1979, the cellar of a gas station at the center of town, owned by John Coddington, reached 136°F, and the underground gas tanks hit 64°. The gas was pumped, the station closed for good, people began to realize just how serious the problem was.
A little over a year later came the final straw in the protracted death of this little mining town. On Valentine’s Day, 1981, visiting bigwigs walking down the street saw a young boy named Todd Domboski inspect a small geyser of smoke coming out of a neighbor’s yard. Quick as a flash, the ground underneath him completely collapsed, and Todd was left dangling from a tree root over a 300ft. (91m.) chasm, blasted by a rush of hot air and carbon monoxide gas. An older cousin pulled the boy up within a few seconds, but that event received national converage, and people saw that this danger affected everyone in town (it should be noted that the burough’s current mayor disputes this story, according to Jason Zasky). When the aforementioned John Coddington collapsed from anoxia a month later, the government began the process of relocating the residents of Centralia. 27 families sold their homes to the government and moved in August and September of that year.
By 1982, geysers of steam were causing traffic accidents on nearby Highway 61, which closed for five months (sections of it are still closed today). In November of 1983, Congress allocated $42 million for relocation, and 2000 familes took the government up on it. Incredibly, many familes refused to leave, the history and culture of Centralia apparently trumping the carbon monoxide poising and sinkhole danger. In the early 90s, the government flexed the muscles of Eminent Domain and ordered the 84 residents who remained to pack up and leave within two years. As of 1996, there were still 46 residents (down fro 1’100 in 1962, before the entire debacle), perhaps less than 20 today.
Today, the first thing you notice when entering Centralia is just how quiet it is. A handful of narrow houses—some occupied, most abandoned—are scattered over the grid of empty streets. On many of the vacant lots, the grass has been neatly mowed beside a driveway that extends to nowhere. Near one intersection an imposing yellow sign reads, “Public Alert: Area subject to mine subsidence and toxic gas emissions.” Nevertheless, the area doesn’t look all that dangerous. The only tangible evidence that the fire still burns is a smoking wasteland a few hundred yards from the edge of town where the ground is hot to the touch and the air reeks of sulfur, where white birch and maple trees have been rendered the color of a new penny. [Jason Zasky]
Kevin Krajick writes in Smithsonian Magazine that the coal seam will continue to burn for 100 to 250 years. Some estimates are as high as a millenium. There are no plans to put it out.