Centralia: Where Fire Never Dies


Before it was thrown into the public eye thanks to its influence on the video game movie Silent Hill, Centralia, PA was relatively unknown. It was just a simple coal mining town, founded in 1856 by Alexander Rea and incorporated as a borough in 1866. At its peak, around 1890, the town had approximately 2,800 residents. When the Great Depression struck, several of its mines were closed and a few hundred people were forced to seek their fortune elsewhere, leaving the population at around 2000 in 1950. The rest of the town, however, carried on as normal — until May 27th, 1962.

Centralia’s Park, courtesy of Mredden at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

In preparation for Memorial Day events, the town’s officials greenlit the burning of the trash in the town’s landfill. Unfortunately for Centralia, the landfill was located directly over an old strip mining pit — one still containing coal. Repeated attempts to put out the fire failed, and it slowly spread throughout the rest of the coal mines. While this had its perks at first — such as residents not having to shovel snow in the harsh winter months — the situation soon turned hazardous. Fumes from the fire contained carbon monoxide, which unfortunately seeped into the homes of Centralia residents.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s monitoring hole, courtesy of Mredden at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

The heat and subsidence from the fire created sinkholes, including one that nearly killed twelve-year-old Todd Domboski in 1981. Had it not been for the quick actions of his cousin Eric Wolfgang, he could have died in minutes from carbon monoxide poisoning. This near-tragedy finally forced the state government to take action after years of bureaucratic infighting. By this time, the fire was under an estimated 150 acres of land.

Centralia in 1971, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

In 1981, 29 families were relocated by the government. Two years later, on July 12th, 1983, a study was completed, revealing that the mine fire now covered 195 acres. Complete eradication of the fire would cost $660 million and destroy many homes. Understandably, many residents left, and their homes were demolished, with $42 million worth of help from the government. In 1992, this voluntary relocation became mandatory. The state began evicting the fifty-some remaining residents from their homes. Some of the remaining residents were strongly against relocating. They filed a lawsuit that went all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1995. However, since the new governor, Tom Ridge, was disinterested in this battle, the evictions were postponed.

One of Centralia’s uncracked roads, courtesy of Mredden at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1994, the part of route 61 near Centralia was closed due to damage caused by the fire, including a massive fissure from which noxious steam poured. This road soon became known as Graffiti Highway, so named for the art and tags left by visitors to the area. (Sadly, this popular tourist attraction is no more, as its owner, Pagnotti Enterprises, buried it under dirt on April 6th, 2020, to avoid covid-19 liability.)

Part of the Graffiti Highway, courtesy of Brian W. Schaller, FAL, via Wikimedia Commons

Those who remained in the town while these evictions were postponed lived rent- and property tax-free, as they were technically living on state-owned land. By 2000, only 21 residents remained. Two years later, its ZIP code (17927) was revoked. Centralia was now well and truly a ghost town, albeit a sparsely inhabited one. This mystique, combined with it providing inspiration for the film adaptation of Silent Hill, led to an influx of curious tourists. It is reported that the remaining residents were not pleased by this, as they just wanted to live in peace. However, this was not to be, as the film The Town That Was came out in 2007, telling the story of the mine fire.

A solitary house in Centralia, courtesy of Brian W. Schaller, FAL, via Wikimedia Commons

In 2009, the government tried to evict the few remaining residents once again. The legal battle resumed until at last, in 2013, the government conceded that the last eight residents could stay in their homes for the rest of their lives. After their deaths, their property will once more be under governmental control. The following fall, volunteers joined forces with current and former residents to clean the town. They shared stories and cleaned up several tons of trash (though fortunately, they did not burn it this time), demonstrating the strong community bond that still exists in Centralia.

A smoking section of Centralia’s ground, courtesy of Jrmski at English Wikipedia., CC BY-SA 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons

Recent years have brought more efforts to prevent tourists from disturbing the townsfolk — or worse, putting themselves in danger. Too many visitors don’t take proper precautions when exploring, including those who actually climb into fissures for pictures. 2016 and 2017 saw an uptick in citations and no trespassing signs, to little effect. And as mentioned above, the pandemic brought about the end of the iconic Graffiti Highway. Pagnotti Enterprises expressed that it wished people to stay away from the property (and one another) during the pandemic, but to no avail. Not wanting to risk liability, they covered this previous tourist attraction under dirt.

The Graffiti Highway before its burial, courtesy of Brian W. Schaller, FAL, via Wikimedia Commons

The six surviving residents are not alone, however. The fire has resulted in a certain type of microbe, the thermophile, being able to flourish in the 140°F dirt. Ashley Shade, a professor at Michigan State University, is a leading expert and author of a paper on the subject. They sent a team there to Centralia in 2019 to collect samples that they were able to regrow in their lab. There were some microbes they could not grow in the lab, so they instead extracted and sequenced the microbes’ DNA to look for patterns and check them against known DNA. Approximately 30% of the microbes found were unknown archaea and bacteria. Dr. Shade and her team are examining how temperature changes correlate with genome sizes — the smaller a microbe is, the better off it is at high temperatures, they’ve observed. Further research is required to know what is truly happening in Centralia’s soil.

Thermophile bacteria under a microscope, courtesy of Mark Amend – NOAA Photo Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Overall, Centralia was and still is a tight-knit community disrupted by tragedy. The town’s past is a sad one, and its future is unclear. What will become of the town after its last residents die? Only time shall tell. Until then, it is a fascinating ghost town — and one well worth a visit once it is safe to travel again.

Further Reading:


Visiting Centralia: Pennsylvania’s Toxic Ghost Town (Updated for 2020)


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