Thursday, October 31, 2013

Centralia, PA

One of the targets fragged for Tuesday's flight was the ex-town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. 51 years ago, a trash fire that was lit in the town's landfill--ironically by the town fire department--ignited a coal outcropping that took the fire down into the network of abandoned mine tunnels beneath the town. It's still burning today, despite numerous attempts to extinguish it. Conceding defeat, the federal government and State of Pennsylvania bought out the 1,400 residents and removed them from the town, then demolished their homes and shops. A few hold-outs resisted and are still fighting to remain, however. At least count, there were seven people left still going on with their lives and trying to get the government to just leave them alone.

After 50 years, fire still burns underneath Pa. town

Approaching Centralia, PA. Here's where the state cut old highway 61 and re-routed the traffic because of a long-burning coal mine fire that broke through here, buckling the road and rendering it forever unusable.
Here's the cracks caused by the fire below. Ten years ago I was here and the steam and heat rising from that crevice was still hot enough to burn your hand.
Centralia is almost gone, but not quite. Most of the buildings are gone, their lots returned to nature. But a few still go on as if nothing's wrong.
Here's the still well-tended St. Ignatius Cemetery, with the smaller St. Peter and Paul Cemetery behind it. The barren pit next to the cemeteries was dug out long ago as part of the suppression efforts. When I was there, there was still hot steam rising from the ground there.
Not gone yet. A few residents still soldier on.
Even though the fire started back in 1962, no one really worried about it for almost twenty years. Then it became noticeable following two incidents:
In 1979, locals became aware of the scale of the problem when a gas-station owner and then mayor, John Coddington, inserted a dipstick into one of his underground tanks to check the fuel level. When he withdrew it, it seemed hot, so he lowered a thermometer down on a string and was shocked to discover that the temperature of the gasoline in the tank was 172 °F. Statewide attention to the fire began to increase, culminating in 1981 when a 12-year-old resident named Todd Domboski fell into a sinkhole 4 feet wide by 150 feet deep that suddenly opened beneath his feet in a backyard. His cousin, 14-year-old Eric Wolfgang, pulled Todd out of the hole and saved his life. The plume of hot steam billowing from the hole was measured and found to contain a lethal level of carbon monoxide.
Looking up Center Street from the west. Most of the last remaining buildings can be seen here.
The fire is believed to span 400+ acres below ground and is expected to burn for another 250 years. It's also believed to be heading slowly towards Ashland, just to the south, but not expected to reach there for another hundred years so folks aren't worried.
I was there ten years back with Lagniappe and we spent two days hiking the area. Unfortunately and somewhat comically, word quickly spread about the young man with the military-style haircut and the German Shepherd who were poking around in a white SUV asking a lot of questions about old mine sites. I was trying to chat up a local bar maid that night and she let me know that most of the dozen-or-so people in the bar "knew" that I was an undercover agent looking for marijuana plots with my "drug-detecting dog" out in the truck. It was funny for a few minutes, and then I realized that I should probably be moving on. A short time later, a friend of mine who works for a certain three-letter federal agency that deals with such things told me that that area was then one of the biggest hotbeds for marijuana cultivation in the northeast. He advised me against going back to look around again, especially alone and unarmed.

Silly him...I never go anywhere unarmed.


  1. Did a drive through there some years back. Maybe 15 or so.

    Took some time to stop, hike a bit.

    Ya.... lots of evidence to whats happening underground, and the results.

  2. That was a super cool and interesting post. Thanks for the history lesson.
    And tell Murphy, we are all rooting for him for a fast and easy recovery. Or you can just pat him on the head and give him an extra cookie courtesy of your blogger fans. I'm sure he'd prefer that anyway.
    Happy Halloween!!

  3. Dean Koontz had a book set in a very similar location, involving some time-travel, a serial killer (hey, its Koontz), a fire burning underground, retribution, etc. I'm betting it was based on this town.

  4. Interesting - and nice pics.

    There was a coal seam burning between Cumberland and Frostburg for decades - you could see the steam from it as you drove by. Don't know if it still is.

  5. And in the world of serendipity the subject popped up in the news today:

  6. That's a helluva story! :-)

  7. No matter how powerful we think we are, we can't put out a fire... strange place, strange geology.

    Hope Murphy felt up to barking at the trick or treaters, and is recovering! Not his (or your vet budget's) month - may he have a much better winter to come!

  8. So what is it about this place this week? Oddly enough, you are the second "neighbor" I know who went to visit Centralia this week. Serendipitous for sure.