Centralia. The name conjures images of a great metropolis, busy with ant-like denizens that scurry about their daily business. Sadly, the truth is far from it.
After the Scotsman, James Beaumont Neilson, discovered a technique to exploit the then unwieldy incendiary properties of Anthracite (an extremely hard form of coal), this natural deposit became highly valued and mining sites in North America expanded to accommodate the increased demand. Consequently, new towns and settlements sprang up to house the influx of workers, suppliers and investors that fed the mines. Centralia, Pennsylvania was one such town. Here, a vast underground seam of Anthracite was discovered in the mid-1800s. Miners moved in and production grew until at its highest the town’s population rose to over two thousand inhabitants, with another five hundred residing nearby.
Now, though, the headcount has now been reduced to twelve. So, why the massive depopulation and what dark aspect of this sleepy mining community could have inspired the writer Roger Avery to base the fictional town of Silent Hill on Centralia?
In 1962, burning of the town’s landfill unexpectedly ignited a nearby coal seam in an abandoned strip mine adjacent to the Odd Fellows Cemetery. Despite the considerable efforts of the local fire department, the Anthracite (which is notoriously difficult to extinguish) kept re-igniting and steadily the subterranean blaze spread through the criss-crossing matrix of tributary veins to the other abandoned mines beneath the town.
In the following years the town began to show symptoms of its slow-burning, underground fire. Fresh cracks appeared in the ground with small plumes of smoke rising lazily from them, while and the asphalt of Highway 61 wilted in places and became unsafe to drive on. But it was in 1979 when the true scope of the problem came to the forefront when the town’s mayor and gas-station owner, John Coddington, inserted a dipstick into one of the underground petrol tanks to check the fuel level. Upon withdrawal the dipstick seemed to be unusually warm, Coddington lowered a thermometer down on a piece of string and was shocked to discover that the temperature inside the tank was 172 °F (77.8 °C). Then, two years later, large cave-ins began to occur around Centralia—with life-threatening consequences: “12-year-old Todd Domboski fell into a sinkhole four feet wide by 150 feet (46 m) deep that suddenly opened beneath his feet in a backyard. Only the quick work of his cousin Eric Wolfgang in pulling Todd out of the hole to saved Todd’s life, as the plume of hot steam billowing from the hole was measured as containing a lethal level of carbon monoxide”.
Soon, every house in the town had to be fitted with carbon monoxide detectors as more and more of the underground gases rose to the surface.
Many attempts were made to halt the fire’s progress, but without large-scale funding the town was eventually deemed to be helpless and most residents took advantage of a $40million government resettlement program which created homes for them in the nearby settlements of Mount Carmel and Ashland. Even though the fire is now directly under the town and showed no signs of diminishing, some residents chose to stay.
Finding Centralia on Google Earth gives the observer an idea of the extent of the damage that the underground fires have had on this now ghostly settlement. The road network can still be seen, as can the skeletal foundations of building plots. The asphalt, though cracked and smoking in many places, looks reasonably intact from above, albeit now leading to nowhere and although almost all of the original structures have been neatly demolished and flattened, the road signs remain standing as silent relics of their former occupations. Notably, a few houses still stand proud, their defiance embellished by the barren nature of the surrounding landscape.
A time-capsule that was buried in 1966 is due to be opened in 2016. The contents of the capsule were undoubtedly hopeful of Centralia’s future but sadly they will be greeted by an unexpectedly bleak landscape. That’s if it doesn’t melt in the meantime.
Interestingly, legend holds that the town was cursed by the local priest who was beaten after speaking out against the activities of Irish vigilante miners the Molly Maguires, saying that “a day would come when only St. Ignatius’ Roman Catholic Church would remain standing in Centralia, and that the little mining town, founded on a bed of coal, would burn forever.” The church in question lasted much longer than most of the other buildings in Centralia, but alas, that too was demolished in the summer of 1997.
It is estimated that enough fuel exists under Centralia to maintain the fire for the next 250 years.