Centralia as seen from South Street, July 2010
Location of Centralia in Columbia County, Pennsylvania.
Map showing Columbia County in Pennsylvania
Centralia is a
All real estate in the borough was claimed under
Many of the
The Centralia coal deposits were largely overlooked before the construction of the Mine Run Railroad in 1854. In 1832, Johnathan Faust opened the Bull's Head Tavern in what was called
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The first two mines in Centralia opened in 1856, the Locust Run Mine and the Coal Ridge Mine. Afterward came the Hazeldell Colliery Mine in 1860, the Centralia Mine in 1862, and the Continental Mine in 1863. The Continental was located on Stephen Girard's former estate. Branching from the
Centralia was incorporated as a borough in 1866. Its principal employer was the
Several other murders and incidents of arson also took place during the violence, as Centralia was a hotbed of Molly Maguires activity during the 1860s to organize a mineworkers union in order to improve wages and working conditions. A legend among locals in Centralia tells that Father Daniel Ignatius McDermott, the first
According to numbers of Federal census records, the town of Centralia reached its maximum population of 2,761 in the year 1890. At its peak, the town had seven churches, five hotels, 27 saloons, two theaters, a bank, a post office, and 14 general and grocery stores. Thirty-seven years later the production of anthracite coal had reached its peak in Pennsylvania. In the following years, production declined, as many young miners from Centralia enlisted in the military when the US entered
In 1929 the
In the year 1950, Centralia Council acquired the rights to all anthracite coal beneath Centralia through a state law passed in 1949 that enabled the transaction. That year, the federal census counted 1,986 residents in Centralia.
Rail service ended in 1966. Centralia operated its own school district, including elementary schools and a high school. There were also two
Analysts disagree about the specific cause of the Centralia fire. Writer David Dekok concluded that it started with an attempt to clean up the town landfill. In May 1962, the Centralia Borough Council hired five members of the volunteer fire company to clean up the town
On May 27, 1962, the firefighters, as they had in the past, set the dump on fire and let it burn for some time. Unlike in previous years, however, the fire was not fully extinguished. An unsealed opening in the pit allowed the fire to enter the labyrinth of abandoned coal mines beneath Centralia.[
By contrast, Joan Quigley states in her book The Day the Earth Caved In (2007) that the fire had started the previous day, when a trash hauler dumped hot ash or coal discarded from coal burners into the open trash pit. She noted that borough council minutes from June 4, 1962, referred to two fires at the dump and that five firefighters had submitted bills for "fighting the fire at the landfill area." The borough, by law, was responsible for installing a fire-resistant clay barrier between each layer of the landfill, but fell behind schedule, leaving the barrier incomplete. This allowed the hot coals to penetrate the vein of coal underneath the pit and start the subsequent subterranean fire.
Another theory proposes that the Bast Colliery fire of 1932 was never fully extinguished, and that fire reached the landfill area by 1962; however, a miner named Frank Jurgill Sr. disputes that theory. Jurgill claims he operated a
In 1979, locals became aware of the scale of the problem when a gas-station owner, 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. He lowered a thermometer into the tank on a string and was shocked to discover that the temperature of the gasoline in the tank was 172
Statewide attention to the fire began to increase, culminating in 1981 when a 12-year-old resident named Todd Domboski fell into a
Although there was physical, visible evidence of the fire, residents of Centralia were bitterly divided over the question of whether or not the fire posed a direct threat to the town. In The Real Disaster is Above Ground, Steve Kroll-Smith and Steve Couch identified at least six community groups, each organized around varying interpretations of the amount and kind of risk posed by the fire. In 1983, the
In 1992, Pennsylvania governor
Few homes remain standing in Centralia. Most of the abandoned buildings have been demolished by the Columbia County Redevelopment Authority or reclaimed by nature. At a casual glance, the area now appears to be a field with many paved streets running through it. Some areas are being filled with new-growth forest. The remaining church in the borough, St. Mary's, holds weekly services on Sunday. It has not yet been directly affected by the fire. The town's four cemeteries—including one on the hilltop that has smoke rising around and out of it—are maintained in good condition.[
The only indications of the fire, which underlies some 400 acres (160 ha) spreading along four fronts, are low round metal steam vents in the south of the borough. Several signs warn of underground fire, unstable ground, and dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. Additional smoke and steam can be seen coming from an abandoned portion of
The current route was formerly a detour around the damaged portion during the repairs and became a permanent route in 1993; mounds of dirt were placed at both ends of the former route, effectively blocking the road. Pedestrian traffic is still possible due to a small opening about two feet wide at the north side of the road. The underground fire is still burning and may continue to do so for 250 years. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania did not renew the relocation contract at the end of 2005.
The last remaining house on Locust Avenue was demolished in September 2007. It was notable for a period for the five chimney-like support
Residents John Comarnisky and John Lokitis, Jr. were evicted in May and July 2009, respectively. In May 2009, the remaining residents mounted another legal effort to reverse the 1992 eminent domain claim. In 2010, only five homes remained as state officials tried to vacate the remaining residents and demolish what was left of the town. In March 2011, a federal judge refused to issue an injunction that would have stopped the condemnation.
The Borough Council still had regular meetings as of 2011. It was reported that the town's highest bill at the meeting reported on came from
In February 2012, the Commonwealth Court ruled that a declaration of taking could not be re-opened or set aside on the basis that the purpose for the condemnation no longer exists; seven people, including the Borough Council president, had filed suit claiming the condemnation was no longer needed because the underground fire had moved and the air quality in the borough was the same as that in
The town's residents and former residents decided to open a