Friday, February 5, 2010

Town on Fire

I read an interesting AP article today about a little coal-town town in the mountains of Northeastern Pennsylvania that is finally being condemned after 4 decades of being on fire.

That's right. 4 decades of slowly disintegrating from an underground mine fire.

I first got interested in the this story when I lived in Philly and the alternative weekly paper did a story on it and for some reason, it just captured my imagination.

Centralia is located in Pennsylvania’s coal country, in the eastern half of the state, close to the middle. In its heyday, the small town boasted a population of over 2,000 people; its own school district, plus 2 Catholic parochial schools, 7 churches, 5 hotels, 27 bars, 2 theaters, a bank, a post office and 14 general stores and supermarkets.

The infamous fire was begun in the early 60's, allegedly by people burning garbage, when a stray spark ignited an exposed vein of coal and the fire has continued burning unabated until the present day.

Millions have been spent trying to extinguish the fire, but nothing has proved successful. In fact, in the early days, despite many people experiencing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, much of the town either denied there was a fire or down-played the severity.

Until one day in the early 1980's when a 12-year old playing in his backyard was suddenly sucked down into a sinkhole that had opened up below his feet. He managed to catch onto something and was rescued, but it was a wake-up call for many in the town.

In 1992, the state claimed eminent domain and condemned all the properties in Centralia and in 2002 the US Post Office revoked the town’s zip code of 17927.

Today the population has dwindled from 1,000 residents in 1981 to 12 in 2005 and 9 in 2007, making it the least populated municipality in PA.

There have always been a handful of holdouts who have refused to go--despite the fact that there are no businesses, churches, schools or other vestiges of a town left. They have remained virtual squatters in their own private ghost town for years.

It looks like their time has come as the government has gotten tired of the whole mess. It seems such a sad end to their saga, but authorities say they are worried for the tourists who go up there to view the smoldering remains of the once vibrant village. Sinkholes and poisonous gases are constant dangers.


  1. Wow. You would think that it's rather obvious what was happening, people getting sick because of a slowing burning town. I saw this on the news and I couldn't believe it. It doesn't look like a comfortable place to live so you have to wonder a little about the people who chose to stay there.

  2. Yeah, you would think, but that area of the country is a little strange (in my opinion). I've only been up there once or twice when I lived in Philly but it's like generations of the same family live in these little dinky towns and never leave. It's really isolated up there in the mountains too.

  3. That's crazy. I can't believe I never heard about it. How sad though for the U.S. government. They need to reset their priorities to take care of the people in their own country before they start spending money in so many other places.