Visit to a smouldering coal-fire ghost-town

Sumana sez, "Keith Allison visited Centralia, Pennsylvania, a mostly-evacuated town whose coal mine caught on fire in 1962. He took pictures and tells the tale."

There was no mining to be done after that, though there was plenty of fire fighting going on. The mines were flushed with water. Chunks of flaming coal were excavated. Shafts were backfilled and redrilled, but the fire refused to be tamed. In 1983, as the fire continued to spread, an engineering study was released that stated the fire could very well be burning for another hundred years or more and consume an underground area of roughly 3,700 acres. This spelled pretty dire news for the town of Centralia. Living on top of a raging mine fire was generally considered to be bad for the locals. Smoke, steam, and toxic fumes crept up through the soil. Water became contaminated. Trees died in droves and sat in barren patches of blackened, smoking soil that made the whole town look like it ought to be criss-crossed with trenches full of German and British troops locked in a Western Front stalemate. And then the sinkholes and fissures began opening. One nearly swallowed a young boy whole, and people started thinking that maybe Centralia was a lost cause.
Fire Down Below: Centralia (Thanks, Sumana!)


  1. isnt this the inspiration for Silent Hill game and movie?

    and my captcha is pretty prescient – its Hill Claimant.

  2. This man paints a scene in such a way that I’m reminded of my youngest when she got into her mothers makeup.

  3. I’m trying to read the story, but I’m having a hard time reminding myself that this is supposed to be a factual account and not the output of a creative-writing class.

  4. @ #4 Transiit: I’m trying to read the story, but I’m having a hard time reminding myself that this is supposed to be a factual account and not the output of a creative-writing class.

    Me too. Partly because of the content, but also because of the style. =P

    @ Tak #2:

    I haven’t thought about that movie in years! =D 11% on the tomatometer is nothing to brag about.

  5. What happened in this this town is like a slow motion multicar pileup: horrifying, yet hard to look away from. Every so often, I go Web searching for recent developments about Centralia, through morbid curiosity. I’ve also read the two main books about the mine fire: Unseen Danger and Slow Burn. Dean Koontz also wrote a short story whose backdrop was a town (probably based on Centralia) as a metaphor for hell, and of course featuring a serial killer.

  6. I like how there’s green plants growing in every photo. Life always finds a way, and the stinking jungle will eventually reclaim this area like no one was ever there.

  7. My dad spent part of his (long, varied) career in civil engineering dealing with coal mine fires. There isn’t really much to be done, other than try to cap them, unfortunately. Wish I could ask him about Centralia.

  8. How is air reaching the fire? You’d think sealing off all the shafts would be enough to put it out.

  9. This lends just a little more credence to my theory about the purpose of man: to burn off the petroleum deposits slowly and cleanly, for if they were to suddenly burn all at once, it would severely damage life on Earth. Kind of like a cancer pill for a planet.

    Curiously, if we were to find a planet like ours that had some readily consumable energy store, we’d probably make a lot of effort to get there.

  10. Being from Pennsylvania, I’ve heard all about Centralia’s woes, and I remember when they finally decided to evacuate the populace.

    Really wanted to read this, but alas the website is unavailable. Have they been BoingBoing’d or is there some other culprit? Even Google cache from two days ago doesn’t work.

  11. When I lived in Pennsylvania, I met a couple who’d fallen in love in Centralia. They lived on opposite sides of the state, but crossed paths at a party when one of them was in town visiting a friend. They got talking about how they’d always wanted to visit that town with the coal fire, and decided to plan a trip. After a few phone calls to coordinate, they met there and spent a day exploring. It’s the best how-I-met-my-spouse story I’ve ever heard.

  12. I live about an hour away from there and drive by every once in a while just to see the changes. It’s very weird seeing it in person. I imagine it’s the same feeling as going through Chernobyl although I’ve never been there.

  13. I first heard about Centralia in the mid-80s from…. Ripley’s Believe It or Not TV show? something on TV, at any rate. Sounded interesting.

    Now, I live in Northeastern PA, and have visited Centralia two or three times. It’s less than a hald hour from both the classic, stopped-in-time “Roadside America” and Knoebel’s amusement park.

    Not always a lot to see — but usually at least one small hole is issuing _some_ smoke, and the few, lonely houses with far-too-many chimneys can be stared at.

    Not as big and scary as everything makes it out to be. But I wouldn’t want to live anywhere nearer to it.

  14. ah, centralia. after pripyat & detroit, it’s my third favorite place to see pictures of

  15. I did a project on Centralia when I was a photo student about 10 years ago. I made about half a dozen trips there — each time coming away feeling as if I’d chain smoked a pack of unfiltered Camels.

    The most stunning views of the area are to be had in the coldest parts of winter, when the heat from the fire causes the ground to give up its moisture in great billowing clouds of smoke. The best images I got were the day after an ice storm, when the trees were sparkling and the are was really frigid.

    It does look the most like a post-apocolyptic waste land I’ve ever seen. The stretch of Route 61 that has been abandoned would have been a great location to film “The Road.”

    There were a few people still living there when I did the project, but they never spoke with me. One of the strangest things was that the last remaining business, apparently, was a speed shop of some sort. When I went back in 2002, it was gone.

  16. You’re not a true Pennsylvanian until you’ve done a road trip through Centralia. It’s like a rite of passage.

  17. The building you refer to Hallpass was called “The Speed Spot” and it even though there are still some homes and buildings there, it’s position at the corner of the two main roads through Centralia gave it a strange sort of cachet (even though it was pretty run down.) Living only about 12 miles away, I drive through there frequently and even though “Speed Spot” has been gone a decade, it still seems weird that it’s not there when I pass.

    The really cool building was the old Catholic church that stood at the top of the hill…it had some gorgeous architecture and I’m glad that they finally dismantled it and saved some of the features from the vandals who were ruining it.


    Roadside America! One of the truly great tourist attractions. What a brilliant place. Had driven past it for 10+ years, finally went there with my kids and had my mind summarily blown.

  19. Any estimates of the amount of CO2 and other pollutants being pumped out?

    AFAIK fires like this in china are more common and cause more concern.

  20. I grew up in the next town over from Centralia in Mt. Carmel, PA. It’s not all that interesting really. It’s not the big deal that everybody makes it out to be. At best it’s a good example of an ecological disaster and should make people think twice about the “clean coal” technology that is neither clean nor ecologically friendly. I’ve seen the destruction of coal mining first hand both in human cost (my grandfather died of black lung when my father was a child) and irreversible environmental damage.

  21. Thank you TUCKELS for the link to the Unusual Articles in Wikipedia. My morning has been consumed by reading it.

  22. Just saw a great documentary, “The Town That Was” by Chris Perkel and Georgie Roland. It paints the portrait of John Lokitis, the youngest of 11 remaining residents of Centralia, Pennsylvania. IMDb entry Amazingly haunting! A must see!

  23. This always makes me tear up and fondly recall milton shapp. Um cory…maybe you’d like to add all the other articles about centralia that have been posted.

  24. Centralia was the inspiration for Silent Hill but I think that was just the movie…I believe they actually did some of the film there…but I’m not entire sure of that one. I saw a video about this its freaky as hell.

  25. This is not the only place in North America with this problem. Because of its small size and remote location Colstrip, Montana has had a coalmine fire that has been burning since the 1800s. The land itself is mostly open prairie so the effects of the fire aren’t as devastating to the local environment. However, the smell of burning coal is quite apparant and the glow of the fire is readily visible at night through open fissures in the ground above. Many companies and the Federal Government have tried to extinguish the fire over the years, but to no avail.

  26. I was in Centralia just last weekend. We’ve been developing some rock climbing right outside of town!

  27. I’ve been to Centralia a couple times – my favorite concepts are front stoops and driveways that lead to weedlots, and completely empty side streets. The last time I was there (about 7 months ago, there was a skinny house, 2 or 3 stories tall – really out of place, until I realized that it was the last of a set of row houses, and the others had been demolished. The section of interstate that has been shut down and routed around is pretty impressive too, with 2 foot wide fissures running 20 or 30 feet through state-issue blacktop. Some funny (and some quintessentially redneck) graffiti there too. The nicest building in town is a deluxe (for central Pennsylvania) firehouse.

    Nota Bene: Though Centralia was a mining area, the Centralia fire isn’t really a coal _mine_ fire (this is mentioned in the article, but seems to have been missed by many commenters) – it was started when a backyard trash fire caught a coal vein, not by an underground fire started in a mine.

  28. I drove through there years ago. There’s something unnerving about it, like the slowly eroding bones of a small town.

  29. I remember driving through this town by chance once on a road trip from Tennessee to New York back in 1999. My friend and I were totally amazed at how empty the town was and had no idea that there was underground fire burning. I wanna go back now and see it again.

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