What a World

Pennsylvania’s Burning Ghost Town: Centralia’s Eerie Remains

The coal mines that were the key to Centralia’s success also fueled the small Pennsylvania town’s smoky demise in a massive 1962 fire that is still burning to this day.

Michael Brennan/Getty

Centralia started burning half a century ago and hasn’t stopped.

The small central Pennsylvania town once literally had a ground full of potential, but it was destroyed by the substance that made it prosper: its coal veins.

Centralia was founded in 1866 as a coal mining town, booming with saloons, hotels, and miners getting rich through the area’s burgeoning industry.

Nearly 100 years later, the very coal deposits that put Centralia on the map led to its demise.

In 1962, a fire sparked by a burning landfill spread into an abandoned coal mine and then hooked into the elaborate network of deposits underground.

Anywhere the noxious gases could escape, they did. Fumes seeped out of sidewalk cracks, basements, and piping. As a result, the ground caved in and created gaping sinkholes.

In the initial fiery aftermath, 140 acres of the town and surrounding area burned, and 23 coal mines closed, worsening already problematic unemployment levels in Centralia.

Many residents evacuated Centralia, and their houses were torn down. Still, some locals stuck it out, banking on town plans to build a 500-foot trench that would contain the fire.

However, the trench failed to materialize, and the nearby highway was rerouted. The fire quickly set out from Centralia and started heading towards neighboring towns, like Byrnesville. Barriers were erected, but failed to contain it. Both towns were transformed into a ghostly state.

After the 1980s, the state stopped attempting to put out the fire. Congress approved a relocation plan in 1983 to the tune of $42 million. More than 1,000 residents packed their bags, and their homes were leveled.

In 1992, the state seized control of the town, but around a dozen Centralians refused to leave.

They sued to stay and and ended up signing contracts with the state that allowed them to remain on their property until their deaths, after which their homes would be destroyed.

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As the last nail in Centralia’s coffin, the United States Postal Office revoked the town’s zip code in 2002.

Smoke still billows from the ground today. The carbon gases have killed off much of Centralia’s vegetation.

Yet, despite the fact that the fire has ravaged some 400 acres, the region is still lush—as seen in this recent drone video.

Centralia’s lore also keeps it alive in people’s memory. The desolate town was the basis for Silent Hill, a film adaptation of a video game series. Although the movie is technically set in West Virginia, screenwriter Roger Avary said he was inspired by the stories of his father, a mine engineer, who used to speak about Centralia.

Today, visitors are warned from going to Centralia, but that has not deterred some tourists.

The four lanes of Route 61 that cut through Centralia were shut down in the 1990s. Now the highway, though littered with gaping holes, is covered in colorful graffiti left behind by visitors.

However, while the curious and brave may come and go, there is no permanent return in sight for those who fled their homes in Centralia.

Thanks to those rich coal veins snaking under the region, Centralia is expected to burn for 250 more years.