When we think of ghost towns in America, we typically think of stone foundations found in the middle of the forrest, like in the Pine Barrens of NJ. Or, we think of the dusty abandoned boom-towns of the west. But very rarely do we think of ghost towns as being on fire for 50+ years. That is, until, you consider Centralia, PA.
Centralia, PA was never a big town. Once it was a semi-successful coal mining town with about 1,000 residents. But now it is a cesspit of fire pits, smoldering grounds, and surprise sinkholes. But, how did it get like this?
Well, as I mentioned before Centralia was a coal-mining town. The main mining was done almost directly underneath the town, too. In 1962, the crew set a purposeful fire to burn a landfill but that fire soon grew out of control. Sadly, the men did not realize that the landfill which they had set fire to was an old strip-mine pit, connected to a maze of abandoned underground mining tunnels full of coal right below town.
Although they were able to extinguish most of the above-ground fires, the fire would continue to feed on the outskirts of town and slowly, but surely, make its way to town center - which made the town uninhabitable. In fact, there was so much coal underground that scientists estimate the fire could keep burning underground for the next 200+ years.
As time has passed from 1962 more and more holes have opened, spewing sulfurous gas, parts of the street remain constantly hot to the touch, and the ground swells, bubbles, and breaks. But, the town wasn't completely left to fend for itself until 1980. In 1980, there was a $42 million relocation plan set in place which incentivized most of the townspeople to relocate, save for less than a dozen hold-outs. Many of the homes were demolished and signs of life remained small and bleak. According to experts who have studied the town, the fire grows at about 75-feet per year.
Kevin Krajick, in article written for Smithsonian Magazine, describes what Centralia looks like today: "Vegetation has been obliterated along a quarter-mile strip; sulfurous steam billows out of hundreds of fissures and holes in the mud. There are pits extending perhaps 20 feet down: in their depths, discarded plastic bottles and tires have melted. Dead trees, their trunks bleached white, lie in tangled heaps, stumps venting smoke through hollow centers." He continues, describing the last inhabitants of this desolate place, "Today Centralia exists only as an eerie grid of streets, its driveways disappearing into vacant lots. Remains of a picket fence here, a chair spindle there ― plus [John] Lokitis and 11 others who refused to leave, the occupants of a dozen scattered structures."
One thing I find very poignant is that while these people still believe in their town...the government doesn't, not really any way. The United States Postal Office revoked the town’s zip code in 2002.
There are many reasons why I think people want to remain where they are. Past residents speak highly of how Centralia used to be this slice-of-pie American coal town. In fact, some who believed they were force and/or didn't have a chance to "fight back" and remain in their homes regret giving up the houses their parents left them or the houses they built or the houses their families had owned for generations.
Some may argue that these people must be "stuck". They aren't stuck, in fact the remaining townspeople had to spend about 20k in lawyers fees in order to remain in their owns and in their town. The town that had been home for them for decades. All of these people had the chance to be paid to leave, but instead they paid for the pleasure of staying. They take pride in their lawns, some even mowing abandoned lots near their houses. They stay abreast of the temperatures of the fire and any potential threats that may arise. They even hold events every year when former residents come back and visit. These are not people that are stuck - these are people that made a choice.
Technically, those who remain in Centralia are squatters. The government demolished over 600 buildings and now owns the town completely. However, no one has been evicted or forced out yet.
The above image is from Wikimedia Commons user Macaddct1984.