Top: This park bench is the only place displaying the town’s name. Bottom: Smoke
is coming from an underground coal fire.
The Little Town That Was
by Donald Hollinger
Contributed by Donald Hollinger and the publication
And Good News. Published in the JULY 2008 issue of
And Good News
have heard of the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, but do
you know that Pennsylvania has a real smoky mountain? The mountain is in
Centralia, along Pennsylvania Route 61 in Pennsylvania’s east central coal
region, which was at one time a worldwide coal supplier. The mountain has been
on fire since May 1962, when someone lit a trash fire at the edge of town in the
pit of an abandoned strip mine. That pit happened to be over one of the world’s
largest anthracite coal veins running near the surface. The fire was thought
extinguished, but every few days in would flare up again. The government got
involved and spent millions of dollars trying to put out the fire, or at least
contain it by flushing the mine with water and fly ash, drilling, and
excavating. Some say the government waited too long to take action; by the early
1980s, carbon monoxide in the air around town was reaching dangerous levels, and
smoke, fumes, and toxic gases were coming up through basements, backyards, and
streets. Today, you can still smell sulfur and see smoke coming out from the
earth at various points in the area. By 1990, the federal government stepped in
and bought the whole town for forty-two million dollars. Over one thousand
people packed up and left some five hundred homes that were later demolished.
Evacuation was not mandatory, so about six homes and eleven people decided to
remain on the condemned land. It’s been estimated there is enough fuel for the
fire to burn for another century or more and could even threaten nearby towns.
Top: The trucks are at a strip mine outside of Centralia. Bottom pictures: A
deserted town remains. Photographs by Donald Hollinger and Jennifer Landis.
I visited in November 2007, I saw only two occupied homes near what once was the
center of town. There are many warning signs for trespassers on the condemned
land, but there has been no loss of life due to the fire.
Several years ago, a twelve-year-old boy had a close call when he fell into a
sink hole and caught himself on some roots; he was rescued by another boy. The
hole was one hundred feet deep and filled with carbon monoxide gas. There are no
children living on the condemned land today. On Rt. 61, north from Ashland, is a
detour around a section of the highway where the road developed a huge crevasse
just a few years ago. When I was still driving truck hauling gasoline several
years ago, hazmat loads were not allowed on that section of Rt. 61 — and now I
understand why! If you ever attempt to visit this ghost town, don’t look for a
sign that marks your destination; the only Centralia sign is on the back of a
park bench on a side street. Some maps no longer list the town. To find out more
about this fascinating story, visit www.offroaders.com and search for Centralia.
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