Underground flames erase a community
Centralia's legacy forever tied to mine fire
BY STEPHEN J. PYTAK
1962, Centralia was a relatively quiet residential community with a population
of more than 1,000.
But today, less than 30 people call it home, according to Mayor Lamar Mervine.
A mine fire that began burning in coal pockets outside the community 38 years
ago has devastated the borough, transforming it into a near ghost town and
curiosity stop for tourists. Changes brought by the collapse of the anthracite
industry, which gave the town its start, are miniscule compared to what the
underground inferno has wrought.
Looking back, borough officials said what happened to Centralia was a tragedy.
But the mine fire isn't the only reason why, according to borough council
President Helen J. Womer, 71.
"The mine fire didn't destroy it. The government destroyed it," she said.
was referring to previous attempts to douse the blaze, dire warnings of health
hazards posed by fumes and subsidences and a government-sponsored buyout of
properties in the late 1980s and early '90s - it was determined it would be
cheaper to do that than dig out the mine fire - that has left only a handful of
the hardiest residents, some of whom contend the government has exaggerated
dangers posed by the blaze, or that the fire is now burning away from the town.
Mine workings lured miners
The story of Centralia begins in the 1840s, when the anthracite boom was in its
infancy. With the opening of the Locust Run and Coal Ridge collieries that year,
miners and their families made their homes at the hilly settlement in what was
then Conyngham Township.
Centralia was incorporated as a borough in 1866, Irish settlers having made up
most of its roughly 3,000 residents at the time.
In 1935, a pit - located on the south side of the borough near what was later
the Odd Fellows Cemetery - was strip-mined for coal from the Buck Mountain vein.
By 1962, the borough was using it as a garbage dump and in May of that year the
trash caught fire and subsequently ignited a coal seam under the pit.
Control efforts futile
years brought several efforts to extinguish it, with more than $8.3 million in
federal and state funds used, all to no avail, according to a 1981 article in
"They had it almost out in 1969 and orders were given to backfill the trench
with the fire still in it," Womer said.
Large holes were dug in the southeast section of the borough, near the cemetery,
In 1971, when federal and state funds for the project were running out,
excavation had unearthed burning coal - the fire's burning heart had been
exposed, according to the Today article.
"Orders were given to backfill it because they ran out of money," Womer claimed.
When the U.S. Bureau of Mines asked Columbia County for $25,000 to support the
effort to dig it out, the commissioners pleaded poverty and the burning area was
backfilled, leaving the coal to burn, she said
"They almost had it out," Womer said. "Another month of work would have taken
care of it."
Between 1965 and 1972, in attempts to halt the fire's spread, workers had
drilled 1,635 boreholes, pumped 122,556 tons of fly ash and 117,220 cubic yards
of sand into the ground, removed about 60,000 cubic yards of earth and installed
19,000 cubic yards of clay seals, all at a cost of $2,768,207.69 in federal
funds, according to the Today article.
Citizens' pleas fruitless
In the 1980s, Centralia's citizens began to rally together in an
effort to encourage the government to resume efforts to stop the blaze; however,
signatures collected on petitions, and speeches, fell on deaf ears, Womer said.
As the years passed, the borough's population decreased. Womer credited much of
that to psychological pressure from the government, which warned of dangers
posed by fumes and subsidence from the fire's relentless march.
"The people had had enough. The people wanted to hang on and they wanted to hang
on and they just got older and got older and they got sick of it all and tired
of the pressures and letters from the government and they just moved out," she
In late 1992, the state declared eminent domain in an effort to force holdout
Centralia residents to relocate. As the result, the state took ownership of all
the properties in the borough - the surface rights, including the homes.
Town owns mineral rights
But the borough held onto the mineral rights, Mervine, 84, said.
The government has continued pressure on residents to leave.
"They claim we're in great danger here. And yet, there's an intersection in town
here and there are thousands of cars a day that go through that intersection,"
the mayor said.
"Now they're going to repair that whole road from Centralia down through the
borough of Mount Carmel. It's a major project," the mayor said, pointing to it
as evidence the fire's threat may be less that what the government makes it out
It's interesting to note that the fire never caused the death or serious injury
of anyone, the mayor said.
Womer and Mervine said they believe one of the reasons the government is putting
pressure on residents to leave is that an estimated 42 million tons of coal
remain below the town, and it's worth, according to Womer, "millions and
But it's not the government that necessarily wants the coal, she
said, adding she suspects private interests may be encouraging the government's
"If the borough didn't own the coal or if there was no coal in Centralia, I
doubt if there would be 15 families moved out of here," she said.
Womer said she can't predict the borough's future. "I don't even like to think
But the mayor noted, "The people who are left are not going to move out
It is unlikely the government's efforts to relocate everyone will stop, although
no effort has been made to physically enforce the eminent domain ruling.
"They haven't thought about it," the mayor said. "But you never know when that