Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Centralia, a town lost to an underground mine fire

Kristin and I share an unusual fascination with abandoned places. On our way to New York City, we decided to take a detour to the town of Centralia Pennsylvania, a coal mining town abandoned due to an underground coal fire.

In 1962, a fire in the town landfill ignited an exposed seam of coal and started to burn underground. Despite many attempts to put the fire out, it continued to burn mostly unnoticed until the local gas station owner reported that his underground gas tanks were at 172 degrees Fahrenheit. National attention was received in 1981 when the ground collapsed beneath a 12 year old boy, exposing a 150 foot deep fiery cavern. Luckily his cousin pulled him out before he fell to his death.

When we arrived, the town had a strange feel of abandonment. Empty streets are lined with telephone poles and driveways lead to overgrown empty lots.  The hill on the south side of town is charred from the fire, and a pipe venting fumes from the fire sits alongside a deserted street.  Pennsylvania claimed eminent domain on all town properties in 1992, however a few residents rejected a government buyout and refused to leave. 

Kristin visited Centralia on a college geology trip in 1995. The U.S. census of 1996 counted a population of 46 compared to 1,100 in 1962. Residents were in the middle of a legal battle to have the eminent domain declaration of 1992 reversed, and "Save our Town" signs were posted in lawns.  The legal battle was lost, and in 2003 the US Postal Service revoked Centralia's ZIP code.

Today there is not much left of the town.  We did not see any of the signs warning people of toxic gas or ground cave-ins that once were posted around town, but I was still afraid to wander off the well worn roads.  The 2004 census counted 18 people remaining, which are technically living illegally in homes owned by the state.  On the south side of town, we walked down the abandoned section of PA Route 61. We passed motorcycle skid marks, graffiti, and shoulder high bushes growing out of the median. We followed the road until the southbound lane buckled and led to a smoking crevice. I wanted to walk up to the edge and look in, but thoughts of falling into a cavern of burning coal kept me far distance away. On the way back to the car, we passed two college-aged guys walking towards the crevice. I am sure they are at home safe now, and I am sure they got a better look than we did.

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