The town’s firefighters on May 27, 1962 set the towns dump on fire. They were trying to tidy it up for the Memorial Day holiday. This was common practic and they had done it before with no ill effect. However, this was the first time at the dumps new site. While it looked just like a pit, it was actually a strip mine which led the fire into the extensive coal mine tunnels beneath the town. These tunnels were the result of over 100 years of coal mining and gave the fire vital oxygen allowing it to burn out of control.
Our guide was the author and journalist David DeKok. He had actually seen most of the Centrailia story covering it for the newspapers. As such he had a lovely set of photos that he took throughout the crisis and showed you what used to be. It was through his photos the tragedy would unfold.
The first stop was a small hike on what used to be people's yards. Now, it’s nothing but gravel and a few stubby growth. Steam and smoke still rise from the ground, and if you put your hand in the right spot you can even feel the heat. Telling Centrailia’s story, we looped back around to the cemetery. It is perhaps here that you can best see the edge of the fire. It burned close enough to the surface that it killed the grass on one corner of the cemetery.
Little Todd Domboski, than 12 years old, was running between houses when the ground gave way beneath him. He managed to grab some tree roots which prevented him from falling into the abyss. A nearby neighbor pulled him to safety before he could succumb to the poisonous gas or cooked in the steam.
A group of reporters happened to be meeting at the gas station across the street. Needless to say a mud splattered kid who just escaped death caused quite the sensation. The near miss was broadcast to the entire nation. It was then that a lot of the Centrailia folk realized just how serious their predicament was.
Our next stop was the Protestant cemetery and the site of the garbage dump that started it all. It’s since been filled in, in a futile attempt at smothering the fire. The site now contains six massive pipes that were used to vent the fire. Now dead and cold these vents were used to try and draw the fire away from the
town. Like all other attempts at controlling the fire, they failed.
Perhaps the most interesting place in town was the old highway. While PA 42 still runs through the town it had to be rerouted because of the fissures that opened up. Today the abandoned pavement is a canvas for local graffiti artists. While there is the crude humor and sexual innuendo that you would expect, there also is
some fine art and quotes from various books.
Review: I highly recommend the Centrailia tour. While you could visit the area by yourself it would not have the same impact as the tour. After all, the only thing that’s left is some pavement and trees. To get the true impact you need to see the town as it was before the fire, which Mr. DeKok’s pictures do nicely. Also there is a possibility of sinkholes and toxic gases. This is definitely not something you should do by yourself. Besides, Mr. DeKok is a great storyteller the experience should not be missed. Also it is reccommended to visit somtime when it's cool so the steam is visible.
By the way for those of you who are fans of the horror movies/games Silent Hill Centrailia with all of it smoking ground was the original inspiration for that demon haunted town.
Fee: $200 for the whole party regardless of size. Our group had about 12 people so it was $16 a person. This is one case where the larger the group the better.
Notes: If you are passing through the area and want to explore Centrailia a bit stick to the roads you should be fine. Most of the old streets are still driveable, although it is a bit creepy driving down an nice residential street with nothing but trees on either side. I also would recommend taking one of the many books written on Centrailia with you.
Directions: Take PA 61 East from Mt. Carmel or PA 42 North of Ashland. Look for the wooded streets that lead nowhere or the Centrailia Municipal building.