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Centrailia is a town remembered less for the town’s life then the its long agonizing death. Centrailia originally started out as a standard coal mining town in central PA. Like most of its kin, the town had seen better days. The mines were playing out, people were drifting away, and it was a sad shadow of what it had been. Most towns keep hanging on, slowly dieing out from lack of people. This would have surely been Centrailia’s fate, but then the ground caught on fire.

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.

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The town's Protestant ceremony. The dump where the fire started was in a pit to the left of this picture (now filled in). The close proximity to the cemeitary is one of the reasons why they wanted to clean it up for Memorial Day.
By 1979, the fire had creeped into the town and had started to cause problems for its residents. Poisonous gases started seeping into houses basements, sinkholes opened up, and local gas stations had to close because their underground tanks reached 170 degrees. Although several attempts were made at putting out the fire none were successful. Eventually, the government, due to the danger to the people living  there, condemned the whole town. Most people today have taken government assistance and have moved elsewhere. At last count there are only 10 people left  in the town, the die hards of the die hards.
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Main street today. In its hayday it would have been lined with buildings.
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The great conspiracy.
As a history buff growing up in Pennsylvania, I had always heard about Centrailia. So when my sister offered me a spot on a tour of the town I jumped on it. We got to town and parked next to the old Catholic cemetery. One of the local residents had placed a sign disparaging the governor over the condemning of the town. According to some local residents, the mine fire was part of a large conspiracy by the state to obtain ownership of the "billions of dollars” of coal lying beneath the town. I find this rather ridiculous. Yes, let's set on fire the very thing we are trying to steal. Besides, it’s not like coal was ever worth that much. It’s not gold for pete’s sake! Not to mention that the state has never tried to go after the coal.

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Our Guide David DeKok

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.

Returning to the main road we passed the site that really put issue of Centrailia on the mind of the nation.
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.
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Time Capsule
We ended our tour at the Centrailia time capsule. It has outlasted the town that created it. The capsule is set to be opened in 2016 on what would have been the town’s 150 birthday. Now the birthday will be nothing but a memorial service for the town that was destroyed by the fire below.







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.

Websites
http://daviddekok.com/centralia-mine-fire/centralia-mine-fire-tours/
http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/story/2012-05-25/fire-still-burns-in-centralia/55213824/1
http://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/eco-tourism/photos/12-us-places-where-your-visit-could-double-the-population/centralia-pa
http://www.vpnavy01.com/websites/church/index.html

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.


View Creepy Centrailia in a larger map

    Alex Emert

    An oudoorsman for many a year the Roaming Ranger is a seasonal ranger for the National Park Service.

    NOTE: All opinions expressed in this site are solely my own and are not intended to represent any organization I have worked for.

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