Eternal Flames: The Spooky Ghost Town of Centralia

This photo shows a smoking pit in Centralia, Pennsylvania

In Centralia, the ground is hot to the touch. Cracks in the earth ripple outward, earthquake-like; steam rises in steady plumes, or billowing clouds. Tree trunks are charred and white, masquerading as birches to the unknowing passer-by. But there are no passersby in Centralia, a ghost town deep in Pennsylvania coal mining country. In fact, no one gives much thought to the town anymore.

The town’s tragedy seems like folklore, a Halloween tale from ages ago. And like so many folk tales, there are conflicting stories as to what actually happened. “Burning leaves,” a resident of neighboring Mount Carmel claims. “No, a garbage fire,” another counters. Of this everyone is in agreement: In 1962, a spark from the fire spread into an open seam, leading to a labyrinth of coal mines. The fire quickly took hold, supplied by the countless reserves of coal below and oxygen above. Today, more than 50 years later, the fire rages beneath the town, contained but unstoppable.

My father’s friend repeats the story, then adds an update. “On Friday night, I brought two large plastic buckets full of water to the street corner and left them sit. When I went back Monday, the water had evaporated entirely, the buckets melted down to two plastic puddles.”

Long intrigued by Centralia, I decide to visit. My father, a history buff, offers to accompany me; his eagerness to see the town surpasses my own.

While it is a gray, overcast October day in central Pennsylvania, the landscape pops with color. Vibrant red and orange leaves, thick green hills, and golden hay fields bookend the road, until we approach our destination.

The first sign of trouble, a change swift and dramatic, is in Shamokin Township, as we enter the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania. The highway approaches a mountain used frequently for strip mining, and the term is appropriate. The beautiful fall foliage vanishes, replaced by deep piles of raven-black coal extending the mountain’s length. Scrubby trees stand out sporadically, stubbornly surviving. A layer of coal dust covers everything, blackening rooftops, plants, cars.

Past the mountain, we continue through Kulpmont and Mount Carmel. I see perhaps five people; the air is eerily still and silent. Houses, showing no sign of inhabitants, rise at sharp ninety-degree angles from the ground; most are painted some shade of white with a thick dusting of coal residue. They stand stiffly at attention as we pass through, monotonously leading us to the hills in the distance.

We soon see a sign–CENTRALIA 4 M.–and an arrow pointing left. While the town has been removed from most state maps, a few road signs still exist. Warily, my father proceeds through the intersection. “Should be there in a few minutes,” he says quietly.

Four miles in, we see nothing but open fields, and look at each other, confused. I had expected at least an abandoned thoroughfare, or a church. I’ve heard six people still live here, but there is only one house in sight, and no sign of activity. We pause for a moment, the truck’s idling engine the only sound.

***

According to David DeKok, author of Unseen Danger, the fire officially started over Memorial Day weekend, 1962. With the holiday approaching, the Centralia Council voted to clean up the town landfill in preparation for the parade. “Cleaning” was done by setting the pit on fire.

The landfill, however, bordered one end of Centralia’s maze of mines. Before cleaning, any landfill holes leading to the mines were filled with incombustible materials; volunteer firefighters set the landfill ablaze on May 27. They let the top layer of garbage be consumed, poured water on the pit until they could no longer see any flames, then retired for the holiday weekend celebrations.

But the fire had burned much deeper than they thought. Smoke and flames were again visible on the 29th; despite repeated dousings, the fire continued. It was discovered that a huge hole at the base of the landfill, leading to a labyrinth of old mines, had not been filled. The volunteers had failed to find and close the one hole the fire needed.

***

“Is that it?” my father yells. I turn to the left and see streaming smoke rising from a hill in the distance.

The “hill” is, in actuality, the mines. As we approach, the smoke billows harder, swelling to full-cloud shapes in some areas. Now serving as twisted signposts, the smoldering fumes lead us to the former heart of the town.

We park near a sign the Department of Environmental Protection has posted: DANGER. UNDERGROUND MINE FIRE. WALKING OR DRIVING IN THIS AREA COULD RESULT IN SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH. DANGEROUS GASES ARE PRESENT. GROUND IS PRONE TO SUDDEN COLLAPSE.

I look around. To my left is a graveyard, looking strangely clean and well attended. Puffs of smoke rise from small holes in the ground. Straight, a road leads to nowhere; it and surrounding flat gray fields are a thin lid covering the continuous fire. We pass small patches of asphalt interspersed throughout the barren fields; I realize they are former driveways, the only testaments to where houses once stood.

Smoke conceals what lies ahead; the smell of sulfur, while not overpowering, permeates the air, a constant background presence. I kneel to touch the ground. It is slightly warm.

Standing up again, I regard the sign once more, and for a brief moment, feel a rush of panic. The ground could open up and swallow me, or my father, or this truck, dropping us into a fiery inferno. We could faint from inhaling the noxious emissions. The town has been destroyed for a reason…

“Let’s check it out!” my father says, and walks up the road to nowhere, heading toward the towering smoke.

I linger, choosing instead to inspect the graveyard. I approach it cautiously, treading lightly. Contrasting the gray and desolate mines before me, the graves are pristinely maintained, with neatly cut grass and pruned trees surrounding the headstones. Some post dates as recent as 1986, well after the fire had started. Stooping to examine a gravestone, I look closer at the ground. Out of the grass, delicately, trickles finger-width streams of smoke, so fine they could be mistaken for misting dew.

I follow the “road to nowhere” to the summit of the mine hill, feeling as if I have reached a volcano’s peak. Smoke pours forth from all directions, concentrated over several large gashes slicing one side of the mine pit. Trees lie on their sides, charred, white, roots dried and shriveled. The ground is crumbly, a mix of dirt, ash, cracked asphalt, and rock. I cannot see my father; like fog, the gases can sit and linger, limiting visibility to only a few feet, or move rapidly, depending on the ferocity of the flames below and wind above.

Unlike a volcano ready to erupt, however, there is no roar of sound, just the quiet rustling of light breezes pushing the smoke along. I proceed, watching where I step, looking around on all sides. I can see healthy-looking hills far away in the distance, their brilliance obscured by the smoggy, gray air. The landscape is black in its many shades, punctured with shocks of plants and debris colored white and ash, the former lush hillside now withering, scorched beyond repair. I head toward some tall reeds and grasses ahead that have mysteriously retained a look of normalcy. Up close, they seem a bit starved for water, but no more shriveled than plants in any other dry region. Hearing a puff-puff-puff, I step back, and see three short bursts of smoke among the reeds, much like an old steam engine, or train whistle.

And then my father is there, stepping from behind a patch of blistered trees and toasted hillside. His eyes are excited, a mixture of horror and wonder at the spectacle before us.

“Look,” he gestures to a small hole not five feet away from where I stand. Clear gases ripple slowly from the opening, blurrying the landscape beyond. “Like heat from a grill,” he notes. I go over and warm my hands.

On our descent to the car, I notice that patches of litter are everywhere — beer cans, old t-shirts, food wrappers. Most debris looks old, long untouched — but could they be prematurely damaged, being aged by the fierce underground heat? I note the amount of litter and wonder — clearly the town, however obscure and dangerous, does not lack visitors. Are they occasional or frequent? As if in response, we see several people through the distant haze; we wave in acknowledgment.

We are further intrigued when we reach the truck. We’ve started a line of cars — two sedans, another pickup, and a van are behind us. Are they tourists? Former residents coming back? Geologists? I attempt to speak with someone, but they are all out of sight, disappeared into the mist. I have not seen one state trooper to keep foolish visitors away; no barricades. Anyone who wishes to tempt fate may do so.

***

By the early 1980s, the fire had raged for more than 20 years. Remedies to stop it (excavating the entire coal supply, deterring its track, and flushing out the pit) were proposed and abandoned, mainly from lack of funds. The fire, still ferocious, began to emit toxic gas levels in inhabitable amounts, affecting the health of Centralia residents. Centralians frequently exhibited toxic inhalation symptoms; several nearly died.

Basement walls became hot to the touch; gases accumulated in homes at levels so high no amount of ventilation could dissipate their lethal concentrations.

And then the ground began to open up. One boy, playing in his grandmother’s yard, was nearly swallowed when the earth fell in at his feet; neighbors came to his rescue. Cars began to crack asphalt when proceeding down a street. Holes pocked the alleys, some spontaneously opening.

Ultimately, with no guarantee of stopping the fire, all plans to save Centralia were forsaken. By 1986, the majority of families had left.

Today, the town’s roads, mines, and fields remain, but its community has vanished. The Commonwealth had most homes demolished; the few structures remaining are in poor shape. In September 2002, the U.S. Postal Service decided to discontinue the town’s zip code, in conjunction with the post office closing five years earlier. As of 2003, zip code 17927 ceased to exist.

As for the mines, the plentiful coal below Centralia continues to supply the 50+ year old fire. Scientists, examining the nature of anthracite, available coal reserves, and the mines’ layout, have projected the fire could burn for a thousand more years.

Photo courtesy Sue via Flickr Creative Commons

This story was first published on DivineCaroline.com.

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The Song Remains the Same

This photo shows dairy farms in Buffalo Township, Pennsylvania

Winding country lanes threaded through emerald corn stalks taller than my car; major thoroughfares connected country towns alternately prosperous and depressed. Half a mile might separate neat garden-front homes from exhausted-looking structures with sagging porches and flaking paint, depending on the township.

I was driving along a stretch of highway I hadn’t traveled in years. A family health emergency had led to an unplanned trip to my hometown, and I navigated long-unvisited, yet intimately familiar, roads – the routes where I had first learned to drive.

It was a weekend afternoon, a blistering hot day with not much activity. People were no doubt taking it easy: We passed another car every mile or so. The iPod shuffled through my albums over the car stereo, and suddenly Michael Stipe’s voice flooded the car.

Half a World Away, from REM’s Out of Time. It was one of my definitive high school albums, and a CD I had on as a constant companion in the car, back in the mid-nineties, during those early days where my learner’s permit gave me my first terrifying glimpse of freedom, and the license (scored after three agonizing attempts) authorized it.

Some pieces of music seem tailor-made for certain landscapes. That afternoon, the vintage song, coupled with the instantly familiar hometown surroundings, called up long-dormant memories. I could immediately see and smell my first car: its compact seats, the lingering perfume upholstery-imprinted from its first owner, the steering wheel rubbery under my fingertips.

Researchers have found that music and memory are intricately connected in the deepest recesses of the brain, and I could practically feel my own synapses firing as I continued down the road. The opening strains of the song felt as poignant as running into an old friend. At that moment, the car and its stereo became a de facto time machine, effortlessly transporting me to an earlier era. I was suddenly seventeen years old again, worrying that I wouldn’t get into college, or worse – that I would get in, and wouldn’t be able to afford it. My sisters were driving me crazy; my parents even more so. In my mind’s eye, I could almost see us—of that era—getting ready for dinner, just the five of us, as though none of us had moved away, introduced new spouses to the family, or aged at all.

REM continued to play; the music soothed and consoled, just as it did back then.

That day, it felt as though I traveled with a shadow self. She seemed to spread out inside me, across me, stretching her limbs as though rousing from a long sleep. This younger version of me peered out with curiosity, almost incredulity. You’re married, she seemed to say. You’re already finished with college, and paying off loans. You don’t live around here anymore. The familiar suddenly seemed strange, the aural and visual triggers creating a discomfiting shuffling of time and space.

This is true, I thought in reply to the seventeen-year-old. But I’m still me. I haven’t fundamentally changed. Then—

This is ridiculous, the modern, present-day me thought. I’ve heard this album plenty of times over the years, and didn’t have this time-transport, flashback experience. Granted, it hadn’t been in the car, in this particular place.

But the eyes in my rearview mirror could have been mine or hers. The view through my windshield could haven been 1996, 2005, 2012.

The song came to a close, and the spell broke. The nostalgia lingered for just a moment, perhaps a mile down the road, disrupted completely as a more up-tempo pop song from the past year filled the speakers. I switched off the stereo and drove the remaining stretch home in silence, trying to will my shadow self to stick around just a little longer.

Photo courtesy Gerry Dincher via Flickr Creative Commons