May 27, 1962: A fire at a local garbage dump is intentionally set. Centralia, Pennsylvania was a mining town where anthracite coal was mined. The garbage dump was near a cemetery and local authorities hired firemen to set a controlled burn in order to make the upcoming Memorial Day more pleasant. All the trash was set in one corner and the fire lit. It was put out using fire hoses, leaving nothing but some smoldering ashes. This particular year, instead of completely being extinguished, the fire found its way into the coal mines below ground.
The abandoned coal mine had been used for more than 100 years beginning with the 1854 Locust Mountain coal and Iron Company. They set out the streets and lots for development of the town of Centralia, originally called Centreville. Since there was already one town by that name in the county, in 1865 the name was changed. Centralia was incorporated in 1866 with the coal mines the principal employer. That remained true for almost 100 years until the 1960s when most of the companies went out of business. In 1962, the population was 1,435 with more residents in the unincorporated areas.
The fire spread underground. Locals tried to put out the fire and after just a few days knew it was beyond their scope of expertise. Others were brought in and the fire continued to burn regardless of attempts to extinguish it. Residents of the town were being affected by the raging fire below. The byproducts, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, along with lower oxygen levels were making residents ill. By 1979, when checking an underground fuel tank for a local gas station, it was found to be hotter than expected. The fire was spreading. In 1981, Todd Domboski (12) almost fell into a hole four feet in diameter and 150 feet deep which opened up suddenly in his grandmother’s backyard.
In 1984 Congress allocated $42 million for relocation efforts. Most of the locals accepted the buyouts and moved away. In 1992, Pennsylvania claimed eminent domain and condemned all the buildings in the area. By 2002, the US Postal Service revoked the zip code for Centralia. The roads are buckling or disintegrating. The fire continues to burn. Most of the region looks like a barren landscape with smoldering vents belching noxious smoke. Pennsylvania Route 61 was repaired several times and then finally abandoned with a detour built in the mid-1990s. In the 2000 census 21 people still called Centralia home. There were only seven still there by 2007, making it the least-populated municipality in Pennsylvania.
This was a world where no human could live, hotter than the planet Mercury, its atmosphere as poisonous as Saturn’s. At the heart of the fire, temperatures easily exceeded 1,000 degrees. Lethal clouds of carbon monoxide and other gases swirled through the rock chambers. – David DeKok
Walking and/or driving in the immediate area could result in serious injury or death. There are dangerous gases present, and the ground is prone to sudden and unexpected collapse. – sign from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection
Despite the inferno below them and the gases that seep into their basements, some Centralians do not want to leave their homes and remain convinced that it’s all a plot by coal companies to drive them off valuable land since the borough owns mineral rights to the coal below. – Greg Walter (1981)
Pennsylvania didn’t have enough money in the bank to do the job. If you aren’t going to put it out, what can you do? Move the people. – Steve Jones, a geologist with Pennsylvania Office of Surface Mining
Also on this day:
No More Burnt Toast – In 1919 a toaster with a timer is patented.
St. Pete – In 1703, St. Petersburg, Russia was founded.
Model T & A – In 1927, Ford Motor Co. began the switch from Model T to Model A.