Fifty years ago today, a coal seam caught fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania, causing the mines beneath the town to catch fire. While the decades-old fire has caused most residents to abandon the town, a few holdouts remain.

We mentioned Centralia among our "Underground Fires that Burn for Decades" (along with Uzbekistan's so-called "Door to Hell") and our "Greatest Fossil Fuel Disasters In Human History." It's believed that the Centralia fire started when a group of men set fire to some local refuse located near the opening of an abandoned strip-mine. The fire, which started on May 27th, 1962, spread throughout the city's mines, and with plenty of coal to fuel it, has burned ever since. Lethal levels of carbon monoxide spew from cracks in the Earth. The ground is uncomfortably hot in some places. Because the road buckled and became too expensive to repair, the Centralia branches of Pennsylvania Routes 54 and 61 were permanently closed. Concerned about the safety of the residents, the US Congress bought out most of the city's residents in 1984, and in 1992, Pennsylvania's governor seized the remaining homes under eminent domain, declaring the region condemned.

Despite the extreme environment and attempts at eviction, a handful of folks still regard Centralia as home. The 2010 census counted 10 residents in Centralia — which lost its zip code in 1993 — and the locals are attempting to have the government seizure reversed. They claim that the fire poses no threat to their property and pledge to stay put. However, Tim Altares, a geologist with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, noted that the hazard for Centralia residents is from the toxic gases, and the possibility that eternal flame may open still more pathways to the surface.


In the meantime, the swirling smoke billowing from beneath Centralia has provided fodder for a number of spooky fictions, notably the film adaptation of Silent Hill. The one fictional person who could stop the Centralia fire? Superman, who swung by in Action Comics #558 to make a firebreak and rescue the town's atmosphere from toxic smoke.

Unless otherwise specified, photos by Travis Goodspeed.

Pa. town marks 50 years of living - and decline - with coal fire burning beneath it [Washington Post] Thanks to Rick!



By Macaddct1984 via Wikimedia Commons.