Usually when we think about the term ‘eternal flame’, what comes to mind is the John F. Kennedy memorial in Washington DC. However, there is another. About 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia, the all-but-abandoned former mining town of Centralia, PA sits slowly and quietly burning. With a population that has dropped from a thousand people in 1981 to all but ten in 2010, Centralia is a near-literal hellscape. A subterranean mine fire has been burning underneath the Pennsylvania municipality since 1962, and no one is really quite sure what to do about it, or even how it started.
The former tract of Native American land began its mining history in 1856, and reached its peak population of 2,761 in 1890. The town is not without a dark and violent past, with stories of murder, arson, political assassination, and even the local legend of a curse being placed on the town by Father Daniel Ignatius McDermott, a Roman Catholic priest who was the first of his faith to call Centralia home. Father McDermott supposedly stated that one day, his church would be the lone building to remain standing in the entire town. That’s pretty dark, Father.
A few decades after the town’s coal production started to dry up due to its miners being drafted into World War I, Centralia’s descent into obsolescence began. The Great Depression had begun only a few years prior, and multiple mining companies in the area began closing up shop or going out of business. Although coal mining in Centralia continued until the 1960s, bootleg miners began to tarnish the town’s productivity and once-proud reputation. Rail service to the town began to peter out, and the town’s population began to dwindle.
Although the long-burning fire under the town is universally agreed to have started in 1962 in or around the town dump, its source is another matter. For some reason, no one wanted to take credit for it and the subsequent slow-burning destruction of the entire town. Funny that. Rumors of the fire’s origin are many – errant firefighters cleaning up the town’s landfill and not fully extinguishing their flames, faulty disposal of hot coals and ash into the dump, and the installation of a town-sanctioned fireproof barrier between each layer of the dump falling behind schedule. The fire’s long-term effects began to make themselves apparent when carbon monoxide-spewing sinkholes began opening in people’s backyards and gas station owners noticed that the ground around their storage tanks was nearly 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
The locals were sharply divided when it came to deciding whether or not the subterranean fire posed any direct threat to the town (of course they were), and no less than six community groups all posed different theories and ideas about what the fire meant to the longevity of Centralia itself. This ridiculous, deadly and ultimately pointless bickering about whether the entire town being on fire was any danger to anyone somehow lasted until 1984, when Congress allotted the town a sum of $42 million for relocation efforts. Most of the town’s residents decided that fire was indeed bad and took the money, but a few families stayed despite warnings, further buyout offers, and presumably an illustrated flow-chart or two about what happens when you don’t get away from fire as soon as is humanly possible.
Centralia and all the surrounding domain was all but condemned in 1992 by Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey, with all but every building in town deemed dangerous and unlivable. Residents tried and failed to have this decision reversed, and in 2002, the US Postal Service revoked the town’s ZIP code. By 2009, the formal eviction of the remaining Centralia residents was made official by Governor Ed Rendell. Today, Centralia is basically a ghost town. Although Father Ignatius’ church was eventually destroyed by the mine fire, the town’s one remaining place of worship, St. Mary’s, still holds weekly Sunday services and has not been affected the fire. One of the town’s four cemeteries still has smoke rising out of it. The town itself is a maze of streets, empty lots, and driveways leading to nowhere. There are signs posted near the cemeteries protesting the official evacuation of the city, demanding that the governor intervene. A smattering of homes still remain in the area, and inexplicably, people live in them. This back-and-forth legal battle finally ended in 2013, when the town’s last residents settled their lawsuits and received cash payments, permission to live in their homes, and a coupon for a gas mask from Home Depot. Okay, I made that last part up.
If you’re in the area, stop by Centralia in 2016 for the opening of the town’s time capsule, buried in 1966. Oh, wait – don’t do that. The American Legion opened it early in 2014 after noticing some water damage and discovered that nearly everything inside it had been destroyed. Never mind.