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106. The Charred Remnants of Centralia

06 May

Deep in peaceful Pennsylvania lies Centralia, the smouldering borough. It sits there simply but its streets are overgrown and buildings crumple. The main roads detour around it and even if you ignore the detours the tarmac road simply runs up to a road closure.

The abandonment goes back to 1962, during something rather routine. Centralia was never jam-packed with people but did at points support a lively community of over 2,700 people, mainly drawn there by the Anthracite Coal veins running beneath the town. 2,700 people generated waste, and so in 1962 they were dumping all of that into an abandoned mine pit. Then, as per protocol, they burnt it.

Unfortunately they encountered a problem, the pit hadn’t been properly fireproofed resulting in the Anthracite coal, an enthusiastically flammable material coming into contact with the burning rubbish. Being so eager to oblige the coal started a much larger fire, the fire service put out the fire in a matter of hours; however the coal kept burning beneath the ground. Causing a not insignificant problem.

During the next few weeks it passed through to the surrounding coal mines and all beneath town. Soon the Environmental Protection Agency was drilling holes into the earth with the hope of tracking its movements; also accidentally helping it by providing it with an assisting draught through the holes. After realising this they stopped, and as a precaution added gas monitors to nearby houses, soon however, the residents complained of symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure.

Seven years after the fire started – 1969 – a greater effort was undertaken to stop the fire involving trenches and clay seal, much expense was fired at the problem but many attempts later no success was to be had. After a time the spewing of noxious gases from the earth became a normal part of daily life, with fine ash covering the ground in patches where no plants grew. Ground collapses were to be expected and those living near the smoke experienced the following:

“burning eyes, the taste of sulfur, and an acrid odor accompanied by headaches, lassitude, and respiratory troubles.”

The noxious gases produced by the fire

At this point delinquents started to graffiti the road into Centralia, “Welcome to Hell” reads one piece of shaky white writing in the centre of the road, beneath it the number 666 stands prominent and strong. “Never forgotten” reads another piece in that same, shaky white, spray can text. No embellishment, just a message. With the toxic smoke plumes across the hills one sees the macabre state of the land, the reasoning and inspiration behind these writings. The inspirational horror of a place that inspired the Silent Hill games. Truly a sight to behold and beware.

20 years and $7 million of fighting the fire did nothing and in 1982, 20 years after the original spark was lit, a sink hole appeared in Centralia. Four feet wide and 150 feet deep (1.2 metres wide and 46 metres deep).

It was neither the first nor the last sink hole caused by the fire, but the greatest reminder of the threat lurking beneath, receiving acknowledgement and media attention across the country. At this point experts performed a final survey and came to the conclusion that there was only one way of stopping the attack of the anthracite, a trenching operation of gargantuan proportions which could cost in excess of $660 million, and there wasn’t even the guarantee that it would succeed. Faced with this dire circumstance of spending literal piles of money, or letting people asphyxiate to death the state of Pennsylvania took the third option.

For the comparatively low price of $42 million the borough of Centralia was condemned and the citizens relocated, all of whom received compensation. Then the State of Pennsylvania essentially dissolved the borough of Centralia, striking its Postal Code from the record and finishing redirecting all roads around it.

The fire still burns and to date only 10 citizens remain within the ruined borough as of 2010. There is enough coal in the eight mile vein beneath Centralia to fuel the fire for two hundred and fifty years, and the fire only grows and spreads further. Columns of smoke rise out of the hills and slowly eke out carbon monoxide, slowly poisoning those who inhale it.

Centralia continues to crumble into history. Most buildings have been razed and the asphalt is covered in veins of grass thrusting up through its thick black crust.

The 10 faithful remain isolated from much of America, their beloved Centralia is no longer named on any maps, replaced instead by a mere dot. It remains a town unsafe for most to live but even now, all 10 still attend church regularly.

Regardless of circumstance, normality continues. Even in a ghost town.

Further Reading:

Story idea suggested by Peter Charley.

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