The Story of Centralia, Pennsylvania

  • April 13, 2011
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[Public Domain Image]Centralia was incorporated as a borough in 1866. The anthracite coal industry was the principal employer in the community. Coal mining continued in Centralia until the 1960s, when most of the companies went out of business. Bootleg mining continued until 1982. Strip and open-pit mining is still active in the area, and there is an underground mine employing about 40 people three miles to the west.
The borough was served by two railroads, the Philadelphia and Reading and the Lehigh Valley, with the Lehigh Valley being the principal carrier. Rail service ended in 1966. The borough operated its own school district with elementary schools and a high school within its precincts. There were also two Catholic parochial schools in the borough. The borough once had seven churches, five hotels, twenty-seven saloons, two theatres, a bank, a post office, and 14 general and grocery stores. During most of the borough’s history, when coal mining activity was being conducted, the town had a population in excess of 2,000 residents. Another 500 to 600 residents lived in areas immediately adjacent to Centralia.
It is not known for certain how the fire that made Centralia essentially uninhabitable was ignited. One theory asserts that in May 1962, the Centralia Borough Council hired five members of the volunteer fire company to clean up the town landfill, located in an abandoned strip-mine pit next to the Odd Fellows Cemetery. This had been done prior to Memorial Day in previous years, when the landfill was in a different location. The firefighters, as they had in the past, set the dump on fire and let it burn for a time. Unlike in previous years, however, the fire was not extinguished correctly.
On March 19, 2011, I was finally able to visit Centralia, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, due to the current state of Centralia, it exists on few maps, and it is a sensitive topic amoung current residents who still live in the area. After doing extensive research on the Internet for quite some time, I had expected to find at least a few standing buildings that would indicate that a town stood here at one time. Unfortunately, when I arrived, I found nothing but crumbling pavement and empty streets. Cracked sidewalks among forgotten plots of land filled in the spaces where buildings once stood.
You can see my photos of Centralia on Flickr by going here. There is also a Centralia group on Flickr. Other photos of the trip to Centralia are featured in another post entitled Pennsylvania’s Forgotten Places, Buildings, and Things.
Overgrown Abandoned Sidewalk This abandoned section of sidewalk lead to nowhere. This was just one of several I found, but perhaps the most intact one of all. Empty plots were overgrown and abandoned.

Don't STOP Believin'One of my favorite photos from the trip is the one shown here. Someone spray painted this stop sign on a street corner in Centralia, so that it says, “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

Do Not Back Over With Tour BusThe DEP has placed monitoring wells like this one in various places all over Centralia. This one happened to have, “DO NOT BACK OVER WITH TOUR BUS” written in the cement surrounding the pipe. Ironically, the area has become a tourist attraction of sorts with folks traveling from all over to have a closer look after hearing and reading all the buzz on the Internet. One group I talked to while visiting traveled from London England.

Few Roads Lead To CentraliaWhat once was a respectable town has been completely bulldozed into a group of dirt piles with broken road segments leading nowhere.

Forgotten MattressAnother view of Centralia, this time showing the overall landscape of devistation. In the foreground, an old mattress.

Centralia continues to be in the news, both in media, and on numerous blogs on the Internet. If you decide to visit, you should know that the ground here is unstable, and the air may be unhealthy to breathe. The place has its own share of hazards, so you have been warned. Here are a few blog posts I came across while doing some research for this post:

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2 Comments on The Story of Centralia, Pennsylvania

  • Holly & Evan says:
    April 14, 2011 at 8:26 PM

    Wow your photos tell so many stories of a place that was Centralia, PA. So many things abandoned from yesteryear as your photos uncover. How very interesting to know of its once upon a time existence. Thank you for taking Holly & Evan on your trip back into the time machine.

    You Rock!

    Your Pals – Holly & Evan


  • Jimmy Ettele says:
    April 16, 2011 at 9:47 AM

    My earliest memories of Centralia were from high school. I was a senior and my girlfriend at the time
    was a freshman at Bloomsburg University. To get up to her, which I was always ready to do, from my
    house, I took PA Route 61 North through Orwigsburg, Pottsville, Frackville, and through Centralia.
    This was the early 1990’s and people were still living in the town. I had heard about the coal fire burning
    under the ground and I was excited to see flames shooting from manhole covers and sewer drains.
    What I remember seeing was a town as burnt out as what was happening under the ground. Smoke
    rose from holes and other openings (but to my extreme disappointment no flames). And even though
    people were still living there, I rarely saw anyone just walking the streets.

    My high school “love” and I broke up and I stopped driving through Centralia until the late 1990’s when,
    as irony would have it, I got a job in Schuylkill County. I worked in Orwigsburg, PA which is a 20-30
    minutes south of Centralia. My job had me travel up through Centralia again.

    Few people, if any, remained in the town. I distinctly remember seeing the smoke again even pulling my
    car over on one occasion to the curb to show a friend I had in the car. Signs were posted now about the
    fires. Warnings. Hazard signs. All attempts to get the remaining residents to move away and to keep
    curious passerby’s out.

    One drive through the town, on my way to Shamokin, myself and a co-worker (who was a born and
    raised Schuylkill County native) starting talking about Centralia. He had told me his version of what had
    happened. According to him, miners had been using explosives to open parts of mines. One of the
    explosions caught a coal vein which was fed by a huge coal “chamber” and started to burn. It grew out
    of control. All efforts to put it out failed and it was left to burn. I don’t know if this is what happened? I
    don’t know what really happened. What I did know then and now, Centralia is like an urban legend.
    From its people who refused to leave to how the fire started. Talked about by many, all with their own
    take on what exactly Centralia was.

    The last time I was up towards Centralia, Route 61 was cut off. No cars were allowed to go through. I
    was disappointed. My curiosity about the condition of the town, as twisted as it may have seemed, was
    piqued. I wanted to drive through again for another look at the abandoned buildings and houses.
    Because it’s not every day you get to drive through a ghost town. Especially one that’s on fire.


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