Day 404: Fire Down Below – The Fried Foundation Of Centralia, PA

originally published February 7, 2013

In researching this 404-day-old project, I have had the opportunity to explore the world, all from the comfort of my computer screen (so, you know, without actually having to leave the comfort of on my ass). Some locales (the island of Nauru) I’m almost curious enough to want to visit in person. Others (Ellef Ringnes Island in the Canadian Arctic), not so much. Still there are others that might just outright kill you.

This brings me to today’s article, and to a quiet little slab of the Australian outback. This place isn’t notable for the snakes, crocs and spiders who will kill you there – and believe me, they’d love to – but more for what would happen if you decided to build yourself a little hobbit-hole underground. You see, the ground underneath this particular mountain is on fire.

About 224 kilometers (139 miles, over 122,000 fathoms if you’re into that) north from Sydney along the New England Highway, you’ll find a turn-off for the Burning Mountain Nature Reserve. Original settlers used to think it was an underground volcano, which would make life understandably more precarious and exciting. In fact it’s just a coal fire. Specifically, a coal fire that has been burning for about six thousand years.

The only top-side evidence of this natural phenomenon is the presence of a few smoke plumes popping up from the ground like poorly-extinguished campfires. If you aren’t already in Australia, this attraction ain’t worth the trip.

For an even worse tourist destination, check out the coal fire in Saarland, Germany. Or more accurately, check out the rocks above it.

This fire began in 1688 when the area was being mined for coal. No one knows how the coal seam was set ablaze, but the thing has been burning for the past 325 years, non-stop. At one time you could see the fire, then you could only see embers. Now you can occasionally see a tuft of smoke peeking out from between rocks, and maybe feel some warm air. Not very impressive for a fire in its fourth century.

If we want impressive, we need to go for something truly man-made and stupid. Off to America…

This is the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. Founded in the mid-19th century, Centralia fit snugly into the mold of a typical Pennsylvania coal town. Its history reads like a lot of stories from that time: coal is discovered, mines are dug, people show up for the work. You get a little excitement when Alexander Rea, the town’s founder, is murdered in 1868. People suspect the Molly Maguires, a secret society of coal miners who were like a blue-collar Mafioso in the region. There were a handful of other murders, some arson, and eventually a public hanging in 1878 for the three men convicted of Rea’s murder.

About halfway between Lewisburg and Allentown, Centralia was a good place for a coal town to thrive. Railroads moved in, including the Reading Railroad, which I owned for a small time last month during a feverish game of Monopoly. Seven churches sprung up, five hotels, twenty-seven saloons, two theatres,  a bank, and various sundry shops carrying old-timey stuff like sarsaparilla and tobacky. By 1890, over 2700 people called Centralia home.

It took until 1962, as the coal industry was starting to squeeze its way out of the American economy, for things to go really wrong.

No one is 100% sure how the fire started. The where is a given – the landfill was located in an abandoned strip-mine pit. The law stated that a layer of clay had to be poured between each level of the landfill, but it’s possible that the town got a little lazy in that department. So when a truck full of throw-away hot ash or coal clunked into the landfill, a little bit might have seeped down below. Another story is simply that the landfill’s winter payload was being burned to save space. Either way, the abandoned coal mines directly underneath lit up like a Las Vegas postcard.

The town of Centralia, aware as they were of what was happening beneath the soil, kept rolling along. Buildings weren’t collapsing, trees weren’t exploding, and fiery hell-beasts were not making their way through the town, doing battle with anyone they found. Life continued as usual.

In 1979, local gas station owner John Coddington dipped a stick into his fuel tank to check the level. The end of the stick seemed unusually hot, so Coddington dunked a thermometer next. The gas – which is supposed to be sitting around room temperature – was a whopping 178˚F (77.8˚C, or 354.26˚ Kelvin, if you’re into that). The following year people were reporting health problems. True, coal mining can bring about its own share of health concerns, but the lack of healthy oxygen levels in these people – not all of whom worked in the mines – was alarming.

In 1981, 14-year-old Eric Wolfgang (who may presently be working professionally as Batman) saved his cousin, Todd Domboski, when a 4-foot wide, 150-foot deep sinkhole opened up in a backyard. The steam that spurted from that hole contained a lethal dose of carbon monoxide. The boys were lucky to escape alive.

At this point, the government stepped in. In 1984, Congress allocated more than $42 million to relocate the town. Centralia’s fire couldn’t be fought, and it was only a matter of time before it either swallowed or poisoned everyone who lived there. And just like that, Centralia became a ghost town.

Almost.

Not everyone took the invitation to pack up and leave. When Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey invoked eminent domain on all town properties, the few remaining residents took it to court. Was the government trying to claim all the property as their own, get rid of the pesky humans and strike it rich with the precious minerals underneath? Or were they actually trying to condemn and tear down the dangerous buildings in order to force everyone to relocate to a less kill-you-ish town? Depends who you ask.

In 2002, the US Postal Service yanked Centralia’s zip code from circulation. In 2005, the relocation-fund faucet was shut off. The town continued to limp along, with one church and no businesses. In 2009, governor Ed Rendell began serving eviction notices.

As of 2010, only 16 people in eight households still called Centralia home. I’m not sure what these folks are hoping to gain from staying. If it’s on principle, then that’s a hell of a principle upon which to lay one’s life. But until the final resident loads up his U-Haul or tiptoes off to the great beyond, Centralia will remain.

And unless I’m in the area and my curiosity gets the better of me, I’ll probably leave this town off my must-see tourist bucket-list.

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