Centralia, Pennsylvania – A Lost Town

Early day Centralia, Pennsylvania.

Early day Centralia, Pennsylvania.

Centralia, Pennsylvania, is a ghost town in Columbia County caused by an underground coal mine fire that has been burning since 1962.

Before settlers came to the region, this area was a vast expanse of mountain wilderness inhabited by various Indian tribes. That changed in 1749 when the Native Americans sold the land to colonials for 500 pounds.

Reading Road in Pennsylvania about 1860.

Reading Road in Pennsylvania about 1860.

In 1770, the area was surveyed and explored during the construction of the Reading Road, which stretched from Reading to Fort Augusta (present-day Sunbury.) Today, Route 61 follows much of the path of the historic Reading Road.

In 1793, Robert Morris, an American Revolution hero and signer of the Declaration of Independence, acquired about a third of Centralia’s valley land. However, just five years later, he declared bankruptcy, lost the property, and was sent to debtors prison.

In 1830, Morris’ property and other tracts were purchased by a French sea captain named Stephen Girard, who learned that the area was filled with coal deposits. However, the coal veins wouldn’t be actively worked in a large for years. In 1832, Johnathan Faust opened the Bull’s Head Tavern in the area, and the settlement that grew around it was first called Bull’s Head.

In 1842, the land was purchased by the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company. Alexander Rae, a mining engineer, moved his family in and began planning a village, laying out streets and lots for development. Rae initially named the town Centreville as he hoped it would become the center of commerce in the region.

The Mine Run Railroad was built in 1854 to transport coal from the valley. In 1856, the Locust Run Mine and the Coal Ridge Mine opened. More mines followed, including the Hazeldell Colliery Mine in 1860, the Centralia Mine in 1862, and the Continental Mine in 1863. In 1865, a branch line of the Lehigh Valley Railroad was constructed to Centralia. The Lehigh and Mahanoy Railroad enabled the transport and expansion of Centralia’s coal sales to markets in eastern Pennsylvania. The same year, when a post office was established, the town’s name was changed from Centreville to Centralia because there was already a town named Centreville in Pennsylvania. The town was incorporated in 1866 when it was called home to about 1,300 residents.

Centralia, Pennsylvania Railroad Station.

Centralia, Pennsylvania Railroad Station.

Meeting of Molly Maguires by Harpers Weekly, January 1874.

Meeting of Molly Maguires by Harpers Weekly, January 1874.

During the 1860s, the Molly Maguires, an Irish-American group working to organize a mine workers union to improve wages and working conditions, was active in Pennsylvania. In October 1868, Alexander Rae, Centralia’s founder, was murdered in his buggy during a trip between Centralia and Mount Carmel. Three men, who were found to belong to the Molly Maguires, were eventually convicted of his death and were hanged in Bloomsburg in March 1878. As Centralia was a hotbed of Molly Maguires’ activity, other acts of violence also took place, including arson and the death of the area’s first priest.

The town’s population peaked in 1890 at 2,761, at which time it boasted seven churches, five hotels, 27 saloons, two theaters, a bank, a post office, and 14 general and grocery stores.

Pennsylvania Coal Miners by Strohmeyer & Wyman, 1895.

Pennsylvania Coal Miners by Strohmeyer & Wyman, 1895.

By the turn of the century, coal production had peaked in Pennsylvania, and mining declined. When the United States became involved in World War I in 1917, many young men left the area, and the town began to decline. After the war, a series of strikes further hindered coal production.

At about the same time, new energy forms were created, including cheap fuel oil, reducing the coal demand. After the stock market crashed in 1929, the Lehigh Valley Coal Company closed five of its mines in the area. During the Great Depression, many desperate men turned to “bootleg mining.”

Coal production picked up with the outbreak of World War II in 1941. By 1950, the town’s population had dropped to 1,986. The same year, the Centralia Council acquired the mineral rights to the town, hoping to profit from future coal production. By 1960, the town’s population was 1,435, and though mining continued for just a few more years, all the remaining mining companies also closed.

Centralia, Pennsylvania, 1960s

Centralia, Pennsylvania, the 1960s

By 1962, more than 1,300 people were still living in Centralia when the city council proposed cleaning up the local landfill in time for Memorial Day festivities. To accomplish this, the landfill in an abandoned strip mine pit next to the Odd Fellows Cemetery was set on fire on May 27. Five volunteer firemen sprayed water on the flames to keep the blaze under control, and after the landfill’s contents were thoroughly burned, water was used to douse the flames. However, two days later, on May 29, more fires were spotted and quickly extinguished. As sporadic fires continued over the following days and weeks, firefighters investigating found a hole that provided a direct pathway to the labyrinth of old coal mine tunnels, on top of which Centralia was built.

Smoke seeps from the ground in Centralia, Pennsylvania, courtesy Wikipedia.

Smoke seeps from the ground in Centralia, Pennsylvania, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Water was pumped directly into the mine tunnels to stop the underground burn, and the surface was covered with clay to smother the blaze. But nothing worked. When there weren’t active above-ground fires, residents could still see and smell the smoke from the burn, some of which was toxic with unsafe carbon monoxide levels.

More extensive projects were later taken on, including large-scale excavation to dig out the trenches to expose the fire to extinguish it. However, with the large amount of earth that needed to be moved, the project ran out of funding. A second plan involved flushing out the fire using a mixture of crushed rock and water. However, this plan failed when freezing temperatures caused the water lines to freeze. This attempt to stop the burn failed when it ran out of money. By then, the fire had spread by 700 feet.

With coal mining discontinued and the population falling, rail service ended in 1966, and the tracks were removed the following year.

In the meantime, the underground fire continued to burn, and hundreds of people still lived in the community when locals became aware of the scale of the problem in 1979. Then, then-mayor and gas station owner John Coddington inserted a dipstick into his underground tanks to check the fuel level. When he withdrew it, it seemed hot, and then lowered a thermometer into the tank to quickly discover that the temperature of the gasoline in the tank was 172 degrees. By the following year, the population of Centralia had dropped to just about 1,000 people.

Centralia, Pennsylvania in 1980 by Robert E. Dias, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin

Centralia, Pennsylvania in 1980 by Robert E. Dias, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin

Afterward, statewide attention to the fire began to increase, especially after a 12-year-old boy fell into a four feet wide by 150 feet deep sinkhole that had suddenly opened in his backyard. Though the boy was saved, the plume of hot steam billowing from the hole was tested and found to contain a lethal level of carbon monoxide.

Though it was obvious that the fire threatened the town and its residents, Centralia’s citizens were split regarding the amount and type of risks posed by the fire.

Centralia, Pennsylvania Warning Sign

Centralia, Pennsylvania Warning Sign

In 1983, the U.S. Congress allocated more than $42 million for relocation efforts, and most residents accepted the government’s buyout offers. Afterward, more than 1,000 people moved out of the community, and 500 structures were demolished. By 1990, only 63 people remained.

In 1992, Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey invoked eminent domain on all property in the community and condemned its buildings. The three-quarters of a mile stretch of Route 61 through Centralia was closed in 1993, and a new route around the town was established.

In 2002, the U.S. Postal Service discontinued Centralia’s zip code, and in 2009, Governor Ed Rendell began the formal eviction of the remaining Centralia residents. After two residents were evicted, the remaining residents mounted another legal effort to reverse the 1992 eminent domain decision, claiming that the purpose for the condemnation no longer existed because the fire had moved and the air quality had improved.

Locust Avenue in Centralia, Pennsylvania was once lined with buildings, photo courtesy Google Maps

Locust Avenue in Centralia, Pennsylvania, was once lined with buildings, photo courtesy Google Maps.

By 2010, only five homes and ten people remained as state officials continued to work to vacate the remaining residents and demolish what was left of the town.

However, in October 2013, the remaining seven residents settled their lawsuit, receiving $218,000 in compensation for the value of their homes, $131,500 to settle additional claims, and the right to stay in their homes for the rest of their lives. Though they were allowed to stay, they were forbidden from passing down their property or selling it, and once they left, the property would be forfeited to the state and their homes demolished.

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Centralia, Pennsylvania still holds services today. Photo by BBC News Service.

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Centralia, Pennsylvania, still holds services today. Photo by BBC News Service.

Today, only a few people still live in the town, and all but a couple of buildings have been razed or reclaimed by nature. One that continues to stand is the beautiful Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, which sits on a hill on Center Street above the town. It is the only remaining one of five churches that once graced the community. It still holds weekly services today. Another is the Centralia Municipal Building, built in 1978 after the fire started. Here, numerous meetings were held that determined the ultimate fate of Centralia.

The abandoned section of Route 61 is now popularly known as Graffiti Highway. Though mounds of dirt were placed at both ends of the former route, pedestrian traffic is still possible, and hundreds of visitors have painted the old cracked road. Today, it is hard to believe that businesses and homes lined this once-busy route.

The rest of the townsite continues to exist only through an eerie grid of streets, driveways disappearing into vacant lots, concrete steps leading to nowhere, and buckled sidewalks. Signs warn visitors of the dangerous levels of carbon monoxide and unstable ground that could open into sinkholes.

Old Route 61 in Centralia, Pennsylvania is better known as "Graffiti Highway" today, photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Old Route 61 in Centralia, Pennsylvania, is better known as “Graffiti Highway” today, photo courtesy Wikipedia.

However, four cemeteries continue to memorialize many of the former residents of this lost community.

The Odd Fellows Cemetery, located near where the mine fire began in 1962, is surrounded by a wrought iron fence and contains numerous graves. It is located on Second Street just north of the closed section of Route 61.

Saints Peter & Paul Cemetery was once associated with Saints Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church, built in 1916. The church was located on East Park Street, just north of where the mine fire began. Unfortunately, the church was in the path of the fire and was demolished in 1986 as part of the Centralia Mine Fire Acquisition Relocation Project. Today, the lot where the church stood is overgrown with trees and shrubs. However, the church’s cemetery can still be visited.

Saints Peter & Paul Cemetery by Kelly Michals, Flickr

Saints Peter & Paul Cemetery by Kelly Michals, Flickr

Saint Ignatius Cemetery, once associated with the Saint Ignatius Church, still stands on 2nd Street today at the southern end of the townsite. One of the earliest Catholic churches in Centralia, it was built in 1869. The following year, a rectory was constructed. By the 1890s, membership at the church had grown to over 3000 people. Before the turn of the century, the church added a cemetery and convent. In 1896 a parochial school was constructed across from the church. By 1981, the school had to be closed as parents feared carbon monoxide and other gases were sickening their children. The priest also left around this time and moved to Mt. Carmel out of safety concerns. However, mass continued at the church until June 1995. The church and its other buildings were razed in November 1997.

Another cemetery also exists at the still-standing Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church. It is located on Center Street on the hill to the north, which overlooks Centralia.

Today the fire continues to burn through what was left of the 25 million-ton coal seam beneath the town, and experts predict it could burn for another 250 years. The surface of the streets is no longer hot like they once were since the fire has moved down deeper into the earth, but smoke can still sometimes be seen creeping out of the ground.

Coal seam fires are nothing new, but Centralia’s fire is the United States’ worst and one of history’s most devastating.

©Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated March 2023.

Another of the few remaining buildings in Centralia, Pennsylvania is the Municipal Building. Photo courtesy Google Maps.

Another of the few remaining buildings in Centralia, Pennsylvania, is the Municipal Building. Photo courtesy Google Maps.

Also See:

Ghost Towns & Mining Camps Across America

Pennsylvania Main Page

Pennsylvania Photo Gallery

Trails Across Pennsylvania


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