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.
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 way 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, then 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 out of 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. Called the Lehigh and Mahanoy Railroad, it enabled 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, at which time it was called home to about 1,300 residents.
During the 1860s, the Molly Maguires, an Irish-American group who were 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.
By the turn of the century, coal production had already reached its peak 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, which reduced the demand for coal. 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 in 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.
By 1962, there were still more than 1,300 people living in Centralia when the city council proposed cleaning up the local landfill in time for Memorial Day festivities. To accomplish this, the landfill, which was located 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 29th, more fires were spotted and quickly extinguished. As sporadic fires continued over the next 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.
To stop the underground burn, water was pumped directly into the mine tunnels and the surface was covered with clay in an attempt 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.
Larger projects were later taken on, including large-scale excavation to dig out the trenches to expose the fire so it could be extinguished. 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 by using a mixture of crushed rock and water. However, this plan failed when extremely cold temperatures caused the water lines to freeze. This attempt to stop the burn also 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. At that time, then-mayor and gas-station owner, John Coddington, inserted a dipstick into one of 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 next year, the population of Centralia had dropped to just about 1,000 people.
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 posed a threat to the town and its residents, Centralia’s citizens were split as to the amount and type of risks posed by the fire.
In 1983, the U.S. Congress allocated more than $42 million for relocation efforts and the vast majority of 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.
By 2010, only five homes and 10 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.
Today there are only a few people that still live in the town, and all but a couple of buildings have been razed or reclaimed by nature. One of those that continue 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 which was built 1978 after the fire started. Here, were held numerous meetings 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 the old cracked road has been colorfully spray-painted by hundreds of visitors. Today, it is hard to believe that this once busy route was lined by businesses and homes.
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 to the dangerous levels of carbon monoxide and unstable ground which could open up into sinkholes.
However, four cemeteries continue to memorialize many of the former residents of this lost community.
The Odd Fellows Cemetery, located very 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 to the 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.
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 next 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 concern for safety. 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 Weiser-Alexander, June 2019.