Centralia, PA — The Town That’s Been On Fire For More Than 50 Years

Published November 6, 2017
Updated September 4, 2019

When the fire began, residents of Centralia began complaining of foul odors entering their homes, and soon, wisps of smoke were seen coming out of the ground.

Centralia Pennsylvania

Wikimedia CommonsSmoke rises from the ground near the original landfill site in Centralia, PA.

In May of 1962, the Town Council of Centralia, Pennsylvania, met to discuss the town’s new landfill.

The town had built the 300-foot-wide, 75-foot-long, 50-foot deep pit earlier in the year to deal with the town’s problem with illegal dumping. However, the landfill needed clearing before the town’s annual Memorial Day celebration, as it was getting too full.

At the meeting, a seemingly obvious solution was proposed: burning out the landfill.

At first, it seemed to work. The pit was filled with an incombustible material to contain the fire, which was lit on the night of May 27, 1962. After the landfill’s contents were thoroughly burned, water was used to douse the flames.

However, two days later on the 29th, flames were seen again, and then again a week later on June 4. Centralia firefighters were baffled as to where the recurring fire was coming from, as bulldozers and rakes had been used to stir up the garbage and locate concealed flames.

Finally, the cause was discovered.

In the base of the pit, next to the north wall, was a hole. Fifteen feet wide and several feet deep, the hole had been concealed by waste, and therefore not filled with incombustible materials.

Because it had not been treated, the hole had provided a direct pathway to the labyrinth of old coal mines, on top of which Centralia was built.

Residents began complaining of foul odors entering their homes and businesses, and soon, wisps of smoke were seen coming out of the ground around the landfill.

The town council brought in a mine inspector to check the smoke, who determined that the levels of carbon monoxide in them were indeed indicative of a mine fire. Not wanting to reveal the truth, that the members of the town had started a potentially-illegal garbage fire, the council sent a letter to the Lehigh Valley Coal Company stating that a “fire of unknown origin” was burning under their town.

The council, the LVCC, and the Susquehanna Coal Company, the company responsible for the coal mine in which the fire was now burning, met to discuss ending the fire as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. However, before a decision could be reached, lethal levels of carbon monoxide were detected seeping from the mine, and all Centralia-area mines were immediately shut down.

Smoking Ventilation Shaft In Centralia

Getty ImagesOne of the ventilation shafts installed to keep gas from building up under the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania.

Ultimately, two projects were attempted to stop the spreading of the mine fire, but both were unsuccessful.

The first project involved excavation. The plan was to dig out the trenches to expose the flames so they could be extinguished. However, the architects of the plan underestimated the amount of earth that would have to be excavated by more than half and eventually ran out of funding.

The second plan involved flushing out the fire by using a mixture of crushed rock and water. It is believed the plan could have worked, had it not been for the uncommonly low temperatures that the town experienced. The freezing temperatures caused the water lines to freeze, as well as the rock grinding machine.

The company also worried that the amount of mixture they possessed would not be enough to fully fill the labyrinth, and therefore only filled it halfway, leaving ample room for the flames to move.

Eventually, their project also ran out of funding after going almost $20,000 over budget. By then, the fire had spread by 700 feet.

Cracked Centralia Road

Getty ImagesThe main highway running through Centralia, cracked and broken, regularly spews clouds of smoke from the fires burning beneath it.

At this point, the cost of extinguishing the fire would be ridiculously high, as experts estimate there’s enough coal underneath Centralia to fuel the fire for another 250 years.

Today, hardly any residents remain in Centralia, and if they do, it’s not legally. In 1980, the government spent $42 million relocating residents to other parts of the state and demolishing the homes.

In the past 55 years, the ground has cracked and opened up, releasing clouds of sulfurous gasses, and the highways running through the town are hot to the touch.

Centralia is now, essentially, a ghost town.

After learning about Centralia, Pennsylavania, read about the most polluted ghost towns in America. Then, read about the world’s most mystifying ghost towns.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.