Centralia is a borough and a near ghost town in Columbia County, Pennsylvania, United States. Its population has dwindled from over 1,000 residents in 1981 to 10 in 2010, as a result of a mine fire burning beneath the borough since 1962. Centralia is the least-populated municipality in Pennsylvania.
All properties in the borough were claimed under eminent domain by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1992 (and all buildings therein were condemned), and Centralia's ZIP code was revoked by the Postal Service in 2002. State and local officials reached an agreement with the seven remaining residents on October 29, 2013 allowing them to live out their lives there, after which the rights of their properties will be taken through eminent domain.
Many of the Native American tribes local to what is now Columbia County, Pennsylvania sold the land that makes up Centralia to colonial agents in the year 1749 for the sum of five hundred pounds (over half a million pounds or $800,000 in today's money). In 1770, during the construction of the Reading Road, which stretched from Reading to Fort Augusta (present day Sunbury), settlers surveyed and explored the land. A large portion of the Reading Road became what is now Route 61, the main highway east into and south out of Centralia.
In 1793, Robert Morris, a hero of the Revolutionary War and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, acquired a third of Centralia's valley land. When he declared bankruptcy in 1798, the land was surrendered to the Bank of the United States. A French sea captain named Stephen Girard purchased Morris' lands for $30,000, including 68 tracts east of Morris', because of the anthracite coal in the region.
The Centralia coal deposits were largely looked over before the construction of the Mine Run Railroad in 1854. In 1832, Johnathan Faust opened the Bull's Head Tavern in what was called Roaring Creek Township; this gave the town its first name, Bull's Head. In 1842, Centralia's land was bought by the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company, and Alexander Rae, a mining engineer, moved his family in and began planning a village, laying out streets and lots for development. Rea named the town Centreville, but in 1865 changed it to Centralia because the U. S. Post Office already had a Centreville in Schuylkill County. The Mine Run Railroad was built in 1854 to transport coal out of the valley.
The first two mines in Centralia opened in 1856, the Locust Run Mine and the Coal Ridge Mine. Afterward came the Hazeldell Colliery Mine in 1860, the Centralia Mine in 1862, and the Continental Mine in 1863. The Continental was located on Stephen Girard's estate land. Branching from the Lehigh Valley Railroad, the Lehigh and Mahanoy Railroad came to Centralia in 1865 which expanded Centralia's coal sales to markets in eastern Pennsylvania.
Centralia was incorporated as a borough in 1866. Its principal employer was the anthracite coal industry. Alexander Rea, the town's founder, was murdered in his buggy by members of the Molly Maguires on October 17, 1868, during a trip between Centralia and Mount Carmel. Three men were eventually convicted of his death and were hanged in the county seat of Bloomsburg, on March 25, 1878. Several other murders and incidents of arson also took place during the violence, as Centralia was a hotbed of Molly Maguires activity during the 1860s. A legend among locals in Centralia tells that Father Daniel Ignatius McDermott, the first Roman Catholic Priest to call Centralia home, cursed the land in retaliation for being assaulted by three members of the Maguires in 1869. McDermott said that there would be a day when St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church would be the only structure remaining in Centralia. Many of the Molly Maguires' leaders were hanged in 1877, ending their crimes. Legends say that a number of descendants of the Molly Maguires still lived in Centralia up until the 1980s.
According to numbers of Federal census records, the town of Centralia came to its maximum population of 2,761 in the year 1890. At its peak the town had seven churches, five hotels, twenty-seven saloons, two theaters, a bank, a post office, and 14 general and grocery stores. Thirty-seven years later the production of anthracite coal had reached its peak in Pennsylvania. In the following years production declined due to many young miners from Centralia enlisting in World War I. The year 1929 saw the crash of the stock market, which led to the Lehigh Valley Coal Company closing five of its Centralia-local mines. Bootleg miners still continued mining in several idle mines, using techniques such as what was called "pillar-robbing," where miners would extract coal from coal pillars left in mines to support their roofs. This caused the collapse of many idle mines, further complicating the prevention of the mine fire in 1962 when an effort was made to seal off the abandoned mines.
In the year 1950, Centralia Council acquired the rights to all anthracite coal beneath Centralia through a state law passed in 1949 that enabled the transaction. That year, the federal census counted 1,986 residents in Centralia.
Coal mining continued in Centralia until the 1960s, when most of the companies shut down. Bootleg mining continued until 1982 and strip and open-pit mining are still active in the area. There is an underground mine employing about 40 people three miles to the west.
Most of the property has now been condemned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The habitable areas were put up for auction, and in 2010 an anonymous buyer purchased nine land deeds, four of them inhabitable.
In 1962, a fire started in a mine beneath the town and ultimately led to the town being almost entirely abandoned.
There is some disagreement over the specific event which triggered the fire. David DeKok, after studying available local and state government documents and interviewing former borough council members, argues in Unseen Danger and its successor edition, Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire, 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. On May 27, 1962, the firefighters, as they had in the past, set the dump on fire and let it burn for some time. Unlike in previous years, however, the fire was not fully extinguished. An unsealed opening in the pit allowed the fire to enter the labyrinth of abandoned coal mines beneath Centralia.
In 1984, the U.S. Congress allocated more than $42 million for relocation efforts. Most of the residents accepted buyout offers and moved to the nearby communities of Mount Carmel and Ashland. A few families opted to stay despite warnings from Pennsylvania officials.
In 1992, Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey invoked eminent domain on all properties in the borough, condemning all the buildings within. A subsequent legal effort by residents failed to have the decision reversed. In 2002, the U.S. Postal Service revoked Centralia's ZIP code, 17927. In 2009, Governor Ed Rendell began the formal eviction of the remaining Centralia residents.
The Centralia mine fire extended beneath the town of Byrnesville a few miles to the south and caused it also to be abandoned.
Very few homes remain standing in Centralia. Most of the abandoned buildings have been demolished by the Columbia County Redevelopment Authority or reclaimed by nature. At a casual glance, the area now appears to be a field with many paved streets running through it. Some areas are being filled with new-growth forest. The remaining church in the borough, St. Mary's, holds weekly services on Sunday and has not yet been directly affected by the fire. The town's four cemeteries—including one on the hilltop that has smoke rising around and out of it—are maintained in good condition. There is also a notice board posted near Hammie Hill, about 500 yards from the cemetery, protesting the evictions and demanding Governor Corbett intervene.
The only indications of the fire, which underlies some spreading along four fronts, are low round metal steam vents in the south of the borough and several signs warning of underground fire, unstable ground, and carbon monoxide. Additional smoke and steam can be seen coming from an abandoned portion of Pennsylvania Route 61, the area just behind the hilltop cemetery, and other cracks in the ground scattered about the area. Route 61 was repaired several times until its final closing. The current route was formerly a detour around the damaged portion during the repairs and became a permanent route in 1993; mounds of dirt were placed at both ends of the former route, effectively blocking the road. Pedestrian traffic is still possible due to a small opening about two feet wide at the north side of the road. The underground fire is still burning and may continue to do so for 250 years.
Prior to its demolition in September 2007, the last remaining house on Locust Avenue was notable for the five chimney-like support buttresses along each of two opposite sides of the house, where the house was supported by a row of adjacent buildings before it was demolished. Another house with similar buttresses was visible from the northern side of the cemetery, just north of the burning, partially subsumed hillside.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania did not renew the relocation contract at the end of 2005, and the fate of the remaining residents is uncertain.
The Pottsville Republican & Herald reported in February 2011 that the Borough Council still has regular meetings. The news story reported that the town's highest bill at the meeting reported on came from PPL, a power utility, at $92 and the town's budget was "in the black".
On August 28, 2011, The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church celebrated 100 years of worship. This church is located on the north hill overlooking the town. It was allowed to stay because of its distance from the mine fire.
On October 31, 2013, eight remaining residents settled their lawsuit. As part of their settlement, they received a cash payout of $349,500 and permission to stay in their homes for as long as they live, finally ending the 20-year legal battle.