Centralia is a borough and ghost town in Columbia County, Pennsylvania, United States. Its population has dwindled from over 1,000 residents in 1981 to 12 in 2005, 9 in 2007, and 10 in 2010, as a result of a mine fire burning beneath the borough since 1962. Centralia is one of the least-populated municipalities 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domain by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1992 (and all buildings therein were condemned), and Centralia's ZIP code was revoked by the Postal Service in 2002. A few residents continue to reside there in spite of the failure of a lawsuit to reverse the eminent domain claim.
Johnathan Faust opened Bull's Head Tavern in 1841 in what was then Roaring Creek Township. In 1854, Alexander W. Rea, a civil and mining engineer for the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company, moved to the site and laid out streets and lots for development. The town was known as Centreville until 1865. There was another Centreville in Schuylkill County, however, and the Post Office would not allow a second one, so Rea renamed his village Centralia.
Centralia was incorporated as a borough in 1866. The anthracite coal industry was the principal employer in the community. Coal mining continued in Centralia until the 1960s, when most of the companies went out of business. Bootleg mining continued until 1982. Strip and open-pit mining is still active in the area, and there is an underground mine employing about 40 people three miles to the west.
The borough was also a hotbed of Molly Maguires activity during the 1860s and 1870s. The borough's founder, Alexander Rea, was one of the victims of the secret order when he was murdered just outside of the borough on October 17, 1868. Three individuals were convicted of the crime and hanged in the county seat of Bloomsburg, on March 25, 1878. Several other murders and arsons also occurred during this period.
The borough was served by two railroads, the Philadelphia and Reading and the Lehigh Valley, with the Lehigh Valley being the principal carrier. Rail service ended in 1966. The borough operated its own school district with elementary schools and a high school within its precincts. There were also two Catholic parochial schools in the borough. The borough once had seven churches, five hotels, twenty-seven saloons, two theatres, a bank, a post office, and 14 general and grocery stores. The borough's population peaked at 2,761 in the 1890 federal census, then went into a steady decline. By 1980, it had 1,012 residents. Another 500 to 600 residents lived in areas immediately adjacent to Centralia. Today most of the property has been condemned by the state of Pennsylvania. The habitable parts were put up for auction, a citizen in 2010 who wished to remain anonymous bought nine land deeds (4 of which are inhabitable) in the Centralia area.
In 1962, a fire started in a mine beneath the town and ultimately led to the town being abandoned.
Joan Quigley argues in her 2007 book, The Day the Earth Caved In, that the fire had in fact started the previous day, when a trash hauler dumped hot ash or coal discarded from coal burners into the open trash pit. She noted that borough council minutes from June 4, 1962 referred to two fires at the dump, and that five firefighters had submitted bills for "fighting the fire at the landfill area". The borough, by law, was responsible for installing a fire-resistant clay barrier between each layer, but fell behind schedule, leaving the barrier incomplete. This allowed the hot coals to penetrate the vein of coal underneath the pit and light the subsequent subterranean fire. In addition to the council minutes, Quigley cites "interviews with volunteer firemen, the former fire chief, borough officials, and several eyewitnesses" as her sources for this explanation of the fire. Another theory of note is the Bast Theory. It states that the fire was burning long before the alleged trash dump fire. However, due to overwhelmingly contrary evidence, few hold this position, and it is given little credibility.
However it started, it is agreed that the fire remained burning underground and spread through a hole in the rock pit into the abandoned coal mines beneath Centralia. Attempts to extinguish the fire were unsuccessful, and it continued to burn throughout the 1960s and 1970s. David DeKok began reporting on the mine fire as a reporter for The News-Item in Shamokin, Pennsylvania, beginning in late 1976. Between then and 1986, he wrote just over 500 news stories about the mine fire. Beginning in 1980, adverse health effects were reported by several people due to the byproducts of the fire: carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and a lack of healthy oxygen levels.
In 1984, the U.S. Congress allocated more than US$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 to have the decision reversed failed. In 2002, the U.S. Postal Service revoked Centralia's ZIP code, 17927. In 2009, Governor Ed Rendell began the formal eviction of Centralia residents.
The Centralia mine fire extended into the town of Byrnesville, Pennsylvania and caused this town to also be abandoned.
Very few homes remain standing in Centralia; most of the abandoned buildings have been demolished by the Columbia County Redevelopment Authority or 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 former Governor Rendell 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 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, but this is muddy and not accessible to the disabled. 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.
In 2009, John Comarnisky and John Lokitis, Jr. were both evicted, in May and July respectively. In 2010, only five homes remain as state officials try to vacate the remaining residents and demolish what is left of the town. In May 2009, the remaining residents mounted another legal effort to reverse the 1992 eminent domain claim. In March 2011, a federal judge refused to issue an injunction that would have stopped the condemnation. In February 2012, the Commonwealth Court ruled that a declaration of taking could not be re-opened or set aside on the basis that the purpose for the condemnation no longer exists; seven people, including the Borough Council president, had filed suit claiming the condemnation was no longer needed because the underground fire had moved and the air quality in the borough was the same as that in Lancaster.
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 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.