It’s May 1962, and a vast landfill blights the town of Centralia, Philadelphia. Keen to wipe the unsightly heap out for good, officials set the trash alight. But as they wait for the flames to die down, they slowly realize that something has gone wrong. In fact, they’ve inadvertently started an inferno that will rage for decades to come.
The story of Centralia began back in the 18th century, when settlers purchased the area from local Native Americans. And within a few decades, the land had passed into the ownership of Robert Morris – one of the signatories of America’s Declaration of Independence.
Then, after Morris went bankrupt, the district was purchased by a French sailor. The seafarer had apparently heard rumors that valuable anthracite coal deposits were to be found in this particular corner of Pennsylvania. However, it wasn’t until 1854 that a settlement in the area really took off. That year, the Mine Run Railroad arrived in the town – which back then went by the name of Bull’s Head.
Just two years after the arrival of the railroad, a couple of mines had been established in the town. And by 1863, a total of five different operations were engaged in hauling out the buried coal. Then eventually, a man named Alexander Rae founded Centralia in 1866, and the settlement looked set to boom thanks to its valuable natural resources.
But just two years later, tragedy struck. Rae was apparently murdered, and many laid the blame on the Molly Maguires – a clandestine group that had been brought to the U.S. by Irish workers. However, some people believed the Maguires had been framed by local employers who feared the unionization of employees.
But although three people were executed for the crime, violence continued to plague Centralia. In 1869, for instance, a local priest was allegedly attacked by the Molly Maguires. And according to folklore, the clergyman consequently exacted his vengeance by placing a curse on the land, claiming that one day only the town’s church would remain standing.
The town seemingly had a problem with crime, then. But after a number of senior gang members were executed in 1877, peace appeared to return to Centralia. And by 1890 the town was booming. That’s right, with a population of more than 2,700 people, the settlement boasted an array of shops and saloons as well as seven churches, a couple of theaters and even a bank.
The success of Centralia wasn’t to last, however. You see, beginning in 1929, the financial troubles that plagued the United States also took their toll on the mining community. Illegal operations subsequently moved into the town’s unused pits, and these criminal activities caused many local structures to cave in.
The Great Depression wasn’t enough to destroy Centralia, though, and some of the town’s mines still operated. But then in May 1962, something happened that would change the community forever. You see, unchecked landfills had apparently begun to accumulate in the area, and officials were keen to eliminate one particularly unsightly heap before Memorial Day celebrations took place.
According to historians, a decision was taken to destroy the landfill by starting a fire. And as a result, officials apparently attempted to instigate a contained blaze. Things soon got out of hand, though, and before long the inferno had spread to a coal seam that runs under the town.
However, others believe that hot ashes left at the trash site – or perhaps the spreading of a pre-existing fire – sparked the inferno. Whatever its cause, though, the blaze was soon unstoppable. And as carbon monoxide reached dangerous levels underground, Centralia’s mines were forced to shut their doors.
The authorities had a big problem on their hands, then, and they initially tried to douse the flames that threatened to consume Centralia. But as soon as they managed to extinguish one blaze, another would spring up elsewhere in the town. Moreover, the unmistakable stench of burning filled the air even when the blazes couldn’t be seen above the surface.
Over time, officials made a number of attempts to put out Centralia’s fires. None of them were successful, however. Apparently, the subterranean warrens – the result of decades of mining – presented a unique challenge. You see, this underground maze made it difficult for anyone to tell which tunnels were responsible for feeding the blaze.
The fire under Centralia continued to burn, then. But, surprisingly, many of the residents seemed to take the blaze in their stride, while new inhabitants continued to arrive. Among the new arrivals were Christine and Tom Oakum, who bought a property in the center of town in 1975. And according to an article published in People in 1981, the couple were informed that the flames “were going the other way.”
However, the information given to the Oakums wasn’t accurate. And although they remained in their home for years, they also installed a number of devices designed to detect any potentially deadly side effects of the fire. “Suppose someone isn’t protected from the gas and gets a headache,” Christine explained. “The natural thing for them to do is take a couple of aspirin and lie down to rest. It could be their last rest.”
And poisonous gas was far from the only peril to plague Centralia. In one backyard, for instance, the surface temperature reached a staggering temperature of 626 °F. But perhaps of even greater concern for the general populace was the fact that holes began to appear around the town. Yes, without warning, the ground would fall away, sending plumes of scorching smoke into the air.
And occasionally, the fire beneath Centralia would even claim some of the town’s animal inhabitants. “Every once in a while, you would come across a deer sticking out vertically with steam billowing out,” former resident Jack told Cracked.com in 2017. “They looked like they were crawling out. This poor deer had fallen into a sinkhole and had either starved to death or suffocated to death from the fumes.”
Meanwhile, another ex-inhabitant named Becky watched her neighbor’s pet fall to its doom. “Their cat was standing there, and it suddenly became brown,” she said in an interview with Cracked.com. “It didn’t make any noise, and we thought she had done something to make it all suddenly brown, like flipping a sheet over. But it was just another hole, and the cat went down.”
Then, in February 1981 something perhaps even more shocking happened. Apparently, while 13-year-old Todd Domboski was in his grandmother’s Centralia yard the ground fell away beneath him. The boy was consequently sent tumbling into a deep chasm, where only a stray tree root saved him from death.
“The smoke was so thick that I couldn’t see anything,” Domboski told People. “I was only in there a minute, but it seemed like an hour.” And it seems that this near-tragedy was the final straw for many residents. You see, just three months later, a majority of Centralia’s inhabitants voted to evacuate the town.
However, it would be another two years before the United States government finally ordered the residents of Centralia to leave. And even then, a number of the locals refused to go. Apparently, some people believed that the entire situation was a conspiracy created by the coal firms, with the companies aiming to get their hands on the town’s valuable land.
So despite the evident risks, some residents still insisted that the town wasn’t dangerous. And some of those who stayed even refused to use monitoring equipment. “We’re not afraid of the gases, and we’re not going to become slaves to a machine,” Helen Womer told People. “We burn coal for heat and always have. If we had one of those machines, it would be going off all the time. I’m not going to let the coal barons win.”
Meanwhile, residents such as Guy remained in Centralia in order to spite the officials who sought to take control of the town and its predicament. “They thought they knew more than us, but they were wrong,” he told Cracked.com. “How come the town hasn’t collapsed like they said?”
And Guy wasn’t the only one to express such sentiments, either. “My neighbor, [the one] who owned the cat, she stayed,” Becky recalled. “She had seen the danger first-hand and lost something she loved to it, but she wasn’t budging. The last time I was there, she was shouting from her porch at some men in suits who obviously wanted her house.”
However, not everyone understood the residents’ insistence on remaining in the town. “The scientists and even other miners were telling them that the town could fall in, piece by piece, or get toxic gas, but they denied it and said they’d continue to live here because they didn’t see it,” Guy’s son Jack explained. “[This was] after pits started opening up, but they still said no.”
As the years passed, a contingent of people continued to live in Centralia, despite the fact that the underground fire never stopped burning. And while the town was officially condemned in 1992, it still wasn’t fully evacuated. In 2009, though, officials did succeed in evicting two of the remaining inhabitants.
But the residents of Centralia still wouldn’t give up on their failing town, and they instead became embroiled in a lengthy legal battle with the state. Eventually, in October 2013, it was decided that they would be allowed to remain in their properties for as long as they wished – although they are not permitted to pass their homes on to anyone else.
Even prior to the legal wrangling, though, the local government had taken steps to remove Centralia from the map. For example, in 2002 the town’s zip code was eliminated, forcing the remaining residents to reroute their mail. “Nothing can be sent there,” Jack explained. “Everybody needs a PO box in another town or they need their family to collect it.”
And according to Becky, the move also made it difficult for visitors to locate the town. “My parents, after they took away the zip code, couldn’t just give directions to people,” she explained. “If they didn’t know about Centralia, they needed to be specific. I overheard my parents say to pizza guys on the phone, ‘Go to Aristes. Then head south on 42. Third little street you see, halfway turn right. We’re the only house on the street.”
Meanwhile, the state has been busy demolishing all of the properties that it has been able to acquire. “As soon as they bought the houses, they tore them down and covered them with plants,” Jack explained. “Then they took out as much of the foundations as they could. Then they removed the lip in the curb. They don’t exist, and it looks like they never did.”
And Jack claims that even the town’s name is being eradicated from history. Apparently, all of the signs in the area have been replaced, with any mention of Centralia removed. “They even covered up an arrow showing a way to get to another city through Centralia, so people passing through can’t get here,” he said.
Incredibly, officials also appear to have altered the town’s municipal building, removing the letters that once spelled out “Centralia.” And down at the local records office, any references to the doomed community are allegedly being removed. In fact, residents claim that important documents are now incredibly hard to find.
By 2017 the population of Centralia had dwindled to just seven inhabitants. And today, life there is tougher than ever. Indeed, there are no police officers active in the town, while only a few volunteer firefighters – equipped with an engine that’s over three decades old – remain to tackle any rogue blazes.
Not everyone has forgotten about Centralia, though. With its abandoned, ghost-town atmosphere, the community has become a popular destination with tourists seeking out the strange and unsettling. Even when Becky was still a child, in fact, all of her classmates wanted to trick or treat around her neighborhood.
And it isn’t just Halloween that draws visitors from out of town. All year round, thrill-seekers arrive to experience the weirdness of Centralia for themselves. “Whenever people visited from, say, Harrisburg or Lancaster, they would get scared easily,” Becky recalled. “The ground would give out from under them, and they’d fall [onto] their knees.” What’s more, the town’s predicament inspired the setting of the Silent Hill videogame franchise – which in turn would influence Netflix’s hit show Stranger Things.
But even though the town and its fire are famous, tourism hasn’t helped the remaining residents. Instead, they’ve seen their community slowly disappear under a wave of graffiti and trash. And because nobody in Centralia is allowed to start a business, all of the visitors’ money is being spent elsewhere.
In fact, Centralia’s few remaining residents have grown to hate the tourists who find their way to the town. “[The tourists] walk on lawns and property freely, thinking it’s abandoned,” said Jack. “They’ll always be asking, ‘Why do you live here?’ They dump trash everywhere. The worst are the tourists who leave graffiti.”
And when it comes to the perils of troublesome tourists, Jack and his father agree. “They chipped at my house,” Guy complained. “For a souvenir. Like they wanted a piece of the Lord’s cross. Chip chip chip, and they took a part of my stairs. Then they wrote, ‘Let it burn’ on it. Why would they do that?”
Today, people are discouraged from visiting Centralia and the fire that still burns beneath the town. Many continue to seek out the almost-abandoned community, however, making life even harder for those who remain. “For the last five years or so, [tourists have] been way more destructive than the fire,” Becky admitted.
But will the inferno under Centralia ever die out? Well, according to experts, the flames could continue to burn for a further 100 years. What’s more, the blaze is, remarkably, one of almost 40 similar fires that rage across the state of Pennsylvania. And in 2005 the Office of Surface Mining’s Steve Jones summed up the situation in an interview with Smithsonian. “Putting [the fire] out is the impossible dream,” he said.