There’s a common image that comes to mind when you say “ghost town”. Usually it’s some little dusty place out in the old American west. They were often settled in the 19th century near some natural resource, like a gold or silver mine, and once the mine ran out there was nothing worth staying for. The people slowly moved out, leaving their old wooden buildings standing in the dry desert.

Centralia, Pennsylvania is sort of like that, but with a couple important differences. The most obvious is that it’s in the east, about sixty miles northeast of Harrisburg. Also it was abandoned much more recently, since the 1960s. And while the town formed in the middle of the 19th century around a mine — coal in this case — it wasn’t abandoned because the mine ran out. No, there’s still plenty of coal in Centralia.

It’s just on fire.

It’s not certain what exactly started the mine fire, but it’s been burning for almost fifty years at this point, since some time in 1962. There’s not really any feasible way of extinguishing the fire, and what with plenty of air getting in through tiny cracks in the ground it will probably keep burning until the coal is completely oxidized. It’s burning under about 400 acres now, slowly spreading along the coal seams. It obviously heats the ground — the gasoline in a subterranean tank was measured at over 170 ºF in 1979 — but more dangerous are the lethal levels of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide crowding out the oxygen in the air. And as the coal is consumed, the ground shifts and collapses, as seen in the picture above.

Centralia inspired the setting of the Silent Hill horror video game series and the movie based on it. In a lighter vein, Dan Aykroyd’s Razzie Award-nominated film Nothing But Trouble was also based loosely on the town. Lots of other books and films and songs contain little references to Centralia; if you’re writing a screenplay and your character needs a hometown that won’t really impact the plot, why not throw a wink to those in the audience who know about this place?

The town’s been condemned by the state of Pennsylvania under eminent domain for a long time, and almost everyone has relocated elsewhere. Still, there are about a dozen hardy souls refuse to budge. Why they won’t move I can’t say, but by this point they’re probably as entrenched as the fire itself.

Centralia, PA on Wikipedia

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