Why Centralia, PA, The Real-Life Silent Hill, Has Been On Fire For Over 50 Years

A fire smolders under what's left of Centralia, PA, the inspiration for the 2006 movie version of Silent Hill. The network of anthracite coal mines caught fire in 1962, and the Pennsylvania mine fire still burns to this day. All attempts to put out the fire failed, and eventually the town had to be abandoned altogether. What remains is a barren no-man's-land where few dare to tread.

Centralia, PA, hasn't always been a fiery hellscape, however. Long before the Centralia mine fire started, the land was an untamed wasteland. In only a couple hundred years, this corner of Pennsylvania has gone from wilderness, to mining boomtown, to eerie ghost town. The Centralia mine fire history itself is replete with conspiracies, government cover-ups, and intense legal battles.

In 1749, Native Americans sold the land, and that's where the story of Centralia begins. In addition to a variety of name changes, the land itself changed hands several times, from early settlers to Robert Morris (who signed the Declaration of Independence) to Stephen Girard, who bought the land at auction in 1830 with the understanding that there were coal deposits present. Finally, the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company bought the land in 1842 and began development.

  • Railroads And Rich Coal Deposits Transformed Centralia Into A Mining Boomtown

    In 1854, the Mine Run Railroad became operational. This marked the beginning of the large-scale mining operations that would define the town for the next 100 years. Six mines were opened by 1863, including the Locust Run Mine and the Coal Ridge Mine.

    The anthracite coal deposits underneath the land caused an economic boom that saw the burgeoning boomtown grow to a peak of about 2,700 residents in 1890. At that time, there were five hotels, 14 general and grocery stores, seven churches, and 27 saloons.

  • Founder Alexander Rae Was Allegedly Slain By The Molly Maguires
    Photo: Jules Tavernier / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Founder Alexander Rae Was Allegedly Slain By The Molly Maguires

    Centralia was a tumultuous place in its early days. On his way back from neighboring Mount Carmel, Alexander Rae was slain on October 17, 1868. The crime was attributed to a secret society of Irish rail workers, the Molly Maguires.

    The society originated in Ireland in the 1840s and traveled with the Irish to America during the Great Potato Famine. The organization was a secret, workers' rights union which allegedly resorted to violent tactics. During the Pennsylvania mining boom, many of the laborers were Irish Catholics who often faced discrimination and hazardous working conditions. They were often at odds with the owners of the operations, who were frequently Scottish and Anglicans.

    The Molly Maguires were charged with a rash of slayings that occurred in the region during the 1860s, including that of Alexander Rae. A violent crackdown ensued, and in 1877, 10 of the alleged leaders of the Mollies suffered capital punishment. There is still some question as to whether the Molly Maguires were truly responsible or whether they were being framed by the owners of the mines. The trial was presided over by the president of the Reading Railroad, Franklin B. Gowen, the man who initially hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to investigate the Mollies. The verdict was largely based on the testimony of one man, James McParlan, who went undercover to investigate the Mollies. In any case, the state of Pennsylvania granted a pardon to the Mollies' alleged leader, John Kehoe, in 1979.

  • WWI, The Stock Market Crash, And Cheap Modern Fuel Pushed Centralia Into Decline
    Photo: Historic American Buildings Survey / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    WWI, The Stock Market Crash, And Cheap Modern Fuel Pushed Centralia Into Decline

    The decline of Centralia began when the United States entered WWI. Men were drafted from mining towns across Pennsylvania, causing production to decrease. Even after the war ended, production was hampered by strikes. This, in turn, provided an opening for other, cheaper fuel alternatives like oil to gain market share. Further reducing production, Lehigh Valley Coal Company was forced to close five area mines after the stock market crash of 1929.

    Despite the decline, some coal production did continue. Bootleg mining was prevalent during the depression, where miners would break into abandoned mines to dig. There was a small increase in demand during WWII, but it was short lived. The town had shrunk to 1,986 residents by 1950 and continued declining. Still, the town kept producing coal into the 1960s.

  • In 1962, An Officially Sanctioned Fire Spread Into The Network of Abandoned Mines Running Underneath The Town

    Centralia's transformation from declining mining town to smoldering ruins began inauspiciously. In preparation for Memorial Day festivities, the City Council authorized a cleanup of a landfill, which was getting a bit too smelly. This wasn't the first cleanup authorized by the council, and the typical method for doing so at the time was a controlled burn. That year, though, the "Out Area" to be cleaned was located on an abandoned strip mine near Odd Fellows Cemetery.

    The firefighters put out the dump fire only to find it smoldering again days later. It was soon discovered the fire had spread to the nearby mines. Repeated attempts to douse the fire failed. Each time, the fire would appear to be snuffed out, only to flare back up shortly thereafter.

    It bears mentioning there are other theories as to how the fire was started. These include an unnamed citizen dumping embers, or the fire starting from a previous mine fire that was never put out. David DeKok investigates the details of the fire in his book Fire Underground. Since at the time it was not legal in Pennsylvania to clean up a dump by burning it, however, DeKok suggests there was plenty of reason for the City Council to try and obfuscate its role.

  • Trenches, Barriers, And Government Intervention Failed To Put The Fire Out Despite Repeated Attempts

    After the initial firefighting efforts failed to extinguish the fire, it wouldn't be until November that a more comprehensive plan was created. Unfortunately, this plan ran out of funding within months. In 1963, a plan was hatched to dig a trench between the fire and the city in order to act as a firebreak, but by the summer, it was determined the fire had already breached the line.

    The next effort to stop the fire didn't begin until May of 1967. By that point, the fire was 225 feet deep, too deep for a trench to be effective. Instead, flush barriers made of gravel and water were to be used. In 1969, these were replaced by barriers made of fly ash, a substance created as a byproduct of burning coal. After numerous setbacks, the fly ash barrier was finally completed in 1974.

  • The Fire Was Detected Spreading To The Local Gas Station

    In November 1979, gas station owner John Coddington noticed steam coming from the ground in a lot next door - and then from his basement floor, which also felt warm. He decided to call the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources (DER), which measured the temperature to be 136 degrees Fahrenheit. They began monitoring the temperature of Coddington's gas tanks and found it was rising. The tanks were drained and then filled with water, shutting down Centralia's only gas station.