Surrounded by Conyngham Township sits the borough of Centralia, a near-ghost town known to be an inspiration for the film adaptation of Silent Hill. We had initially set a path for ourselves traveling East in search of rural country homes to explore, with each road becoming emptier than the last as we furthered our way into a calm countryside. As we traveled these peaceful back roads, a cold but sunny winter sky surrounded us, gleaming on each snow-covered field that we passed while specks of snow glistened, sparkling radiantly in the sunlight on either side of us. After a few small explorations through various farm houses alongside the country roads it was decided that we may as well carry our journey almost as Eastern as we could go into Pennsylvania, finally dropping us into a quaint and quiet, though very empty place.
In 1992 the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took control of Centralia, condemning all buildings after having claimed them under eminent domain. The land originally owned by Native Americans had now become basically a ghost town as almost everyone fled, escaping the dangers under their feet. Ten years later in 2002 the Postal Service completely revoked the town’s zip code. What this leaves me to wonder is how do the seven remaining people continue to receive their mail without a zip code? Does this mean P.O. boxes all around? Okay, I’m getting a bit too far ahead. Let’s back up for just a moment and address the fact that only seven people somehow, for some reason, still remain, refusing to leave, and how it got to be this way.
In 1749, Native Americans sold the land that would eventually come to be known as Centralia to colonial agents for just 500 pounds. Shortly after the 1770 construction of the Reading Road, largely part of Route 61, Robert Morris, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence and known hero of the Revolutionary War obtained one third of Centralia’s total land. Shortly after in 1798, Robert Morris was pushed into bankruptcy and his portion of the land was surrendered to the Bank of The United States. A French sea captain by the name of Stephen Girard saw a profitable opportunity with the land due to a mass volume of anthracite coal sitting beneath it, so quickly purchased these lands for $30,000.
The town was given its first name; Bull’s Head in 1832 after Johnathan Faust opened the Bull’s Head Tavern. By 1842, ownership had switched hands when the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company, owned by Alexander Rae, purchased the land. Rae changed the town’s name to Centreville and in 1854, construction of the Mine Run Railroad began, mistakenly overlooking the coal deposits beneath the town. In 1865, due to the U.S. Post Office already having a town registered under the name of Centreville in Schuylkill County, it was decided that the name would be changed to Centralia.
The Locust Run Mine alongside the Coal Ridge Mine were the first two to be opened in Centralia during the year of 1856. Three others were later introduced, the Hazeldell Colliery Mine in 1860, the Centralia Mine in 1862, and the Continental Mine in 1863. In 1866, Centralia was officially incorporated as a borough, with its main employer being the anthracite coal industry. Two years later on October 17, 1868, Alexander Rae was murdered by members of the Molly Maguires while in his buggy during a commute between Centralia and Mount Carmel. Legend still hangs over locals of Centralia and surrounding towns telling of a curse placed on the land in 1869 by Father Daniel Ignatius McDermott, the first Roman Catholic priest to call Centralia home, after being assaulted by three members of the Molly Maguires.
During the year of 1890, according to Federal census records the town had reached its maximum population of 2,761. At this time, the town held numerous structures, from seven churches to five hotels, twenty-seven saloons, a couple of theaters, a bank, post- office and fourteen general stores. Almost 40 years later, the production of anthracite coal had grown to peak, furthering and speeding its mining. After a brief speeding up of production, their were sharp declines due to so many young miners from Centralia being enlisted in World War I. Lehigh Valley Coal Company was forced to close five mines local to Centralia during the stock market crash of 1929, but that did not stop bootleg miners from pillar-robbing, as they would extract coal from pillars left behind in idle mines to support their roofs. Pillar-mining was the cause of many idle mines collapsing, complicating the prevention of a 1962 mine fire that would eventually run the town’s population down to near zero.
In 1966, rail service into Centralia had come to a halt, and by 1980 the town held only 1,012 remaining residents. It has been argued that due to an unsealed opening in the pit, fire was able to enter a labyrinth of abandoned coal mines beneath the streets of Centralia, causing a large scale fire, too large to stop, still burning to this day, while another theory states that the Bast Colliery coal fire of 1932 was never fully extinguished, reaching the landfill area by 1962.
In 1981, a 12-year-old resident by the name of Todd Domboski fell when a sinkhole opened up at his feel while standing in the backyard. The sinkhole measured 4 feet wide by 150 feet deep. Before the full opening of this sinkhole, his cousin, Eric Wolfgang pulled him up saving his life. The hot steam cloud rising from the bottom was later measured and found to contain a deadly level of carbon monoxide. In 1984, more than $42 million was collected for efforts of relocating families. While most residents accepted buyout offers, moving to either Mount Carmel or Ashland, there were a handful of families that refused to believe they were in any real danger, not wanting to give up their lives to a buyout. By 1990, the population had dropped from 1,017 to 63 in just ten years. Shortly after having their ZIP code revoked, Governer Ed Rendell began evicting the remaining residents in 2009.
While everything has been demolished, Centralia sits a lonely and quiet place with a ground below your feet that could collapse at any moment. Given the proper burst of energy, fires beneath could split the entire highway in half, separating it by nothing but a pit of fire. With each passing day, the hell beneath this land continues to escape through toxic smoke, pushing pressure up as it warps the roads above. It’s said that this massive coal fire could continue for the next 250 years or perhaps even longer, and though there have been efforts made to push everybody out completely, there are a small handful that stand their ground, refusing to be forced away and give up their hometown. Route 61, a main highway East into and South out of Centralia now resembles an apple pie; that is if you were to place your palm on top and apply pressure, cracking the crust open. Instead of finding a delicious filling though, you may just find a pit of fire hiding inside.
As invisible toxic fumes drift across this land once vibrant and full of life, a dark and somewhat disturbing silence fills empty air. A howling wind blows through the dying trees of a town now almost fully put to rest, while birds shuffle through the forest aside Route 61. Debris lays shakily scattered down the entire road and various overgrowth has begun to fill open holes and consume the land.
Many people are unsure of how things will end for this town when all is said and done, while those seven remaining residents hold tightly to emotional value of their hometown as time ticks, slowly fading away any remaining images of life. As I stared down the long stretch of road, I could not help but to imagine a lively transit once passing through while workers remained busy and families came to and from. The road seemed to melt at my feet where asphalt had cracked away, falling into a hole leaving an imprint of destruction. Life can take some very wild and unforeseen turns at a moments notice.
Thankfully, unlike the movie adaptation of Silent Hill, we did not become stuck inside the town forever.