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Centralia is a near-ghost town in Pennsylvania, United States, which has had a fire burning beneath it for over fifty years. In the 19th century Centralia was a busy mining town, but it went into decline and most of the mines closed down. One was used as the town’s landfill and it was there that a huge fire started in 1962. After the fire spread through all the old mines beneath the town it had to be abandoned. Today the fire still burns beneath what was left of Centralia, and only eleven residents remain.
The town was founded in 1842 after the land was bought by the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company. A mining engineer named Alexander Rae moved his family in and planned out the streets of the new settlement. In 1854 the Mine Run Railroad was constructed, and by 1856 the first two mines had opened.
The ground beneath Centralia was rich with anthracite coal which formed a booming industry. More and more people moved to Centralia to work in the mines, and so the town grew. By 1890 it had a population of 2,761 people and was large enough to require seven churches, five hotels, twenty-seven saloons, two theaters, a bank, a post office, and fourteen general stores.
Not everything ran smoothly in Centralia: working in the mines was a very difficult and dangerous job. Groups of unhappy workers joined a secret society called the Molly Maguires, who tried to get better pay and working conditions for the miners. When nobody listened they turned to violence, and in 1868 Centralia’s founder Alexander Rae was murdered by three members of the group. In 1929 the stock market crashed and many of the mines were closed. Some bootleg miners continued to sneak into the mines to take the remaining coal, but their techniques made many of mine roofs collapse. By the 1960s most of the mines had completely shut down, and one was being used as the town landfill.
On May 1962 members of the town’s volunteer fire company set the landfill mine on fire to clear it, but they didn’t manage to completely put out the blaze. The fire spread through an opening in the pit and into all of the empty mines beneath the town. All of the coal gave the fire plenty of fuel and for nearly twenty years it burned without anyone knowing just how large it was. Locals only realised in 1979 when a gas-station owner checked the temperature of his underground fuel tanks and discovered they were 78°C!
Conditions in Centralia became increasingly dangerous. In 1981 a twelve-year-old boy fell into a sinkhole which suddenly appeared in his back garden. He was only saved from falling down into the fire below because his cousin quickly pulled him out. Finally in 1984 the government spent $42 million to move everyone in Centralia to nearby towns and demolish the buildings. Most people were happy to leave, but a few refused to go. Only in 2013 did the last seven residents receive the right to stay in Centralia for the rest of the lives.
All that remains of Centralia are the paved streets and a few buildings including a Catholic Church. The road through the town centre was closed and sealed off in 1994, though it can still be accessed by foot. It is now a popular destination for those who are curious to visit the abandoned town, and is known as Graffiti Highway.
Images: Wikipedia commons, https://www.flickr.com/photos/12463666@N03/20066431053