Welcome to Centralia: A town at the doorway to Hell

Welcome to Centralia: A town at the doorway to Hell

What would it take for you to move out of your neighbourhood? For those people who can afford to buy their own property in the current economy, the answer would probably be: "something really, really bad." At a time when buying a house and paying off a mortgage is such a Herculean feat, it's no surprise that it takes flood, famine and all seven plagues of Egypt to coerce your average homeowner into moving elsewhere - particularly if we're talking about someone who has lived in the same place their whole life. That's the situation for the seven remaining citizens of the little American town of Centralia where, underneath their feet, a gigantic, super-hot fire has been blazing for more than 50 years. The sad story of the Centralia fire reads like Michael Bay disaster movie; it's a tale of environmentalism, social decay and government mismanagement. But before performing a post-mortem on this modern ghost town, we need to take a look at what it used to be like when it was a thriving town of some 1,400 people.

In the first half of the 20th century, Centralia was an idyllic American town. Located in Columbia County, a hilly and temperate rural area, Centralia prospered greatly from the rich deposits of minerals lying just under its surface; in particular, the gigantic seam of anthracite coal. Anthracite coal is particularly valuable being almost made entirely of carbon. It's harder, burns longer and is less polluting than other forms of coal, but is relatively rare. It requires an immense amount of geothermic pressure to form and is around 300 million years old, which means that in some cases it can be literally older than the mountains and ridges that surround it.

Centralia was sitting on the mother load, and most local industries were devoted to acquiring supplies of the stuff. Coal mining made Centralia rich, but the wavering economy and the general decline of the coal industry left many mines closed and empty. Dotted all around town were boarded up mine shafts - portals to a subterranean world than ran miles underground. By the 60s, all the local mines had closed down and yet Centralia was still sitting on a vast powder keg, one that could blow up at any moment.

On May 27, 1962 someone managed to set it off, and in doing so condemned Centralia to a long, slow decline. The cause of death was utterly mundane: The town council, concerned about the widespread illegal dumping of garbage in the lead up to their Memorial Day celebrations. A landfill site by the local cemetery, which was close to one of the old strip mines, needed to have some of the excess waste cleared away, so council workers began setting the rubbish alight.

Through accident or incompetence, some of the burning debris ended up toppling down the mine and igniting the whole seam of anthracite coal at a depth of some 300 feet below sea level. The temperature of the fire underneath the town was soon in excess of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and there was enough coal down there to burn for the next 250 years. The end was very much nigh.

The town's municipal authorities tried to extinguish the blaze with hoses, but this was like trying to put out a forest fire by spitting on it. A hole 15 feet wide and several feet high was discovered at the base of the north wall of the pit, and tests concluded that the gases seeping out from the whole and cracks in the north wall contained high levels of carbon monoxide fumes. The townspeople were already complaining about the smell, but they had no idea how bad things were about to get.

The fire burned for the next 17 years before anyone got really suspicious. Despite the fact that the smell of fumes was overpowering to visitors, and the roads had to be constantly tarred to keep them smooth, the townspeople were unaware of the scale of the calamity until 1979 when the mayor, John Coddington, inserted a thermometer into one of his underground tanks to check the fuel level, only to discover that the temperature of the gasoline in the tank was 172 °F. When 12-year-old resident Todd Domboski fell into a 150ft deep sinkhole that opened up beneath his feet, the problem became too pressing to ignore, particularly when the hot steam coming from the hole found to contain lethal levels of carbon monoxide.

Despite this, there were some residents who, when notified about the fire, insisted that it posed no danger. In 1984, the Congress allocated more than $42 million to evacuate Centralia. Most people accepted the buyout offers and moved to other towns nearby. By 1990, when a census was taken of the town, which was now considered an eminent domain, the population had dwindled to just 64 people.

In 2009, Governor Ed Rendell ordered that the last few Centralia residents, who had chosen to remain in their slowly-collapsing homes, be evicted from the premises, but the determined few who couldn't bear to leave fought a protracted legal battle to win the right to stay. In 2013 local officials reached an agreement with the seven people left alive, letting them live out the remainder of their lives. After that time their properties too will pass into eminent domain.

Today the deserted town attracts more tourists as a desolate wilderness than it ever did in its prime. People come from miles away to hike through the empty berg and film the crumbling buildings. Of course, the high levels of methane makes trekking through Centralia a dangerous venture, and sinkholes have utterly deformed the landscape.

At one time, the fire could actually be seen rising up, the surface turning an eerie blue colour as a result of the leaking gas. The Route 61 road has cracked in several places, and vandals and hoodlums have sprayed buildings with graffiti, and the smoking landscape around the town looks like a WWI battlefield after an artillery bombardment.

Why do some people still choose to remain there? What is it that compels them to stay in a community that has long since expired? Tom Larkin, one of the last people left there, says it best: "It was my home for so long. It still is my home in a way, even though there's nothing there to call home. It is a very sad experience driving through there, when you think of what it used to be, and you think of why it is what it is, and you realise the futility of it all. But you can't resurrect the past. You put your foot forward and march on. It's the only thing you can do." And that's it really. People say home is where the heart is, and your heart can remain anywhere, even in places where fire has swallowed the ground up and nothing remains but smoke and ashes.