When you approach the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, you’ll see signs warning of death by asphyxiation. Other signs warn that the ground might suddenly collapse.
It might seem like a strange sign to see as you’re driving, but the residents of Centralia know the reason why—an underground fire.
Over 50 years ago in 1963, residents of Centralia, Pennsylvania started a fire to burn some rubbish in a landfill. That fire, however, didn’t just burn the landfill. It was connected to a coal mine. The fire spread to the mine and started to burn underground.
Because of the coal, the fire wasn’t going to stop burning anytime soon. In fact, scientists predicted that it would continue to burn for another 200 years underneath the city, releasing sulfur and causing cave-ins.
At the time of the fire, over 1,000 people were living in Centralia. Luckily, the residents were able to put out the fire above ground, but they couldn’t do anything with the fire that started underground.
The government spent seven million dollars trying to put out the fire under the town, but their attempts were unsuccessful. Eventually, the fire spread until it was underneath Centralia, putting the entire town at risk.
Instead of putting more money into putting the fire out, the government decided to move the town. They put together a $42 million relocation plan to incentivize the townspeople to move. All but 11 residents of the town moved to nearby cities.
As the people moved, they demolished the homes in Centralia. Now, Centralia is a bleak town. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, “Today Centralia exists only as an eerie grid of streets, its driveways disappearing into vacant lots. Remains of a picket fence here, a chair spindle there.” Check out this drone footage of the town.
Throughout the empty streets, there are areas where the underground fire creates holes in the ground that spew sulfur gas into the air. But not everyone believes that the government was telling the truth.
Though many of the citizens in the town accepted the government’s incentives to move away, many of them are not convinced that there is truly a coal fire.
Mary moved away from Centralia but still attends church there in one of the last standing structures. “I just don’t understand how this was allowed to happen,” she said. “I really believe the fire could have been put out in the early days...I’m not someone who hates our government, I just think it’s incompetent.”
According to the BBC, some residents believe that many residents didn’t believe there was a fire. They thought that the government wanted their land to mine the coal under the properties. One resident shared, “It’s propaganda. It’s a fear tactic...It’s just so ridiculous.”
While the city of Centralia has been almost completely cleared out, there is still one church that stands. Read more about the church here.