In 1962, an underground coal seam fire broke out in the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. The exact cause of the fire is disputed but most people think it was caused by the incineration of garbage near an abandoned coal mine. Over the next two years, various attempts were made to put out the fire, but it continued burning and spread too far to be contained in a cost-effective manner.

The residents of Centralia more or less ignored it for the next two decades, until 1981, when the ground above an 150 foot deep sinkhole collapsed under a boy in his grandmother’s backyard. (Thankfully, he survived when someone pulled him out.) This incident brought national attention to the fire burning below the town.

Since then, the population of Centralia has dwindled from about a thousand residents to almost none. Most left as a result of a relocation program in 1983, but some remained, convinced that relocation was a government ploy to seize land in a town sitting on what may be a billion dollars worth of coal. A later attempt to move the stragglers by invoking eminent domain sparked a series of long-standing lawsuits.

The last of the lawsuits was settled in 2013; the seven remaining residents received a cash payout and the right to live out the rest of their lives in Centralia. Experts estimate that the fire underneath will continue burning for another 250 years.

When I heard of the story of Centralia, I imagined hell on earth. Sinkholes opening up everywhere. Run-down and decrepit buildings. Maybe a couple of flames coming up from the ground. Naturally, I wanted to see this.

A couple of days ago, some friends and I visited Centralia as part of a day trip to the Pottsville area. Unfortunately, we got sidetracked with other activities, and arrived at Centralia as the sun was about to set.

I didn’t get the chance to see the town in its entirety, but I wasn’t holding my breath. A Google Image search for “centralia pa” did not show the inferno I was expecting, but rather many images of steam coming out of landmarks in the city.

One of the landmarks is a stretch of Pennsylvania Highway 61 which suffered major damage from the underground fire. The road simply opened up in some places, leaving wide and deep gashes. In 1994, it was closed and Highway 61 was rerouted through a parallel road to the south.

The abandoned highway is now covered with graffiti.

For more reading on Centralia: