If you were driving north on route 61 in the heart of the Anthracite coal region in Pennsylvania in recent years, you may have come across a detour of 61 at the top of a hill in a community called Ashland.  Thinking nothing of it you would have followed the detour signs that took you around some possible road construction or a bridge being worked on.  You’re then reconnected with Rt. 61 again.

Many have followed this path in recent years with little knowledge of the on going story of this little detour and the town that no longer is really a town.  If you had disregarded the detour signs and make the right that 61 north takes through Ashland your first clue that something isn’t right would be the abrupt end to route 61 as it once was.

This road closure seems to be more than just a little construction up around the bend.  At closer inspection it would seem to be a more permanent close of the road.  If you were to look to your right and follow a small, slightly less engineered road down and around the closed route 61 it would re-emerge at the beginning of the story.   Centralia.

The ruins of Centralia Pennsylvania no longer exists on some maps.  The story began sometime in 1962 along the outskirts of town when trash was burned in the pit of an abandoned strip mine, which connected to a coal vein running near the surface.  The burning trash caught the exposed vein of coal on fire.  The fire was thought to be extinguished but it apparently wasn’t when it erupted in the pit a few days later.  Again the fire was doused with water for hours and thought to be out.  But it wasn’t.   The coal then began to burn underground.  That was in 1962.   For the next two decades, workers battled the fire, flushing the mines with water and fly ash, excavated the burning material and dug trenches, backfilled, drilling again and again in an attempt to find the boundaries of the fire and  plan to put the fire out or at least contain it. 

All efforts failed to do either as government officials delayed to take any real action to save the village.  By the early 1980s the fire had affected approximately 200 acres and homes had to be abandoned as carbon monoxide levels reached life threatening levels.   An engineering study concluded in 1983 that the fire could burn for another century or even more and “could conceivably spread over an area of approximately 3,700 acres.”

As time passed, each feeble attempt to do anything to stop the fire or help the residents of Centralia would cost more and more due to the fires progression.  Over 47 years and 40 million dollars later the fire still burns through old coal mines and veins under the town and the surrounding hillsides on several fronts.  The fire, smoke, fumes and toxic gases that came up through the back yards, basements and streets of Centralia literally ripped the town apart.   Most of the homes were condemned and residents were relocated over the years with grants from the federal government although some die-hards refused to be bought out and some still remain in the town.  Today Centralia is a virtual ghost town with only a few remaining residents.  As they continue to live in their beloved homes now owned by the federal government, people pass every day along Route 61, most totally unaware of the history surrounding them and the sad story of Centralia.
Studies have shown that if the fire is not contained it will continue to spread following the rich coal deposits and eventually threaten the neighboring town of Ashland, less that two miles away.  Many people including former (and current) residents of Centralia insist that there is more to this story than meets the eye.  Some believe that the rich deposits of coal beneath the town itself is the reason for the forced relocation of the towns people and to force the town to go defunct, giving up its mineral rights.  The stories around what is happening here vary depending on who you talk to or what you read.   What is certain is what has happened to this small community and the fact that Centralia as it once was, will never be again.