In 1962, Centralia’s coal mine started burning and never stopped. The underground fire poisoned everything and everyone, and yet people refused to leave for decades. Is there a difference between staying in a toxic relationship and living in a toxic town? Kara McGinley drives straight into the hazard to find out.
Centralia was a town in Pennsylvania not unlike many other stereotypical Pennsylvania coal mine towns – filled with generations of families and collective-oriented, trusting neighbors. ¶ In May of 1962, volunteers of Centralia, PA were hired to clean up the local landfill by burning its contaminants, just like they had every Memorial Day before. Except this year the fire didn’t go out. Instead, it spread through an unsealed opening in the landfill and ignited the abandoned labyrinth of anthracite coal mines beneath Centralia’s surface, an accident that is still scorching the earth to this day. Slowly but surely, Centralia diminished from an all-time-low population of 1,000 in 1981 to an incomprehensible 10 people in 2009. It’s estimated that the fire will burn for another 250 years.
Nowadays, people mostly visit Centralia in hopes of experiencing the ghost town that the horror films and Japanese video game series Silent Hill are allegedly based on. Essentially, the town attracts tourists looking for the fearful thrill that abandoned places provide.
So, I drive two and a half hours to Centralia, something I’m advised not to do.
“It’s literally just a road,” my friend told me before refusing to join.
It’s cold and there’s steam coming from the ground in certain areas. There’s a faint fog and few other people here. I do not feel scared, rather a bit uneasy. I’m searching for meaning, except my friend was sort of right: Centralia in 2016 doesn’t have much left to it. Almost all of the buildings have been knocked down, shrubbery is overgrown and the stretch of Route 61 that used to run through the town is cracked and now nicknamed “graffiti highway” amongst travellers. The road was closed in 1983 when it was determined that the fire burned directly below it, exceeding temperatures of 800 degrees and causing the asphalt to melt. Graffiti highway lives up to its name, boasting an array of obscene phrases like “welcome to Hell” and a plethora of genitalia drawn over the broken gravel that was once the most prevalent route in and out of the town. There’s one church left standing that looms above Centralia, as if it is keeping a watchful eye on the tourists invading the grounds below.