Oct 2017: Stranger Things in Centralia, PA

Photo by Jenna Cho

You wouldn’t know a fire burns beneath your feet. The ground isn’t hot; it was snow-covered when I visited this past March. Trees grow. There’s no smoke, at least not immediately visible. A few people even live in the area, despite most homes having been razed or abandoned over the past five decades.

But something immediately feels off about a central Pennsylvania town named — appropriately enough — Centralia, where for more than 55 years an out-of-control underground coal fire has been releasing noxious fumes and causing sinkholes to appear across the land. The formerly vibrant community of 2,000 people has dwindled to what appeared to me to be one final hold-out family that has so far refused the state’s buyout offers but whose home will eventually also be condemned.

Months after visiting Centralia, the place came to mind again when I was recently watching Stranger Things. The second season of the Netflix series kicks off with a mystery around farm crops dying across the midwest town of Hawkins due to what is discovered to be a growing maze of noxious underground tunnels. You see the parallel. And as with that show, it’s the inexplicable strangeness of Centralia — where an uncontrollable fire snakes out in every direction like the subterranean tentacles of The Mind Flayer — that attracts a steady stream of disaster-tourists and ghost town-hunters, including Jenna and myself.

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Sinkholes. Abandoned homes. Overgrown roads. A discontinued Zip Code. It just doesn’t seem to make sense! How could humans tame disasters like Fukushima or Chernobyl but fail to save a tiny coal town only 100 miles west of Philadelphia?

The fire began in 1962, when burning debris at the town’s landfill somehow seeped down to a coal vein and spread. Despite signs of a growing danger, locals tried to ignore the fire for the next two decades. Then in 1981, Centralia made national headlines when a 12-year-old boy fell into a 150-foot-deep sinkhole that suddenly opened in his backyard; he hung onto a tree root and was pulled up from death by a cousin. He’s like the Will Byers character of Stranger Things.

The boy’s near-death led the government to begin condemning the land and spurred many residents to take buyout offers from the state for their homes. But little effort was put into trying to quell the fire. Why?

A 1982 PBS documentary (narrated by Martin Sheen) leads to the conclusion that the Centralia fire has never been put out simply because it’s in Centralia. A lesser problem in Philadelphia or New York City would be instantly solved. But Centralia is just another forgettable coal town ruined by the same industry that enriched it.

Centralia was the subject of a new feature-length documentary that came out earlier this year, called “Centralia: Pennsylvania’s Lost Town.” It’s also been the subject of at least two books — Unseen Danger and The Day the Earth Caved In — earned a chapter in Catastrophe: A Guide to World’s Worst Industrial Disasters, and been named on numerous lists of top “strange places” to visit, gaining an alluringly dangerous reputation along the way. The website Wikitravel warns tourists to “be mindful that the ground is potentially unstable due to the mine fire and is prone to sudden collapse, although this is unlikely to happen. When driving or walking in the area, understand that you are running the risk of serious injury or death.”

If the town really were so dangerous, all roads into Centralia would be blocked off and nobody would be allowed inside under any circumstances. But in Centralia, even to this day, there is a well-kept cemetery, a still-functioning Ukrainian Orthodox church, and that last remaining home with a few cars parked out front. For disaster tourists, the biggest attraction is the so-called Graffiti Highway, a miles-long section of Route 61 that leaks carbon monoxide and is constantly splitting apart from the shifting earth of the coal fires.

When Jenna and I visited on a freezing cold day in late winter, we saw more than a dozen people strolling along the abandoned highway, including a touring rock band from Lansing, Michigan, called The Devil’s Cut. One of the bandmates told me that it was his second time visiting Centralia; he’d wanted to return with his whole band this time.

Centralia continues to be featured regularly in state and national media, from Fox News to Atlas Obscura to Radiolab, which is how Jenna first heard about the ghost town. Given the amount of coal underground, the renegade fire is expected to burn for another 250 years, fueling Centralia’s afterlife as a curiously magnetic place. But one visit is probably enough for me.

These photos are all credit to @TheDailyCho.

Photos by Jenna Cho
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