Pennsylvania may be the Keystone state, but it probably most famous for its mining and its steel industry. The mountains along the northern end of the Appalachians are rich with coal and other minerals and many towns thrived on what was taken from the ground. If the minerals, coal or whatever was being mined dried up, usually the town died too. The towns of Byrnesville & Centralia, PA were once thriving coal mining towns. Byrnesville no longer exists, and Centralia’s population of 1100 has reduced to perhaps 10 or 20 people, victims of a underground mine fire that has burned out of control for over 40 years.
Byrnesville was founded in the 1860’s, built for employees of the local coal mine. After WWII ended, the coal industry suffered a decline and the area began to slip economically. The death blow for these towns began in May 1962. An unused mine near the cemetery in Centralia was converted into a landfill. Someone thought it would be a good idea to burn the trash, and the fire lit a vein of coal on fire which has now burned across, under and thru the area for 43 years. Between 1962 and 1978 the federal government spent 3.3 million dollars in unsuccessful efforts to fight the fire. After 4 years of study, the federal government estimated it would cost nearly 663 million dollars to successfully extinguish the fires. One idea was to dig a 500 foot deep trench around the town to contain the coal fires. It turned out it was more cost effective to buy out the town, and this began in 1979. $42 million was appropriated to buy 34 endangered properties, and by 1991 545 homes and businesses were bought out.
In the mid 1980’s cracks spewing smoke appeared in the middle of a 4 lane highway, Route 61. $500,000 was spent to close the road and build a bypass several hundred yards away thru what once was Byrnesville. No one has died due to the fires of Centralia, but there have been several close calls. In 1981 Todd Domboski was nearly swallowed alive when a crater four feet wide and 150 feet deep opened up directly beneath him. He managed to grab some tree roots and hang on until his cousin saved his life.
Not all of the towns residents are willing to sell. In January 1992 the federal government proceeded to condemn the remaining homes. The town fought back. The town owned the coal and felt that taking the town was denying them ownership of the valuable coal. After 3 years of legal fighting, the State Supreme court ruled against the town. A federal relocation program expired in 1997, yet a few homes remain. Centralia’s population now is less then 30, and Byrnsville last residents were bought out and moved in 1996.
The heat from the fires can reach in excess of 700 degrees. Normal ground temperatures are 55 to 60 degrees. The fire creates plumes of smoke that vent thru the ground. The smoke is most common in the colder months, but can be seen year round. As the fire burns it leaves gaping voids which can cause the ground to collapse, causing sinkholes. Several homes have collapsed and the nearby cemeteries are at risk. The smoke and fumes are toxic and it’s affects on the health of local residents is unknown, but assumed to be deadly. Vent pipes have been established to give the gases a chance to escape, and can be seen here and there in the town and in the surrounding woods. The situation is a dangerous one that luckily has only affected these two towns so far. Geologist fear that if it is not contained or extinguished, it will threaten the nearby town of Ashland, home to a coal museum. With 3700 acres of coal left to be burned, scientists estimate that that it could take 1000 years or more before it burns itself out.
Directions: From NJ: Route 80W to 81S. Get off at exit 124B. Follow Rt. 61 North through Frackville into Ashland. The highway makes several turns. You’ll go thru Ashland and make sure to turn right before the auto part store. Eventually the highway bears right but you can see yellow arrow signs diverting you from where the highway used to go. You can park by the yellow signs and walk about 5 minutes up the road to where it cracked and vents gas. If you follow the bypass you’ll pass the abandoned building, the stock car and the remains of the dump truck. When the bypass ends, there is a cemetery to your left followed immediately by the landfill which smokes constantly. If you travel the road thru the landfill there is another cemetery in the back. A road directly to the right reveals a third
Weird NJ article
Local resident musings
Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government, and the Centralia Mine
timeline of Centralia mine fire history
RoadSide America coverage
site, many links here
Environmental Conditions in Centralia, a geology report
page about Byrnesville
Dep report about the buyouts
An interesting article with an interview of the mayor