Posts Tagged ‘centralia’

A settlement is reached in Centralia

The story of Centralia, the town which has had a coal fire burning beneath it for fifty years is the stuff of legend. I won’t retell the story in this post but search for it in the search box and you’ll find numerous posts about it. In short, the town decided to burn its garbage in 1962 and it lit a coal vein on fire which still burns to this day. Thousands of residents moved away, the local highway was ruined and a bypass built, and now after decades of fighting, the remaining residents (all seven of them) have made a deal. They will get a settlement of 218K and get to remain on their land but upon their death the state takes it by right of eminent domain. There had long been pressure on them to sell but they resisted because of the value of the coal that could be mined once they sold. Now those issues are resolved.

When the fire will stop burning, no one knows.

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Abandoned vehicles in Centralia

WARNING: This area is extremely dangerous. Underground fires release toxic gases and can cause unexpected ground openings. No one has died… yet. Any visitors need to take extreme care and be very observant of their surroundings. Any exploring is done at your own risk.

There are a lot of abandoned vehicles in and around Centralia. Here are a few of them.

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This piece of equipment has been picked by scavengers for a long time.

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This is what it looked like in 1995. Supposedly it was fine for at least a decade before that.
Thanks to Sebastian Reist for the pics!

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Exploring Centralia

WARNING: This area is extremely dangerous. Underground fires release toxic gases and can cause unexpected ground openings. No one has died… yet. any visitors need to take extreme care and be very observant of their surroundings. any exploring is done at your own risk.

I read about Centralia on various exploring websites. Most sites give a brief overview of the history, but a Google search revealed much more detailed information about the history of the town. I decided to go on a road trip and this seemed like a good destination. I drove the 150 miles east from Bergen County out Route 80 and south down 81. The trip went easy and smooth and before I knew it I was at the closed off section of Route 61.

There is a large sign warning of toxic gases and unstable grounds. If you wanted, you probably could drive on it, but who’d want to risk their car that way? I parked on a dirt shoulder and began walking. I was told it was 5 minute walk away and sure enough, within a few minutes I saw the cracks in the highway and the smoke pouring from them. One section of roadway was elevated nearly 2-3 feet. It looked like the kind of thing you see after an earthquake. I keep face masks in my bag of supplies but didn’t feel concerned enough to wear one. After taking a few pictures I headed back to the car.

I continued along the Route 61 bypass and passed a cool abandoned structure. This was a bath house where miners would go to wash off after a days work. I headed into town, not really sure where to go. I could see 3 homes that clearly were still occupied, but there were large patches of open fields. Periodically I saw a set of stairs or what looked like a curb and a driveway. That was all the evidence to show that there had once been homes and businesses here. The homes were demolished when the people sold to the government, which necessitated structural supports be built when one owner of a row house refused to sell.

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There wasn’t much to see. I counted 4 buildings, a mobile home and the municipal building. Ironically I saw that the “town” had erected Christmas decorations on the light poles, making me wonder if the mayor wasn’t also the police chief, the fire chief, and half the town council. Was there still a municipal government? Did they still have to pay taxes?

As I drove I saw giant plumes of smoke coming off a hillside, much larger then the smoke coming from the cracks in Route 61. I headed that way and trudged through a small field. I could see what appeared to be the metal frame of playground swingset, sitting among a trash laden hillside, smoke emanating at random from various spots. There was no heat. There were no open cracks. Smoke just appeared and flew off as the wind carried it away before more smoke appeared from somewhere else. There was a house, still occupied, not 150 yards away. I couldn’t smell anything strange, but I didn’t feel comfortable staying very long.

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I drove around but every road was pitted with potholes and overgrown with weeds and bushes,. Some roads simply dead-ended, as if they were built for no reason, and to go nowhere. Somewhere off to the side, would’ve been a house, but now the road had no function. Maybe it wasn’t even a road, maybe it was a driveway. Despite the warmth of the sunny day, the wind blew coldly and I kept driving.

I had heard that smoke came up thru the cemetery, and headed there next. I now could see there was a road through the landfill. Steep and pitted I parked at the edge and hiked the hill and got some fantastic photographs. I wore the face mask this time. I ran into a local college professor who taught geology. She told me more about the history of the area, and about the metal vents used to release the gas from underground.

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After the landfill I cruised the cemetery. It seemed clear that eventually the cemetery would be consumed and I wondered if they would move the bodies or simply let them be claimed by the coal fire. I wonder if there would be anything to move considered the underground heat the fire generates.

Centralia: Death of a small Pennsylvania coal town

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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.

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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

Links:

Weird NJ article
OffRoaders coverage
Xydexx’s page
Local resident musings
Centralia Project
Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government, and the Centralia Mine
Fire

timeline of Centralia mine fire history
RoadSide America coverage
PA Highways
site
, many links here
Environmental Conditions in Centralia, a geology report
Another
page about Byrnesville

Dep report about the buyouts
An interesting article with an interview of the mayor