Centralia PA - A town on fire
Centralia is a town in Pennsylvania that has been "on fire" for approximately 45 years. During a very cold day in January I visited the remains of the town, including a walk up the old highway out of town that has since been closed and rerouted.
Some history: In the 1940's, as World War II ground along, resources were in short supply, and primarily going to support the war effort. Many of the small coal mining town residents dug illegal mines to get coal for themselves or others. In 1962 some firemen, hired by the borough council, burning trash, managed to ignite one of these exposed seams of coal, and it's been burning ever since, despite many efforts to extinguish it.
Over the years the underground fires have smoldered and spread over quite some space, and the US Congress and the state offered a buyout to the residents of Centralia to just move, rather than have to deal with the dangers presented not only by the possibility of cave-ins, but also the constant, ever-present fumes of smoke and steam that come up out of the ground. Today, it is officially the least populated municipality in Pennsylvania, where fewer than 20 people remain in the town that in 1962 boasted a population of about 1,435 people.
Several documentaries have been produced documenting the town and the events leading to its downfall. In addition, several books, movies and even games have been inspired by the town, to include Nothing But Trouble and Silent Hill.
On this winter day, the steam coming up out of the ground has condensed in places, especially on nearby vegetation, and the very cold air has frozen it. And for the first time we 'explored' the old abandoned highway, with it's cracks and smoke, too.
The old highway into town went over a seam of coal that eventually ignited as the original fire smoldered and spread throughout the area. Today when you visit the town, you do not see the old, broken highway from your vehicle. The first few times I went, I stopped at a cemetery on top of the hill, and the ravaged townscape, piles of debris, smoke drifting up, but I never saw the highway. Just the barricaded endpoints where the road had been rebuilt, detouring the original route.
On this cold January day, however, my daughter and I had a "day out" and decided to explore a little bit. Visiting Centralia was actually her idea, and although the very, very cold air made it awfully uncomfortable, we decided to walk down the highway. As we went around the slight curve, we could see the broken road in the distance.
It's eerie to think that someone might have driven over this very spot, never even suspecting that the ground underneath them was burning. Now, years later, the seam is opened wide, and smoke and steam vent out constantly.
At the top of the hill above the "town" of Centralia, are a couple of cemeteries overlooking what remains. For the most part, the cemeteries themselves have escaped the wrath of the fire. Generations of area residents were lain to rest there, before the evacuation. Across the valley from the cemeteries is an old church, overlooking paved streets that go nowhere and sidewalks overgrown with brush.
For the most part, the cemeteries themselves have escaped the wrath of the fire, but within sight of them - indeed, within several yards or meters of them, smoke comes drifting upward out of holes in the ground.
After visiting the broken road, we walked up the hill next to the road, and came back into town 'the back way'.... the path runs atop the ridge between the road, and an open pit mine area, and even here, smoke drifts up out of the ground in places. What's interesting is that even in the summertime, this smoke comes drifting out of the ground in an eerie, neverending cycle. But closer inspection reveals something interesting......
The smoke that drifts up, is not all smoke. A lot of it, if not most, is actually steam. And although there had been no snow or ice yet this season when I took these photos, we kept finding icy places. Where the smoke and steam escaped the ground, going from the heated warmth underground, to the below freezing air above ground, the steam tends to condensate on low lying vegetation or other nearby surfaces surrounding these vents.
In places, the frozen "smoke" transformed plants, or just coated areas of grass, making some interesting effects on them. In other places, the results were almost amazing. It's funny that what started this fire many years ago was the burning of garbage, but here and there, strewn throughout the area, are bits of garbage still now. Steam drifts up through the vents, oblivious to whether there's trash or treasure atop the ground.
Where it does come into contact with wood or vegetation, sometimes it condenses and creates ice, then condenses and creates another layer of ice. This banding almost makes it look like there are two branches with ice in between. When we were walking up through the woods, making our own path, returning from the area of the broken road, we came upon one large pit whose heat fairly radiated from the ground, yet the steam pouring out covered everything in its path, making it look as if an ice storm had passed through the area.
Ice covered trees aside, one of the coolest things to me, was the sight of this fallen log, laying above an area where the steam escaped the ground, and the patterning of the ice on that old, dead piece of wood was very interesting.......
Walking around this area, especially in the wintertime, is interesting. You see death and destruction, reminding you of a war-torn area or something, but at the same time, life does go on.... Forging through the woods, I saw numerous 'growths' on the trees there. I do not know if they were the result of the type of tree that populates the forest, and a normal thing, or if they are the cancerous result of the constant smoke and heat from the fires scattered around there.
One thing, though... At the top of the hill in town, just below the cemeteries, was a field full of life. It was not a grassy area, to speak of, but instead, it was covered in mosses and lichens, something usually only found in damp, dark places deep in the forest. This sign of life, that persists somewhere that everything else has abandoned, was actually beautiful, at least, in my eyes.
It was a nice day for a hike, below freezing, bitterly cold even with the breeze blowing, but boy, we sure had a nice time. It saddens me to think that generations of people lived and died there, and then this happened, and now very few of the original inhabitants remain.
For more information, visit this website: The Centralia Mine Fire or wikipedia.