50 Years of the Centralia Mine Fire

It seems hard to believe for those of us who grew up under the media coverage of the 1980s, but the Centralia mine fire has been burning for a half century as of this Sunday.

What started as a long sequence of unfortunate circumstances resulted in significant disruption for residents of the borough.  On May 27 1962, local firefighters set Centralia’s dump on fire in order to “clean things up a bit” for the Memorial Day festivities, as they had done so many times before.  But this year, things were a little different. The dump had been moved to a plot of land directly north of the Odd Fellows cemetery.  And although required by state law, the borough of Centralia failed to ensure that a clay barrier was properly installed between the dump and the nearby mine shafts.

19th-century geological survey of Centralia, PA

When the fire was set, it ignited a small coal vein near some old mine works beneath the dump.  The vein — and the fire — eventually found its way to the Buck Mountain bed, which fed into old workings from the Hazel Dell, Logan, and Germantown collieries.  A century of anthracite mining (a significant amount of which was unauthorized and undocumented) has left the hills peppered with an uncountable number of tunnels, drifts, slopes, and airshafts.  This makes extinguishing the fire virtually impossible.  A 1983 article in the Baltimore Sun (page A3, August 13, 1983) quotes a cost of $660 million to completely dig out the fire — with no guarantee of success.  That’s about $1.4 billion in 2012 dollars.

It’s displaced hundreds of homes, impacted countless lives, and had a dramatic impact on the region. You can see evidence and aftermath of the fire driving through the borough, including still-steaming subsidence if you walk down the bypassed stretch of PA-61. Earlier this year, the company that owns much of the former colliery sites (Pagnotti?) began demolishing many of the old remaining buildings, including the washhouse at the site of the former Germantown colliery. The remains of the Centralia / Centerville colliery (which, judging by the near total lack of graffiti, most people don’t seem to realize exist) are surely up next — especially since there’s an open shaft in the area.

Logan Colliery, Centralia PAIf the fire remains confined to the Buck Mountain bed, then there’s an end in sight.  Eventually, the fire will burn out once it runs out of fuel.  But if the fire spreads to the nearby Mammoth bed, then we’ve got a serious problem.  Even though the Mammoth and Buck Mountain beds are completely separated by ample amounts of dirt and rock, several of the old collieries (Hazel Dell to the east, Logan to the west, and Germantown to the south) ran slopes to both beds.  In fact, the workings for the Logan colliery (opened 1881, destroyed 1898) has underground connections to both beds.  According to the Centralia centennial, this was later connected to the Centralia colliery, which directly mined the mammoth bed.

It’s called the Mammoth bed for a reason.  It’s the thickest anthracite bed in the world, and its spread is immense.  Ignition of the Mammoth bed will create a very real threat to the nearby towns of Mt. Carmel and Ashland.

The debate about the fire rages on. Some people say the entire thing was fabricated, and that no fire ever existed. Presumably the smoke, steam, heat, and subsidence were all imaginary. Others say that the fire still burns, but has moved east of town and met the waterline near the old Continental works — a dubious claim to anyone who’s ever glanced at a geological survey of the anthracite region.  Still others believe that the Mammoth bed has already caught fire, and that the towns of Ashland and Mt. Carmel are just a few decades away from becoming the next Centralia.

Steam from a subsidence near Centralia, PA

But at the end of the day, the final results are obvious to anyone who cares to drive through town. Steam and smoke still seep up from the ground.  Parts of the ground — as in the dirt, not just the pavement — are hot to the touch.  Fresh sinkholes still open up on side streets.  And aside from the few remaining residents who still call Centralia home, the town is deserted.

Here’s hoping for a little media coverage to keep the town alive.