In 1842, the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company bought land near Bull’s Head Tavern in Columbia County Pennsylvania. They sent one of their mining engineers, Alexander Rea, to prospect it. The land had several interconnected seams of coal and Rea founded the colliery and moved his family there in 1854.
Rea planned out the town that he knew would eventually grow up there and called it Centreville. He envisioned it as the center of the coal-based commerce of the Columbia County. However, in an early version of, “We’re sorry, but that name is already in use,” he had to change the name because there was already a registered town somewhere else in Pennsylvania (I think he should have named it Centreville1854) so, he changed it to Centralia.
By 1854, the Mine Run Railroad was completed and coal could be shipped out of the mountains to be sold. By 1866, four large mines had opened in the area, 1,300 people had moved to the town, and the town incorporated. (For comparison, at the time Harrisburg had 23,000 people in it.) In short, it was a boom-town. By the middle of the twentieth century, the coal mines had closed and many people had moved away.
In preparation for Memorial Day, 1962, firefighters were called to light the the town landfill on fire by the Borough Council to clean it up. (What could possibly go wrong with lighting a landfill over coal-rich land?)
It didn’t take long for the landfill to catch a good fire which was contained, so the firefighters left it. But it didn’t go out…like ever. After few days the firefighters went back thinking the landfill hadn’t burned itself out, but it had. The fire had reached the coal seams below and lit them on fire, but without oxygen, fire only smolders.
And, this fire has smoldered from 1962 until the present day. The residents were asked or forced to leave and given buyouts. $42,000,000 was spent on relocation. Lawsuits were brought by the residents against the town. There was a plan to give the fire some air and let it burn itself out, but this only allowed it to spread farther.
There are seven longstanding residents who refused to move and could not be evicted who wanted to stay here. They won their lawsuits in 2013, and are allowed to stay in Centralia until they die. It seems a little morbid, but those are the actual terms of their stay. When the remaining seven landholders die, Pennsylvania plans to tear down what hasn’t burned down and get to the bottom of the fire. If they can.
That’s it, except to say that an estimated two trillion dollars of coal remains undisturbed under Centralia. So long, until next week.