Google “Centralia, Pennsylvania,” and up pops a slew of videos, some of them quick travel documentaries and other short videos of smoke rising through fields of dirt and asphalt, as it has been for decades in one of America’s most fascinating ghost towns. From a peak population around 2,000 in the late 1800s, the town now has only 10 stubborn residents who refuse to leave their condemned home.
Centralia, located in Columbia County, Penn., was founded as Bull’s Head in 1860, named after a tavern opened 19 years earlier, when the area was only a small piece of the Roaring Creek township. Centralia came into its own in 1854 when a representative of the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company laid out streets and lots for development.
The city was built on top of a vein of anthracit coal, a rare type of especially pure coal. Most of the city’s residents were employed by this industry, which still keeps miners in the area working to this day. Within Centralia itself, however, the mining stopped in the early 1960s when most of the companies there went out of business.
In 1962, the mining town had a population around 1,100 and plenty of amenities to spare, including five hotels, seven churches, 14 grocery stores and 27 taverns. On Memorial Day of that year, a fire was lit that has yet to go out. A trash fire was lit in an abandoned mine shaft on the edge of the borough, and the flames spread down the shaft and caught on the vein of coal underground.
The fire continued to spread further and further underneath the center throughout the subsequent decades, causing frequent reports of coal fumes and emissions of carbon monoxide. All efforts to put the persistent fire out had no effect.
The city gained national attention in 1982 when 12-year-old Todd Dombrowski fell into a sinkhole that opened up beneath him. A relative eventually rescued the boy from the 150-foot-deep hole. In the wake of all the attention, the Pennsylvania state government offered to buy out Centralia’s remaining residents. Most of them took the cash and relocated to nearby communities like Ashland and Mount Carmel.
Today, the fire continues unimpeded, and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection estimates it could continue for another 250 years. The town draws curious tourists each year, walking empty streets and visiting a hot, empty space once full of grass that vents smoke and toxic gases from below. “Go onto it at your own risk,” says a sign welcoming visitors.
The town now lacks basic services or a proper police force of its own, but its eerie legacy looms large. It was the direct inspiration for the horrific Silent Hill video games and movies. If you’re familiar with either, the town looks as terrifying as you might suspect. It only needs Pyramid Head to complete the illusion.