May 27, 1962: The Real Silent Hill, The Centralia Mine Fire Starts

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A Brief History

On May 27, 1962, a landfill above a coal mine in Centralia, Pennsylvania caught on fire probably due to someone intentionally burning trash. The landfill located right above a seam in a former strip mine ignited the coal seam which led to an underground fire that has been burning ever since.

Digging Deeper

Incredibly, authorities have never been able to extinguish the flames, and the abandoned mine continued to burn, making most of the town of Centralia above the mine uninhabitable. With a population of 1400 in 1962, the ghost town boasted only 7 residents by 2013. Even the town’s Zip Code (17927) has been rescinded. Most of the buildings are now destroyed. The abandoned town, unsafe because of the possibility of cave ins and poisonous fumes emanating from the ground, was later the inspiration for the video game and subsequent 2006 major motion picture, Silent Hill.

Theatrical release poster

The possibility that the town’s council actually authorized the fire “off the books” to avoid state laws against burning landfills and dumps has been speculated. If so, the reason there is no record of making that decision is obviously to avoid legal complications. Shortly after the fire was discovered to have traveled into the coal seam the coal mining company was notified and over the years several attempts to stop the fire have been made and failed. Various efforts at excavation and flushing with water have been equally unsuccessful. The fire has spread several miles to the South, causing the neighboring community of Byrnesville to also be abandoned and its building’s leveled.

Others have speculated that the fire was started by a dump truck dumping hot coal and ashes from coal burners into the pit. Regardless of the cause, the fire should never have been allowed to spread like it did because regulations called for layers of clay to be spread between layers of coal to prevent such an occurrence. Apparently municipal authorities were remiss in their duties to create the clay barriers. Also blamed for the ignition has been spontaneous combustion, a crossover fire from an underground fire to the West, and most incredibly, blaming a 1932 explosion for starting a slow burning fire that smoldered for 3 decades until manifesting itself as the main fire.

Toxic gas and smoke rising from the ground above the underground fire in 2006

Aside from disrupting the lives of Centralia and Byrnesville residents, the State of Pennsylvania and the US Federal Government have spent tens of millions of dollars dealing with the fire. The environmental impact is hard to determine, but certainly the addition of tons of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide into the atmosphere with no benefit to people is a bad thing. People that think the various levels of government need less regulations should be given a tour of Centralia!

What do you think about government regulations of the mining industry? In recent years politicians such as Rand Paul and Donald Trump have called for a relaxation of regulations. Do you agree with them, or do we still need stringent rules? Let us know your opinions and why you think the way you do.

Higher resolution image of the sign at the beginning of Route 61.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Dekok, David. Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy Of The Centralia Mine Fire. Globe Pequot Press, 2009.

Kress, Leonard. The Centralia Mine Fire. Flume Pr, 1988.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.