I Live In Centralia, PA: It's America's Creepiest Ghost Town
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In 1962, there was a trash fire in a strip mine beneath Centralia, Pennsylvania. Well, we say "was" -- there still is. That unassuming little fire ignited an eternal hellish blaze which burns underground to this day. Centralia is one of the most famous ghost towns on earth, but the term "ghost town" is not perfectly accurate, because a handful of people still live there. We spoke with a few former residents, Jack and Becky, as well as one current resident, Jack's dad, "Guy." They told us ...
The Earth Literally Eats People And Animals
Centralia was a thriving mining town right up until that whole "perpetual hellfire" thing. The land beneath it is honeycombed with mines and tunnels, and the fires have spread all through them. Sometimes the ground up and collapses, devouring whatever surface life lies above with its terrible burning maw. Jack explained: "The scariest things are the sinkholes. You need to watch your step in the woods, because the ground can give way. The fire might have burnt through a foot of coal, but the ground looks like it's at the level it's always been. So you step out there and you have some people coming back with broken ankles."
Really, broken ankles aren't all that bad compared to some of the things people in other towns face. But Centralia's sinkholes are more ambitious than that: "The incident that told everyone 'Maybe we should move' was when a young kid down the street had a sinkhole collapse around him, and he was sucked down. His mother was watching him, turned around, and when she looked back, he was gone into the pit. This pit went 100 feet down, and looked like a cone if you looked down. He would have died if his arms weren't stretched out. When they pulled him out, a huge plume of smoke came out, and you could just see the fire at the bottom of the hole."
That boy, Todd Domboski, survived and presumably went on to write a bestselling book about his escape from the bowels of Hell. Other human-sized creatures in Centralia have not been as lucky.
We keep waiting for glowing eyes to appear.
"Every once in a while, you would come across a deer sticking out vertically with steam billowing out. They looked like they were crawling out. The poor deer had fallen into a sinkhole and had either starved to death or suffocated to death from the fumes. My friends would claim to see smoke coming out of its mouth, like it had been burnt alive, but it was just the way the smoke came out."
This means the kids who grew up in Centralia before it was completely abandoned had to deal with death on a pretty regular basis. Becky told us about watching the violent death of a neighbor's cat: "We were swinging in the backyard, and this patch of grass suddenly turned brown. Their cat was standing there, and it suddenly became brown. It didn't make any noise, and we thought she had done something to make it all suddenly brown, like flipping a sheet over. But it was just another hole, and the cat went down. We didn't say anything until we jumped off and went over to the fence to see that it was another sinkhole, and we called out to our neighbor, but after some light digging (NEVER go into a sinkhole by yourself), her cat was gone."
For now ...
Sinkholes even caused an entire stretch of highway to be rerouted after holes and gas buckled parts of it back in 1994. The state did its best to hide the old highway, but because of the dangers lurking beneath, they never got rid of it. And it's still there, waiting for George Miller to make a much more colorful Mad Max sequel.
Life In A Ghost Town Is ... Interesting
Underneath Centralia, the endless fire has created an environment as deadly as the surface of Saturn. While the gases aren't lethal up above, they still play hell with the resident's health. Poison gas has even built up in some citizens' basements. Guy explained how that all simply became part of the weather in Centralia. "We always had the smoke, and my wife felt sick if she was near it. We stay away from it. It's bad news. Only the tourists go into the damn thing."
And Becky elaborated: "There was a lot of coughing. If you know what black lung is [this], it's what the coughing sounded like. It's this cough where you can hear the mucus. Worse than what smokers have. If you spent enough time near the smoke, you got a cough like that. And if you were a miner developing black lung, who smoked and spent time near the smoke, like my dad, then you knew when they were home, because you heard the worst cough in the world. If you went to a nearby store and you heard the cough, odds are they were from Centralia."
This isn't all in the past. Toxic gases still billow from burnt-out places, and that poses a major threat. Vents were built to pipe the steam away from town into areas of eminent domain where no one lives anymore.
Due to all the underground damage, many homes need additional supports (especially if the former houses next door were means of support for them), so they look like they have six or seven chimneys.
"The fuck?" -- Santa
Becky points out that the fame of Centralia also means a lot of tourism. She lived there until her 20s, and while she was in grade school, her dying town became a Halloween vacation destination: "Everyone wanted to trick or treat near me. They didn't care that they got less candy. They wanted to be scared. A few years some of that steam would rise, or it would be foggy. With all the abandoned houses, it was better than a haunted house. To them. Me, it was another day."
Still less weird than houses that give out fruit.
Even outside of Halloween, tourists would come by just to take in the poisonous "atmosphere" in Centralia. "Whenever people visited from, say, Harrisburg or Lancaster, they would get scared easily. The ground would give out from under them and they'd fall in to their knees, and they'd go 'Oh my God!' I was so used to it that I said, 'Sometimes it does that,' and went on. This wasn't unusual. My mom or dad would say not to go into the steam and to stay away from the 'openings,' and they always asked what that was. When they found out, they asked if they were going to die, and my dad, eloquent as ever, would say, 'Oh, probably not.' Not to be funny, but actually being serious about it."
People Just ... Didn't Care About The Danger
People are remarkably good at ignoring imminent doom. For evidence of this, read absolutely any newspaper in the world today. It wasn't until 1984, after several kids were sucked into sinkholes and the underground tanks at a local gas station nearly exploded, that the U.S. government ordered a total evacuation of the town. People still stayed behind, so in 1992, the governor put the entire town under eminent domain. In 2002, the state took their zip code away, and in 2009, the governor announced that all holdouts would be evacuated for their own good.
There are still seven people living in Centralia.
Jack explains why many of those residents ignored the government back then, even when it was doing something as reasonable as evacuating Toxic Firetown, USA. "We had meetings with scientists explaining what was happening. They were talking to miners, some of whom had degrees, so they didn't have to go layman." The denizens of Centralia understood coal and the mines, but they still weren't able to accept that their hometown was now the abode of Satan himself. "The scientists, and even other miners, were telling them that the town could fall in piece by piece or get toxic gas, but they denied it, and said they'd continue to live here because they didn't see it. These were after pits started opening up, but they STILL said no."
Jack's father, Guy, isn't exactly on the same page. He's one of the few that stayed behind. And he did it largely to spite those damned scientists and government officials who rolled into town to talk down to him and his neighbors. "They thought they knew more than us, but they were wrong. How come the town hasn't collapsed like they said? It's not as bad as they said, and you see that now."
Jack and Guy's disagreement is nothing new. Back when the evacuation efforts started, Centralia itself was bitterly divided over whether the fire was a threat or not. Becky remembers: "My parents stayed, because they didn't think they could afford to move. But then they got an offer for double the value of their home, and they took it. My neighbor ([the one] who owned the cat), she stayed. She had seen the danger firsthand, and lost something she loved to it, but she wasn't budging. The last time I was there, she was shouting from her porch at some men in suits who obviously wanted her house."
In 2013, after a battle lasting over 20 years, the remaining ten residents were allowed to stay, but once they're gone, their homes go to the public domain. Guy sums it neatly: "It's my home. That's all there is to it."
Becky thinks that for some of those last remaining residents, staying in Centralia may be less about spite and more about living in a place so dangerous it's effectively off the grid: "My old neighbor, until the day she died, would chase off journalists with a broom and hide sprinklers in her lawn to turn them on when people got near. I know before she died, she said she was 'in talks' to buy a cellphone jammer, which seems incredibly illegal, but this woman was also fine with threatening to spray bug spray at tourist's dogs."
The Government Is Trying to Erase Centralia
Jack pointed out that 20 years ago, while Centralia was emptying out, the town still looked more or less like it always had. But over the last two decades, the state government has been doing its damnedest to wipe the town away. "As soon as they bought houses, they tore them down and covered them with plants. Then they took out as much of the foundations as they could. Then they removed the lip in the curb. They don't exist, and it looks like they never did."
We took a picture of Becky's old house:
"Oh, my god, look at that lot."
"See that? You can kinda tell where a driveway was. But that's it. No sign of the huge gate we had, or of the stairs, or anything."
Jack continues: "They took away the name. One day, all the signs were gone. All the signs showing nearby towns had been replaced, with 'Centralia' [left] off. They even later covered up an arrow showing a way to get to another city through Centralia, so people passing through can't get here."
If you ask your phone's GPS to look it up, the voice starts whistling to feign ignorance.
They removed Centralia's name from the city municipal building:
"Welcome to the home of ... municipals."
The county records office is slowly removing the town from history, which has made life tough on Jack's dad: "When my father went in to check his property lines, it took almost half a day to find a copy, because they had trashed so much of Centralia."
The county has also cut back on basic services for the seven people who still live there. Says Jack: "My father doesn't get mail. Officially, Centralia has no zip code, so nothing can be sent there. Everybody needs a PO box in another town, or need their family to collect it. All of my father's mail is sent to me. He also stopped using checks. You can't put Centralia down anymore, due to the zip code, and he didn't want to 'burden' me with putting my address down as his. He went full cash and debit."
Becky points out that the lack of a PO box has an even more disastrous consequence: It's made pizza delivery much more difficult. "My parents, after they took away the zip code, couldn't just give directions to people. If they didn't know about Centralia, they needed to be specific. I overheard my parents say to pizza guys on the phone 'Go to Aristes. Then head south on 42. Third little street you see, halfway turn right. We're the only house on the street.'"
Tourists Are Destroying The Town
Centralia had 1,000 residents in 1980. It was down to 63 in 1990, and ten in 2010. The coal industry left after the whole, uh, giant apocalyptic coal fire thing. But even with all that, Centralia could've survived. There's the tourism aspect, and the fact that it's kind of an ideal filming location.
Unfortunately, tourism's mostly benefited neighboring towns, since the state won't issue new business permits in Centralia. The places selling souvenirs, gasoline, and lodgings are all outside Centralia's old borders. Since the tourists don't bring money into town, residents have come to hate them. Jack explained: "They'll walk on lawns and property freely, thinking it's abandoned. They'll always be asking, 'Why do you live here?' They dump trash everywhere ... The worst are the tourists who leave graffiti."
Guy has some even more complaints: "They chipped at my house. For a souvenir, like they wanted a piece of the Lord's cross. Chip chip chip, and they took a part of my stairs. Then they wrote 'Let it burn' on it. Why would they do that?"
So what can he do about it? Basically nothing. Jack explains that staying in Centralia means living beyond a lot of modern conveniences ... like law enforcement. "We have no police anymore. [State and county] police come through town, of course, but for something routine, it's not a big deal."
The town has been beaten up so badly by these visitors that, according to Jack, Hollywood doesn't really have any interest in filming there anymore. He told us about one time that several location scouts came through town (likely working on The Road), but decided they just couldn't work there. "The movie people came here, looked around, decided it had too much graffiti, and shot on another abandoned highway out near Pittsburgh. Other Hollywood people talked to my father quickly (Centralia residents don't like the press), and they liked the look, but they said 'It might be too much graffiti,' and since they never came back, it probably was."
Unless Bansky was directing, then yeah.
Becky adds: "For the last five years or so, [tourists have] been way more destructive than the fire."
Despite intermittent police crackdowns, trespassing has been on the upswing. A lot of that probably has to do with the fact that so many articles on the internet have spread the story of Centralia. So, uh, sorry about that?
Readers, trust us here: Don't visit Centralia. And if you do, don't draw on anything. And super duper don't break pieces off of people's houses. That's just messed up. Residents have enough problems.
Evan V. Symon is a journalist and interviewer for Cracked, who was on location in Centralia and didn't die. Have an awesome job/experience you'd like to see here? Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org today!
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