American Inferno



Centralia, PA. Photograph by Eric Hart.

Centralia, Pennsylvania, is a town that barely exists. It is a blip of a place, almost indistinguishable from the endless forest flanking state road 61 in the rambling northeast quarter of the state. There are no hulking ruins—not even a sign that alerts you when the town begins or ends. Though the population of Centralia peaked in the 1960s at more than two thousand people, now fewer than ten live here. After the nineties, road maps and atlases began leaving it off their indexes; the post office revoked its zip code in 2002. The reason is simple: Centralia has been on fire for almost fifty years.

The mines under the town—a vast network designed to tap the veins of purplish anthracite coal that spread weblike throughout the county—have been burning since 1962. The conflagration probably began in a stripping pit next to the cemetery, creeping along the deposits of fuel, burning up to three hundred feet underground. The town grew so warm that some residents no longer needed to turn on their basement hot-water heaters. Toxic plumes erupted, tree roots turned to ash, vegetables roasted on their stalks. The earth became unstable, and yawning holes opened into underground pits without warning: in 1981, twelve-year-old Todd Domboski fell into a sulfurous 150-foot-deep maw that appeared suddenly in his grandmother’s backyard, narrowly escaping incineration by grabbing onto a tree root. Efforts to stop the flames—clay seals to cut off oxygen, slurry pumped into the honeycombed caverns—proved useless. In the eighties, the federal government began relocating the town’s remaining population, razing their homes and shutting down a segment of the highway that had erupted. The fire may burn for another 250 years, encompassing 3,700 acres, before it runs out of fuel.

Though the number of actual Centralians has dwindled to a handful, the place exudes an undeniable romantic appeal, particularly to writers: our very own American inferno, tucked under the Appalachians. Every few years, a reporter goes in to talk to the remaining residents, wondering how and why people still live there. (Most recently, there was a haunting, lovely look into the town’s remaining homes by Juliet Linderman in McSweeney’s.) In 1991, The National Lampoon ran an article on Centralia under its travel column “Don’t Go There,” a section devoted to “mundane, horrific places.”

In fiction, Centralia has been renamed Limbo, Coal Run, Caldera. Dean Koontz’s short novel Strange Highways was inspired by a riveting portrait of the fire by photographer Renee Jacobs, who documented the town when people began moving out. Koontz’s fictional Centralia is a dramatic postapocalyptic wasteland, full of evildoers, the kind of entry point to the underworld found in Indiana Jones films. In one scene, an explosive packet of toxic gases takes out a church and the protagonist’s psychopathic brother, P. J.:

A white ball of flame spun out of the cellar floor, engulfed them, igniting P. J.’s clothes and hair, scorching away his skin in an instant. He released Joey, lost his balance, and … dropped through the steadily widening fissure into the old mine tunnel, folding the cape of fire around his body and taking it with him.

Koontz’s portrayal of the town as the gates of hell is a recurring one. Horror writer David Wellington used Centralia in Vampire Zero as the town where vampire fighter Laura Coxton returns for a final showdown, in which she dramatically declares, “I know there’s a hell. I grew up with it under my feet.” It’s been the setting for meth zombies, blood-lusting ghosts, and monsters of all stripes.

But Centralia is not really a ghost town. No deaths resulted from the fire; most of the homes were abandoned peacefully. There’s nothing there but a wounded landscape of poorly cared for paved roads and driveways disappearing into patches of grass: an otherwise beautiful spot slowly being consumed from within.

Its decline is particularly dramatic, but there are constellations of towns like Centralia all over the country, industry boomtowns that collapsed after the mines closed, near-abandoned hamlets full of shuttered buildings and a few loyal residents. Fifty miles north in Carbondale, a mine fire burned under the town for thirty-three years before petering out. Dozens of such fires rage throughout the country, impossible to extinguish, eating through coal veins from Alaska to the Carolinas. Centralia represents something far sadder than an inferno: it’s a medieval disaster occurring only a few minutes’ drive from all the trappings of 2011 life.

Joyce Carol Oates touches on that contradiction in The Tattooed Girl, in which the drifter Alma, who is recovering from a horrific attack and teetering on the edge of complete mania, hails from Centralia. Though Alma identifies as “an American and a child of hell,” she describes the place with more melancholy than horror, a human atrocity instead of an otherworldly mistake: “Some places the ground is hot to the touch. Sinkholes, poisonous gases. You couldn’t play outside. After a snowstorm, there’s places like raw wounds, where the snow has melted … [T]his is not the edge of the world, there’s TV.”

The best way to tell if you’ve reached Centralia is to look out for cars pulled out on the side of the road, curious tourists trekking over abandoned pavement with their cameras. There are smoking piles of asphalt and debris, but there are no neon signs marking the town, not even any caution tape. On some structures, paper signs read “Stay Out, Stay Alive. Mines and Quarries Are Not Playgrounds.” A sign nailed to a tree points out Wood Street in one direction, the other arrow simply marked “fire.” You could come here and never realize the chaos beneath your feet.

Indeed, when Bill Bryson visited in A Walk in the Woods, rambling around the shut-down section of 61, he had to remind himself it was he had come to Centralia.

It dawned on me that I was in the middle—very much in the middle—of an extensively smoking landscape on possibly no more than a skin of asphalt, above a fire that had been burning out of control for 34 years.

When I visited the same stretch, it was deserted except for a group of skateboarders using the upturned asphalt as a ramp. Fissures ran through, as if someone had lifted the highway and dropped it. Empty cigarette packets and bottles of cheap booze were scattered around the edges of the road, which had been covered in graffiti—song lyrics, empty boasts, crude drawings, declarations of wonder and friendship, names painted in three-foot-tall letters. “This town will take me. This town will eventually win,” one message read. But Centralia lost, a long time ago.

Margaret Eby is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.