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CENTRALIA: THE ABANDONED TOWN THAT INSPIRED SILENT HILL

There's more to this small abandoned town the northeast of the USA than just inspiration for Silent Hill. It's also home to a coal fire that's been burning beneath it since 1962. Welcome to Centralia.

In 1841, a man named Johnathan Faust opened the Bull's Head Tavern, and a town was born. Called Centralia, the first two mines were opened in 1856, and it sat on top of one of the largest anthracite coal deposits in the world.

By 1890, its population peaked at 2,761 people, and by 1927, anthracite mining was at its peak. Two years later, though, the Wall Street Crash had a massive impact on the economy, resulting in many mines closing.

And this is where it gets interesting. Bootleg miners continued to mine in several idle mines, "pillar robbing" as they went. The illegal miners would extract the coal from these pillars, often resulting in collapses. Legitimate mining continued too, until the 1960s when the last of the mining companies folded. 

In 1962, while attempting to clean up the local landfill by setting it on fire, the local firemen inadvertently set the labyrinth of coal mines beneath Centralia on fire too.

At first, life went on for the locals. In fact, it would take 17 years before people started noticing. One day, gas-station owner and mayor was checking the fuel levels on his underground tanks. When he withdrew the dipstick, the liquid seemed hot, so he lowered a thermometer into the tank. He was shocked to see that the temperature of the fuel was 172 degrees Fahrenheit, that's 77.8 degrees Celcius!

People started noticing more and more smoke billowing out of the old mines ventilation tunnels. In some areas, even the road was warming up. Then, in 1981, 12-year-old Todd Domboski fell into a sinkhole that suddenly opened up beneath him in his backyard.

Luckily for the young Todd, there just happened to be a root of a tree running through the middle of the four-foot-wide hole that he managed to grab ahold of. If that root wasn't there, he would have plummeted 150 feet into the boiling earth.

Measurements were taken of the gas at the sinkhole, and it was found to contain harmful levels of carbon monoxide. This prompted the government to get involved, and in 1983, the US Congress allocated over $42 million for relocation efforts.

Most of Centralia's 1,000-odd residents accepted the government's offer to purchase their property and, by 1990, 500 structures had been demolished.

This left just 63 hardcore residents left who flatly refused to leave, ignoring the Pennsylvanian governor. He invoked eminent domain and condemned all the remaining building in the town. Even the US Postal Service discontinued Centralia's ZIP code and stopped posting mail there.

While all this was going on, the fire continued to rage, causing more sinkholes, swallowing up coffins buried in the cemetery, damaging roads and buildings, and polluting the air.

At one point, a sinkhole swallowed up part of the highway Route 61 into the town. Instead of doing a repair, they decided to build an entirely new road to avoid any other unstable land, turning the original road into a ghost highway. Somewhere along the line, someone started to graffiti the tarmac and, within a couple of years, it became a tourist attraction, much to the chagrin of the few remaining residents.

In 2019, just 11 people remained in Centralia, with the remaining houses dotted around the dilapidated roads, with nature reclaiming the rest. They have one fire truck operated by volunteers, a Ukrainian church – which sits atop a foundation of rock and not coal – and the rundown Centralia Municipal Building.

Centralia has been the inspiration for many documentaries and movies, like the 1991 film Nothing But Trouble, starring Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy and Demi Moore. It also inspired the horror media franchise, Silent Hill, which included movies and video games.

The underground fire is expected to rage on for another 250 years. But it's not the only one, there are many others currently burning away in mines all around the world. 

To find out more about Centralia and the other underground fires, then join YouTuber, Joe Scott, in his episode of Answers With Joe.


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