Centralia: Silent Hill in real life.

Centralia. The prototype of Silent Hill.

Centralia. A prototype of Silent Hill.

This town was once no different from any other mining town. But because of the pile of garbage, it became the most famous fire in the United States. The coal mine fire near the American town of Centralia, Pennsylvania has raged for 47 years. The once thriving mining town has become a veritable ghost town. It was Centralia that became the prototype of Silent Hill – the settlement from the horror movie of the same name. Now only nine people live in the prototype. Officials and scientists say that not only living, but even just being in Centralia is extremely dangerous. That’s why back in the 1980s, the U.S. Congress allocated more than $40 million to relocate Centralia residents. But locals have been suing the state for more than 20 years for the right to stay in their homes. Some explain their persistence by the fact that the government supposedly moved the residents to take possession of the city’s rich reserves of anthracite and that there was no real danger.

The Centennial Curse

A curse is said to be upon Centralia. In 1869 the town was cursed by a Catholic priest, Father McDermott, after he was beaten by members of Molly McGuire’s secret Irish society.

“Have you ever heard of Molly McGuires? – Local resident Cathy Urbinovich said. – They say they were Irish bandits, but they were actually helping the miners. And there was a priest, Father McDermott at St. Ignatius Church – he was anti-Molly. They beat him up real bad once. And that Sunday during the service, the saintly father said that there would be a curse on Centralia and there would be a big fire.”

About a hundred years later, the curse came true.

Fire under the town.

The fire at the old mine in Centralia began in 1962. There are several versions of how the disaster started. According to one of them, the city administration hired some members of the volunteer fire brigade to burn the garbage that had accumulated in the old mine. The procedure was routine – the mine had been used as a garbage dump for years. Usually, when the garbage burned out, the remains were extinguished, so the dump was ready for use again. That year, however, firefighters didn’t do their job completely. And the fire spilled over from the trash to the coal mine that runs beneath the town.

For almost 20 years the fire didn’t particularly bother locals or the state administration. But in 1981, 12-year-old Todd Domboski nearly fell into a deep crevasse that suddenly opened right in front of him. The boy was rescued by his brother, and the incident drew public attention. That’s when the whole country learned about the fire in Centralia. Within three years, the U.S. government provided funds and relocated virtually all of the city’s residents to nearby communities. In 2002, Centralia ceased its official existence – the city’s zip code was revoked.

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Incidentally, Father McDermott said that only his church, St. Ignatius Church, would remain in Centralia after the fire. However, only the Orthodox church, which stands on a hill on the outskirts of town, was untouched by the underground fire.

Centralia – danger to life

“We’ve tried a variety of ways to fight the underground fire,” Dan Griffiths, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said in an interview. – We’ve tried to run utilities and flood the mine, but because of the structure of the local coal mines, which resemble a bee honeycomb, that method proved ineffective. The possibility of trenching the burning area with fence ditches was considered, but even that proved unfeasible in practice. And in the early 1980s it was decided that the most effective solution to deal with the threat to the lives and health of local residents – the purchase and liquidation of the entire housing stock of the city. According to Griffiths, being in Centralia is extremely dangerous. “The main threat in Centralia right now is unstable ground with extremely high temperatures near the surface. If someone throws a glass soft drink bottle in there and a hole opens up in the soil in that spot because of a fire, the glass will just melt. There is no guarantee that near such openings, there won’t be an unexpected sinkhole and you won’t end up with your feet in a thousand-degree heat. The federal highway that led to Centralia had to be closed and rebuilt – it just melted away,” Griffiths said.

That there are still people living in Centralia, Griffiths knows. “People are still there, very few of them – four families, I think. These people are taking serious risks, they’re going at it consciously. But if the ground beneath their house opens up because of an underground fire while they’re sleeping, they don’t realize the place is filled with carbon monoxide. We think that risk is their own business. They’ve been resisting relocation for 30 years, it’s a long history for the state of Pennsylvania,” Griffiths noted.

In May 2010, the state appeals court refused to consider the merits of the remaining Centralia residents’ lawsuit against the local government, which insists on vacating the area. According to the judge, the issue should be considered by the supreme court of the country. The legal battle has been going on for about 20 years. Most of the residents have long since received compensation from the state and have left for nearby towns.

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The city that was.

In its best years, Centralia had five hotels, twenty-seven saloons, two theaters, a bank, a post office, and 14 stores. The town had a population of about three thousand. Life in Centralia was no different from the many mining camps of the late nineteenth century. Coal mines, as we would say now, were town-forming enterprises in the whole region. Without the fire, Centralia would have been like the neighboring town of Ashland, home to one of the oldest coal mines in the United States, the Pioneer Tunnel. Small houses, narrow streets, tasty homemade food in the cafe.

You can get to Centralia from Ashland very quickly-it’s only a few miles on Highway 61, which has become a symbol of the ghost town. When dips appeared on the roadway, they had to cost a bypass. A closed section of the four-lane highway was scrawled with graffiti by movie buffs and extreme tourists. Residents who remained in the legendary town were tired of the public’s attention – there are signs on the houses that read, “Reporters, no interviews.” Apart from a few houses that have survived in Centralia, on the outskirts of the city is a municipal building, in the garage of which firefighters and ambulances stand in full readiness. The siren that alerts the city to emergencies, though rusty, is working properly. No one is inside the building itself.

Where is the real Silent Hill? A ghost town in Pennsylvania

For half a century now, the burning Centralia has been keeping everyone who is not indifferent to abandoned locations and strange stories in suspense. I, of course, am among them. In fact, for Americans, Centralia is comparable to Chernobyl for Russians and Ukrainians. Despite the fact that the disaster is far from the scale of nuclear pollution, the city is considered dangerous, because the fires burn just under the ground, not dying out for a minute.

(on the approach to the city)

In the mid-20th century, all local residents were in danger of extinction due to toxic dangerous gases, so they were evacuated. In the aftermath, Centralia was literally wiped off the face of the earth, all because of a simple mistake by a couple of people.

(historical photo of the city)

However, thanks to this mistake, the famous horror film “Silent Hill”, based on the game of the same name, appeared. The prototype of the burning city was just Centralia, although it was not directly involved in the filming. Those who are in the subject, driving through deserted areas, can periodically fantasize about how the pyramid-head (one of the most popular characters in the game) suddenly pops out from around the corner. I, for example, had a lot of fun walking through places that I had only seen in virtual space before. Just look at this handsome guy.

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(Images from the movie Silent hill).

You can drive past the town with no problem and not even realize that life was once boiling there. The highway leading to the main streets of Centralia is completely unremarkable, and from the outside it looks like just an ordinary crossroads.

(“Take out the fire, not the people,” “Stop talking – start digging.”)

The fog enveloping the town stays here almost around the clock, which makes Centralia’s sad story turn mystical.

Where did it all begin?

I like to study the fate of a place while I’m there. Back in 1962, the mayor of the city found five volunteers who could, in the shortest possible time, eliminate all the garbage piled up in the city’s landfill. The five of them decided to do it in the simplest way – to burn it, but they didn’t take into account one very important detail – the dump was located right next to an abandoned coal mine of the late 19th century.

(historical photo of the city)

Naturally, by the law of the genre, the fire came down. After seeing what had happened a squad of fire-fighters was immediately called in, but the fire could not be put out to the end, and the flames began to rapidly fill the tunnels, gradually igniting all the mines under the city.

(historical photo of the city)

After a while, people began to complain of feeling unwell as the amount of carbon monoxide, corrosive gas grew larger every day, but the authorities were in no hurry to take action. Attempts to remove the coal burning under the asphalt also came to nothing. The climax came one day, when a twelve-year-old boy fell into an underground hole caused by high temperatures. Fortunately his older brother managed to save the child.

When the owner of the gas station decided to check the remaining fuel in his tanks, located underground by American standards, his meter literally glowed within seconds. What was the owner’s surprise after measuring the internal temperature, which according to the thermometer reached 80 degrees Celsius.

(The red four-wheeled friend abandoned by everyone, a modern car is visible in front of it, and there was an inhabited house in front of it)

The problem was eliminated only in 1984, but how? Congress decided that there was no point in saving the city from the acrid smoke and extinguishing the underground fire due to the futility of these actions. Then, with an enormous amount of money from the Pennsylvania state budget, it was decided to relocate all of Centralia’s residents to neighboring towns.

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(Video from the city’s official website of how everything happened. Warning. The speech is in English).

But it was not without a “cheese in a mousetrap” – in response to Congress, the Pennsylvania senators demanded that the city’s land be given to them for private use, that is, simply to take it away from its rightful owners, the local people. Of course, the people were against it, but no one asked the townspeople. By 2002, Centralia was completely deserted, and its name with the streets and the route to town were removed from all maps of the United States. The zip code was closed and all communications were cut off. But in 2012, seven activists opposed to the violent dispossession decided to return to their hometowns. In 2014, the population was already 11, compared to a thousand residents in 1984.

In 2016, they planned to open the memory capsule buried in 1966, but for some reason they did it two years earlier.

(The former south main street now stands deserted.)

Today, Centralia’s population is 6 and they all form a kind of advocacy club for their town.

(One of the inhabited houses)

Over time, many of the houses were demolished, but the residents managed to save a couple and somehow got electricity there. The toxic smoke, emanating from hundreds of holes in the asphalt road, the former authorities shrouded in pipes and led outside the borders of the settlement – created a so-called sarcophagus.

(our car next to the abandoned Route 61, in the part where the asphalt was not damaged)

The holes that had formed throughout the city were filled in, but the smoke is still slowly seeping in, filling the surrounding area and creating a creepy atmosphere. The smell, of course, hasn’t gone anywhere, either.

(There used to be a lot of life here).

What else can you find in the city?

In fact, residents didn’t initially know there was no going back, so many left their belongings and even parked cars in hopes of fixing the burning problem.

(In one place there is a cluster of cars like this.)

(now the whole town is a big dump)

What’s more, these lands were once settled by immigrants from the Russian Empire. If you like the creepy atmosphere as much as I do, I suggest a walk through one of the four cemeteries where you can make sure there is a Russian-speaking diaspora.

(one of the cemeteries we went to)

(mystical fog changed color at sunset)

(some of the graves are very old)

(times when the cemetery is open for visitors in season)

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Most of the graves have inscriptions in Old Slavonic, and the fog laying just above the stone tombstones adds to the adrenaline in the blood. Although in fact, there is nothing to be afraid of, the city is not among the criminal.

(the fog from the smoke periodically covers more and more, and another inhabited house can be seen behind)

(nature takes its course)

The feeling of a lost existence is augmented by a visit to the hill on which stands the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which, by the way, is in operation. You can visit it if you come to town on Saturday or Sunday. A little higher up is the municipal building with fire engines, but completely deserted, as well as the abandoned police station.

(it feels like ashes are about to fall from the sky, like in the movie)

(there’s a sign outside the church that says “private property, no trespassing”)

Centralia still doesn’t exist in the state of Pennsylvania updates, only the name remains on the road sign. The same activists erected a yellow sign at the site where the fire started half a century ago. On it they address the governor and lament his waste of budgetary funds. They appeal for reasonableness and want to be left alone and to return Centralia to its former status instead of destroying it by allocating huge sums of money. The people want to continue living in their town and paying taxes.

(monument next to the very mine and landfill)

(the former landfill is fenced off)

The most famous monument of the city is the highway number 61, but few people notice it. The highway was opened a year after the failed attempt to burn the landfill, because at that time no one paid any attention to the burgeoning underground fire. The entire length of the highway is 130 kilometers, and only 4 became abandoned, around which a detour was created after the asphalt cover was broken because of the rising temperatures.

(local artwork and the very closed part of the highway)

(mayor with a cigarette, which residents blame for all the troubles)

It is this part of the road that can be seen on the Internet in pictures among the many stories about the abandoned town of Centralia, as it has subsequently become a real canvas for people who are not indifferent to its history. By the way, among the artwork can be found a stylized drawing of the mayor with an unextinguished cigarette in his teeth.

They say that the fire under the city will not end for another 250 years … These are eerie predictions of the real state of affairs, or what human negligence can lead to.

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