Centralia Mine Fire: Burning Since 1962

A plume of smoke wafts from the ground in Centralia, Pennsylvania, site of an underground coal fire in 2007. (Photo by Mredden via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date in 1962, a mine fire under the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, was discovered. It continues to burn to this day.

Here are a few things you may not have known about it.

Centralia is located about halfway between Wilkes-Barre and Harrisburg, in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Coal Country. At its peak, the town had a population of about 2,700 people.

In 1962, the town’s council met to discuss cleaning up the town’s garbage dump, which was built in a 50-foot-deep strip mine.

Theories vary as to what happened next, but the most likely scenario is that the council decided to set the dump on fire, which had been done in the past at different locations. This time, however, the fire was not completely extinguished, likely allowing the fire to reach a coal vein and then begin burning the network of abandoned mines below the town.

More than a month later, a priest at a nearby church complained of foul odors from the smoldering trash. All the while, the town decided to keep dumping its garbage there.

The town hired a man with a steam shovel to try to dig out the burning material, but those efforts failed.

Next, the town declined an offer by an area miner to dig out the fire for free. In August, the state then hired a firm to dig up the dump, but prohibited them from any exploratory digging, and from digging more than 40 hours per week. Needless to say, by the time the project was finished the fires had moved beyond the original area. In October, the state awarded another contract, this one to drill into the mines and flush them with water and crushed rock. Representatives of the state then changed their minds and didn’t seal up the holes, likely allowing the fire to spread further faster.

More than 15 years later, the mayor of the town, who was also a gas station owner noticed that the temperature in his underground fuel tanks was more than 170 degrees. In 1982, a 12-year-old boy fell into a sinkhole that opened in a backyard. He was able to hang on to a tree root and be saved by his 14-year-old cousin.

The fire also claimed the smaller nearby town of Byrnesville.

In 1984, the United States Congress allocated $42 million to help relocate residents. In 1992, all properties were condemned through eminent domain. In 2013, the population of Centralia stood at seven, who reached an agreement with the state to live out their lives there.

The Centralia Fire isn’t even the longest burning mine fire in Pennsylvania. The Laurel Run fire started in 1915 when a lantern ignited a timber support and spread into the coal bed. The Jharia Coal fire in India has also burned for almost 100 years.

Our question: What musician is known by the nickname “The Coal Miner’s Daughter”?

Today is Mother’s Day in Bolivia, Navy Day in Japan and Children’s Day in Nigeria

It’s unofficially National Grape Popsicle Day, National Heat Awareness Day and Old-Time Player Piano Day.

It’s the birthday of Wild Bill Hickok, who was born in 1837, author Dashiell Hammett, who was born in 1894 and writer and environmentalist Rachel Carson, who was born in 1907.

This week in 1962, the top song in the U.S. was “Stranger on the Shore” by Acker Blik.

The No. 1 movie was “Lonely Are the Brave,” while the novel “Ship of Fools” by Katherine Anne Porter topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.

New contest

If you’ve been listening all the way to the end of this week’s episodes you will have noticed several turtle-related sound clips tagged on the end of each one. Everybody who correctly identifies all five clips, including today’s, will be entered into a drawing for one $15 MasterCard Gift Card. Go to triviapeople.com/test to enter, and make sure to include your email address so we can contact you. Friends and family of the podcast host are not eligible.


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