Christopher Sebela

writer, wronger, rearranger

Centralia is a borough and ghost town in Columbia County, Pennsylvania, United States. Its population has dwindled from over 1,000 residents in 1981 to 12 in 2005, 9 in 2007, and 7 in 2010 as a result of a mine fire burning beneath the borough since 1962. Centralia is now the least-populous municipality in Pennsylvania.

All properties in the borough were claimed under eminent domain by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1992 (and all buildings therein were condemned), and Centralia’s ZIP code was revoked by the Post Office in 2002.

It is not known for certain how the fire that made Centralia essentially uninhabitable was ignited. One theory asserts that in May 1962, the Centralia Borough Council hired five members of the volunteer fire company to clean up the town landfill, located in an abandoned strip-mine pit next to the Odd Fellows Cemetery. This had been done prior to Memorial Day in previous years, when the landfill was in a different location. The firefighters, as they had in the past, set the dump on fire and let it burn for a time. Unlike in previous years, however, the fire was not extinguished correctly.

In 1979, locals became aware of the scale of the problem when a gas-station owner and then mayor, John Coddington, inserted a stick into one of his underground tanks to check the fuel level. When he withdrew it, it seemed hot, so he lowered a thermometer down on a string and was shocked to discover that the temperature of the gasoline in the tank was 172 °F. Statewide attention to the fire began to increase, culminating in 1981 when 12-year-old resident Todd Domboski fell into a sinkhole four feet wide by 150 feet deep that suddenly opened beneath his feet in a backyard. Only the quick work of his cousin Eric Wolfgang in pulling Todd out of the hole saved Todd’s life, as the plume of hot steam billowing from the hole was measured as containing a lethal level of carbon monoxide.

In 1984, the U.S. Congress allocated more than $42 million for relocation efforts. Most of the residents accepted buyout offers and moved. A few families opted to stay despite warnings from Pennsylvania officials.

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