Centralia: Ghost Town on Fire

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Imagine living in a town that is on fire, where the ground bubbles and boils, and life consuming sinkholes appear suddenly.  In 1984, the US Government ordered a total evacuation of the town on the heels of a gas station explosion and several children having been eaten by sinkholes.  Yet, 5 people still live amongst the poisonous gas and constant threat of danger.  This is one interesting and unique story and its legend survives in pilgrimages and popular culture.

First, here is the timeline of the infamous town of Centralia.  Centralia was founded in 1749 when a parcel of land was bought by Colonial agents from a Native American tribe for £500.  The land exchanged several times from there:

  • 1770:  Colonial settlers surveyed and explored the area
  • 1793:  Robert Morris, Revolutionary War hero and signer of the Declaration of Independence bought the land
  • 1798:  Morris declared bankruptcy, was sent to debtors prison, and turned the land over to the bank
  • 1830:  French sea captain, Stephen Girard, bought the land at an auction in Philadelphia for $30,000 because of his interest in anthracite coal in the area
  • 1832:  Jonathan Faust opened the Bull’s Head Tavern, which gave the town its name
  • 1842:  Locust Mining Coal and Iron Company purchased the land around Bull’s Head
  • 1842:  Alexander Rea of Locust Mountain Coal and Iron relocated his family to Bull’s Head and began planning a town, which he named Centralia
  • 1854:  Mine Run Railroad was completed and large scale coal mining began
  • 1856:  Locust Mine and Coal Ridge Mine opened for operations
  • 1860:  Hazeldell Colliery began operations
  • 1862:  Centralia officially opened
  • 1866:  The Borough of Centralia was incorporated
  • 1868:  Alexander Rea was murdered in his buggy on the road to Centralia from Mount Carmel by a gang of Molly McGuires
  • 1890:  The population peaks at 2,761 and had 5 hotels, 27 saloons, 7 churches, 2 theaters, 1 bank, a post office, 14 general and grocery stores
  • 1917:  Production began to decline due to workforce participation in WWI and new forms of energy
  • 1929:  The stock market crash caused Lehigh Valley Coal Company to close 5 mines which cause bootleg mining in the area
  • 1960:  In the early 1960s all remaining companies closed
  • 1962:  The Centralia Coal fire began
  • 1966:  Rail service ended
  • 1979:  Surface problems began with the explosion of the gas station and sinkholes.  Carbon Monoxide levels are critical
  • 1980:  The population declined to 1,012
  • 1983:  Congress allocated $42 million for Centralia relocation
  • 1992:  Governor Ben Casey invoked eminent domain and lawsuits began
  • 2002:  The US Postal Service discontinued Centralia’s zip code
  • 2005:  Pennsylvania ended the relocation contract
  • 2006:  16 homes are left in Centralia
  • 2009:  11 homes are left in Centralia: Governor Ed Randall began formal evictions of the remaining residents and more legal efforts began
  • 2010: 5 homes remain in Centralia: near by Byrnesville is required to be abandoned due to the extension of the fire to the town
  • 2011:   A Federal judge refused to issue an injunction to stop the condemnation of the remaining homes
  • 2012 A Commonwealth court concluded that the taking of the homes cannot be reopened since its purpose for the condemnation of properties no longer exists
  • 2013 the remaining 7 residents settled their law which stated that the condemnation was no longer needed since the fire had moved and the air quality had improved to the point that it was the same as the town of Lancaster.  They received a total of $349, 500 in compensation
  • 2020:  Pagniotti enterprises closed old route 61 used by tourists due to Covid
Historical population
Census Pop.
1870 1,342
1880 1,886 40.5%
1890 2,761 46.4%
1900 2,048 −25.8%
1910 2,429 18.6%
1920 2,336 −3.8%
1930 2,446 4.7%
1940 2,449 0.1%
1950 1,986 −18.9%
1960 1,435 −27.7%
1970 1,165 −18.8%
1980 1,017 −12.7%
1990 63 −93.8%
2000 21 −66.7%
2010 10 −52.4%
2020 (est.) 11 10.0%

So, what is left of Centralia?  Not much, I found some pictures since my trip to the site was derailed by Hurricane Ida and the subsequent flooding.  I plan another attempt and will update you on Centralia. In April 2020, Pagnotti Enterprises, who owns Route 61 and the adjacent land,  filled the graffitied road with dirt, trees, and grass.  The road is now obscured and state police still continue to monitor for trespassers. There are quite a few YouTube documentaries and films.  Here are a couple:



What I found interesting after looking up Pagnotti is a 2015 sentencing of Wilkes-Barre based coal company heir Louis Pagnotti III to 20 months in federal prison for lying to a grand jury.  This conviction and sentencing stem from a “plea agreement Pagnotti signed in December in which he admitted to lying to a grand jury that was investigating an elaborate money laundering operation.  Pagnotti, 53, of West Pittston, and a co-defendant Frank Pavlico, were charged in 2005 with funneling money from a drug dealer through a coal company owned by Pagnotti, as well as several other businesses owned by others.”  Pagnotti’s sentence was 10 to 17 months less than the Federal recommendation due to schizophrenia and other mental conditions.






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Stay tuned….I feel that Centralia isn’t dead yet.



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Pagnotti gets a 20-month sentence on plea for perjury


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