Centralia

The lost Pennsylvania mining town with an uncontrollable fire raging underground.

For most people who have heard of Centralia they know it as a spooky abandoned ghost-town. They might even know it as the inspiration for the film adaptation of Silent Hill. But before Centralia was abandoned it was a normal small Pennsylvania mining town like most others in the area.

The abandoned Old PA Route 61, now known as the “Graffiti Highway”, before being covered in dirt by the state in 2020 to discourage visitors

The Fire

In the spring of 1962 one of the town trash dumps, which had previously been a strip mine, was set on fire in an attempt to clean it up for Memorial Day. The fire got out of hand and spread down into the abandoned mining tunnels below the town. The fire was not put out.

Given the estimated amount of anthracite coal under Centralia the fire could burn for another 250 years. Temperatures easily exceed 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. As the fire rages underground it expels gases above ground and causes the ground to shift both up & down. As roads buckled and sinkholes collapsed people continued to live in town.

The fire was relatively tame until late 1979 when it was discovered that the basement of Coddingtons gas station had a floor temperature of 136° F and the lot across from the station had steam coming out of the ground. The gas station was in the direct path of the underground fire that was aggressively spreading in multiple directions. In the 1980s hot mine gasses were spewing from the ground and into homes. Residents were sickened by carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

The fire has spread across multiple fronts generally moving southwest but there is an additional fourth front to the East.

Eminent Domain

In 1980 there were around 1,000 residents of Centralia, As the fire spread across multiple fronts people began to move out in larger numbers and by 1992 there were only 5 remaining residents. What was left of the town was claimed by the state of Pennsylvania under eminent domain. Per an agreement with the state, as the remaining residents move away or die, the state demolishes their homes.

As of 2017 one of the few remaining homes left in Centralia.

Today there are still a few die-hard residents remaining. Centralia is now a grid of streets with no street signs, only four buildings, and a few cemeteries. Sidewalks are interrupted by the occasional cut-in for driveways which no longer exist. There are walkway stairs that go nowhere. You could drive through Centralia and not even notice. Nature has reclaimed most of the space that used to be people’s homes and businesses as the underground fire continues to burn.

Rather than being a freaky ghost-town, Centralia is a sad story about the end of a small town community. The documentary the Town that Was does a great job documenting the town’s history and its slow disappearance.

Ghosts As Sheets

Ghosts represented as sheets come from the tradition of burial shrouds.

For thousands of years, unless you were wealthy, you weren’t buried in a coffin. Most people were buried in other ways and one of the most common was in a shroud or sheet of some kind (the original green burial). Coffins didn’t become common in Europe until the 18th century. So until then there were a variety of different kinds of shrouds but the basic idea was that the deceased was wrapped in cloth and lowered into their grave.

In this context, the idea of seeing a sheet/burial shroud walking about in the dark is terrifying. This is the origin of ghosts being portrayed as sheets – it’s from the understanding that a deceased person in their burial shroud was out of the grave and back from the dead. In 19th century Britain impersonating a ghost in this fashion became both a prank fad and a real problem. At best a prankster would wear a sheet, run around at night, and generally frighten people in humorous ways. At worst it was a way to terrorize and assault women. There are even a few incidents of these “ghosts” frightening people out of their homes, leaving the house temporarily free to be burglarized (the original Scooby-Doo villains). It was also used in mid 19th century America by the Ku Klux Klan who pretended to be the ghosts of Confederate soldiers, come back to terrorize the people of the south.

This motif of ghosts being represented as moving burial shrouds/sheets found its way into entertainment by way of the theater in the late 19th century. The ghosts of the stage would be in white sheets, move silently, and generally do the spooky things we think of today. Early animated cartoons portrayed ghosts in a similar manner, most notably with Casper the Friendly Ghost (who is shroud-like). Today the motif is fairly harmless and pretty ubiquitous. You see it in the iconic Ghostbusters logo, the ghosts in Pac-Man, Boo from the Mario games, the ghost mascot of Snapchat (aka “Ghostface Chillah”), Boo Berry cereal, the ghosts of LEGOs, Halloween Tootsie Pop ghosts, etc. The burial shroud ghost continues to live on.

A collection of pop culture sheet ghosts.