Geology Home Page physical geology historical geology planetary gems
Roger Weller, geology instructor
by Aaron Bradley
Inferno Beneath Silent Hill
The Underground Fires of Centralia, PA
In 1962, Centralia was an industrious town of 1,100 residents tucked away in a quiet valley of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region. Since the mid-1800s, immigrant Polish, Welsh, Ukrainian, Irish (including the infamous Molly Maguires), and Russian miners had come to find their fortunes in the lucrative mining industry that thrived in the eastern part of the state. At its peak in 1890, the federal census put the town’s population at 2,761. Anthracite coal, in comparison to its bituminous counterpart, burns hotter and cleaner, which made it ideal for heating residences and businesses using the furnaces common to the time period. It was also highly valued for its efficiency as fuel for locomotives, the dominant means of long-distance transportation and freight hauling. There was no doubt that this small town was situated atop a mineral bonanza that could easily sustain its prosperity for decades or beyond, but none expected that the source of its success would become its doom.
Over millions of years, the remains of ancient swamps (trees, ferns,
and other plants) slowly decompose, becoming peat, and are covered over by new
layers of material. Depending on the temperature and amount of pressure
during the decomposition, that peat can become lignite, and under greater
pressure of more overlying layers, eventually become coal. Large distinct
underground layers are called veins of coal, of which the Centralia area was
known to have seven major and numerous minor. The modern topography of the
region caused these veins to become curved into concentric V-shapes due to the
creation of the Appalachian Mountains pushing and folding the surface.
After erosion of the surface occurred, the ends of each vein were close enough
to the surface to allow strip mining, although the bulk of the coal remained
deep underground. The completion of the Mine Run Railroad in 1854 marked the
beginning of a boom in mining operations. Massive quantities of coal would be
shipped from the Centralia mines for decades until the onset of World War I,
when many young men began to leave for combat. Production steadily declined,
becoming worse with the stock market crash of 1929. Many of the mines were
closed, spurring a rise in bootleg mining which often employed a method called
“pillar robbing” which removed coal which supported the roof of a mine and led
to collapses and subsidence. Still, Centralia continued on with reduced, but
reliable production of anthracite by several private companies until 1950, when
the Centralia Council acquired the mineral rights beneath the town. By the
early 1960s, nearly all of the mining companies had shut down and, with
vanishing employment, the population slowly dwindled. The dreams that Centralia
once had of unimaginable wealth were going up in smoke, but they had no idea
that the town itself was in the same fate.
Conflicting stories made it impossible to know how the great Centralia coal fire truly started, as there was little evidence to prove or disprove any theories. Some said that small, older fires had been burning within the abandoned mines for many years, while others believed that open trash burning, a common practice of the time, was poorly supervised and ignited an exposed area of coal. Regardless of cause, May of 1962 was the beginning of the end for the town. Compounding the issue, Centralia and the neighboring township of Conyngham then spent a full month debating who was responsible for managing the fire, which allowed it to spread completely unchecked. Centralia eventually conceded, and called for help from both the state and federal levels. While that assistance was indeed granted, labor schedules, mandatory procedure, and funding shortages caused the containment efforts to be slow and irregular. It was not until late November that the U.S. Bureau of Mines and Pennsylvania Department of Mines and Mineral Industries decided to take more direct and drastic measures. They drilled eighty holes in areas that they believed to be just ahead of the fire, into which they poured noncombustible slurry to fill the open spaces below and suffocate the fire. This approach was not only a failure, but also made the situation worse. The agencies greatly miscalculated the amount of slurry needed to fill the numerous voids left by old mining tunnels, which left many of the boreholes open to the surface and allowed more fresh air to rush in and stoke the fire. Their estimates on the fire’s location were also quite inaccurate; some of the slurry was poured directly onto the burning vein and was shot back through the borehole like miniature volcanoes. By March of 1963, funding for the project was exhausted.
In time, Centralia
will be uninhabited and work is expected to begin to exhume much of the
remaining coal. It is estimated that tens of billions of dollars in
anthracite and other minerals remain within the veins below, but it is
impossible to estimate how much will survive after nearly a century of
smoldering. It is possible that the area may once again thrive on the mineral
wealth it contains, but the spark of settlement in Centralia is already
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