Bizzare & Odd

How the ghost town of Centralia turned into a “branch of hell on Earth” and why it became Silent Hill’s inspiration

Currently, the Centralia town in Pennsylvania is practically uninhabited as there are only 5 residents left. But once upon a time life there was in full swing.

Founded in 1841 as a mining community, Centralia grew and became wealthy. And until 1962 it was a fairly busy place with a well-developed infrastructure. The town had 7 active churches, 5 hotels, 27 saloons, 2 theaters, a bank, a post office and 14 stores. For a settlement whose population was about 2-2.5 thousand people, this was by any means not a small achievement.

However, Centralia’s happy days ended one day in May 1962. Then, one of the representatives of the local authorities came up with the “bright” idea that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to clean up the city landfill located in an abandoned pit of an open mine from garbage.

The idea itself was actually not bad, since clearing your living space of all rubbish from time to time can be extremely useful. Only here is its embodiment.

Local firefighters were entrusted with the task of getting rid of the debris and they didn’t come up with anything better than to set fire to the landfill in the hope that most of the waste would burn safely, and that what was left after extinguishing it would be buried. Only the firefighters did not take into account the fact that under the city itself and in its environs there were huge layers of coal, onto which the fire, which was not completely extinguished, spread.

An underground fire broke out and soon engulfed the entire system of city mines, the total area of ​​which was 0.77 thousand square miles. The firefighters were unable to cope with such a scale of fire and were forced to retreat, hoping that the flame would soon go out and everything would somehow sort itself out.

They hoped in vain. The underground fire continued to rage, turning Centralia into a kind of hell on Earth. But even shrouded in smoke, she continued to exist.

And if its inhabitants at first ignored the fact that the ground was almost burning under their feet, then twenty years after the start of the fire it became clear that the situation was becoming critical. Here and there, gaps and cracks appeared in the streets and highways, blazing with heat, and the temperature of the ground in some parts of the city heated up to 167-186° F (75-80° C).

In 1981, a 12-year-old child fell into one of these cracks, which suddenly opened up under his feet. Fortunately, the boy was saved by his older brother, who caught the youngest in time and prevented him from falling into the fiery hole. But this incident caused a surge of unrest among local residents. For some time now the city has been dangerous for people to live in, and this could not be denied.

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There was no talk of putting out the underground fire that had been raging in the bowels of the earth near Centralia for almost twenty years. This “event” turned out to be too expensive. It would be easier and cheaper to resettle local residents, which, however, cost the budget $40 million.

Most of the city’s inhabitants safely moved to the neighboring villages of Mount Carmel and Ashland. But several families decided to stay despite receiving warnings from authorities that it was not safe to live in Centralia.

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However, the city itself, albeit formally, continued to exist. In 2002, the US Postal Service abolished the city’s zip code, which should have marked the end of its history.

But even now in Centralia, where there are almost no houses left, people continue to live.

Centralia, one of the few remaining residential buildings in the city. (Photo taken June 4, 2016 by Brian W. Schaller).

Why did they stay in this abandoned, inhospitable, and at times truly dangerous place? Most of them believe that the Pennsylvania authorities deceived people into leaving the city in order to take possession of its entire area and freely mine black coal there. However, the state does not have the rights to extract this mineral, which means that all the claims of local residents can hardly be considered justified.

As for the fire, it continues to rage somewhere in the bowels of the earth near Centralia. And, according to scientists, it will rage there for about 250 years. Until all the coal seams located under the city and in its environs burn out.

From the surface it is difficult to guess what is happening underground. David Decock, in his book “Invisible Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government, and the Centralia Mine Fire,” described what was happening in the depths where the fire was raging:

“This is a world in which no one can survive. It is hotter than Mercury and has an atmosphere as toxic as Saturn. Deadly clouds of carbon monoxide and other gases swirl through stone mines.”

Instead of a conclusion

It is not surprising that the human imagination completes what the eyes cannot see. And at the same time it produces monsters. It was the history of Centralia that Roger Avery was inspired by when he wrote the script for the “Silent Hill” movie. 

The movie based on the game was released in cinemas in 2006. It turned out to be successful and four years later they filmed a sequel. The Silent Hill series of games does not lose popularity either. The new one is due out this year, and there are three more on the way.

Just like Centralia, the fictional Silent Hill town was also originally a mining settlement, although located not in Pennsylvania, but in Maine.

These two cities – real and invented – have a couple more common features: both of them are shrouded in either smoke or fog, and on the streets of each of them, here and there, frightening gaps gape, leading into a fiery abyss, which seem to lie in wait for careless passers-by.

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