Although Pennsylvania is home to large metropolitan areas, it’s also a state full of quaint and charming towns. There’s the spa town of Bedford with its walkable historic district. And Gettysburg is another cozy village, rich with the history of America’s founding.
But an even smaller place in Pennsylvania has a population that is so tiny that every resident could take a ride in a compact car together. However, unlike the picturesque towns mentioned above, Centralia has a dark history. Read on to discover the smallest town in Pennsylvania.What is the Smallest Town in Pennsylvania?
According to the United States Census Bureau, Centralia, PA, has a population of five, making it the smallest town in Pennsylvania.
Where is Centralia Located on the Map?
Centralia, PA, is located in Columbia County in east central Pennsylvania, about two and half hours from Philadelphia. Nearby towns include Ashland and Mount Carmel.
History of Centralia: The Smallest Town in Pennsylvania
Native Americans once lived in the area where Centralia sits today. But in 1749, Native American tribes living in Columbia County sold their land to European colonists for 500 pounds.
Settlers came to the area, which began to grow during Pennsylvania’s coal mining boom of the late 1800s. The town reached its peak of nearly 3,000 residents. At its most bustling time, Centralia had a bank, a post office, two theaters, five hotels, seven churches, and 27 saloons. But, like most mining towns that grew quickly in the 1890s, Centralia’s prosperity began to wane. Many young men working as miners enlisted in the army during World War I. Demand for coal began to lessen as other forms of energy were developed.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Lehigh Valley Coal Company closed five of its mines in and around Centralia. Through the years, more mines closed, and by the 1960s, all the mining companies in Centralia shut down, although bootleg mining continued.
Centralia Mining Fire of 1962
In the 1960s Centralia had a reduced population of around 1,400 but was still a strong and close-knit community. However, this was set to change on the fateful day of May 27, 1962, when the Centralia mine fire was set. Although there are several theories as to how the fire began, the prevailing one is that it started by the town’s attempt to clean up a landfill.
In preparation for Memorial Day celebrations, the Borough Council ordered the landfill in town to be burned. Unfortunately, this landfill was sitting on top of an old strip mine. The pit had been left open and was about 75 feet wide and 50 feet deep. Instead of just burning the trash, the fire made its way through the network of mine tunnels and continued smoldering.
By the time the town realized the problem, it was too late. Although firefighters pumped water into the tunnels and covered the surface with clay to smother the flames, the damage was done. The fire continued to burn through the years despite numerous attempts to quench it.
The Fire Still Burns: A Timeline
As the fire burned on, residents went about their business in the town above. The problem became hard to ignore as the years progressed. Smoke wafted up from sinkholes, resident’s basements were filled with gas, and people began to report health problems from the fumes.
In 1981, a 12-year-old boy fell into a massive sinkhole that had opened up in his grandmother’s backyard. Fortunately, he was pulled to safety by his cousin.
Officials could no longer dismiss the smoldering fire beneath the town of Centralia and the dangers it held. In 1983, Congress spent $42 million to buy out the town’s residents. Most people took the offer, 500 structures were demolished, and by 1990 only 63 people remained.
In 1992, the governor of Pennsylvania condemned the remaining buildings in town and rerouted the highway (Route 61) to go around the city.
2000 – Present Day
In 2002, the US Postal Service discontinued the zip code. In 2009, the state began a formal eviction process of the remaining residents. By 2010, only ten people remained, and most of the buildings had been razed.
In 2013, the population was down to seven. Through court order, these remaining residents can stay in their homes for the rest of their lives, but they can’t sell their homes or pass down their property. As of 2020, the U.S. Census listed Centralia’s population at five.
There is no end in sight for the smoldering mines. Experts say the underground fires may continue for another 250 years. The fire is somewhere 300 to 400 feet below ground and has reached temperatures of 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit. Puffs of steam can be seen emitting from random spots along the ground, sinkholes could open up at any time, and dangerous gases are in the air.
What is Left in Pennsylvania’s Smallest Town?
Today, Centralia is known for its famous long-lasting fire and status as an almost ghost town. The abandoned stretch of Route 61, cracked and smoldering, became a popular tourist destination. Hundreds of visitors over the years covered it in colorful graffiti. Known as Graffiti Highway, the remaining residents of Centralia had it covered with dirt in 2020 to discourage visitors. All that’s left of Graffiti Highway today are the photographs tourists have taken over the years.
Most buildings in the borough have been demolished. The grid system of roads is still in place, but it’s cracked, overgrown, and mainly leads to nowhere. Abandoned, cracked sidewalks remain, and the occasional concrete steps left behind are attached to nothing. Signs warn visitors of sinkholes and poisonous monoxide gas.
Besides the few houses that remain, there are four cemeteries, a Veteran’s Memorial sitting alone in a field, and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, which still holds Mass every Sunday.
Wildlife in Centralia
While Pennsylvania is home to a variety of animal species including white-tailed deer, black bears, bald eagles, muskrats, beavers, and wild turkeys, Centralia has been ravaged by the continuously burning fire. However, recent efforts have been made to restore wildlife habitats and improve the ecosystem. In 2021, a local nonprofit group planted 250 apple tree saplings and set up a Monarch butterfly waystation in town by planting milkweed and other pollinator plants.
New Microbes Discovered in the Steaming Hot Soil
You wouldn’t typically find thermophile bacteria living in central Pennsylvania. Thermophiles are microbes that require extreme heat to live. But, a team of scientists has discovered bacteria living in the hot soil of Centralia that had never before been identified.
Can You Visit Centralia Today?
Although people still come through the area to see the ruins of the town and look for smoke wafting up from the ground, officials warn of hidden dangers.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) urges visitors to stay away from Centralia. According to the government website, “Walking and/or driving in the immediate area could result in serious injury or death. There are dangerous gases present, and the ground is prone to sudden and unexpected collapse. DEP strongly discourages anyone from visiting the immediate area.”
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