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The Town That Was

May 2015

A ghost town is a once-populated area that is abandoned, or partially abandoned, because the economic activity that supported it has failed, or due to natural disasters, government actions, environmental or nuclear disasters or war.

Centralia, Pennsylvania, is one such partially abandoned ghost town. Deep in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region, the town once had a population of almost 2500 residents in the 1940s.  There are now less than 10 residents left, along with 6 houses, a work garage, the municipal / fire hall building and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary just outside the north borough limits.

Centralia was once a vibrant town with five hotels, seven churches, nineteen general stores, two jewelry stores, and about twenty-six saloons.

While there are many towns that have been abandoned because the natural resources that supported it ran out, Centralia was abandoned as a result of coal-mine fire that has been burning beneath the borough since 1962.

In May 1962, the borough’s fire company undertook a controlled burn of garbage in the town dump, located in an abandoned strip-mine pit at the south-east end of town, in an effort to clean up the dump in preparation for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend. Unfortunately, the fire was not fully extinguished and an unsealed opening in the pit allowed the fire to enter the labyrinth of abandoned coal mines beneath Centralia.

Attempts to extinguish the fire over the next several months and years that followed all failed, sometimes due to nothing more than the contract money running out, bringing about a work stoppage. A new contract would then have to be put to tender.

Everything from excessive bureaucracy to downright incompetence seemed to play against the residents of Centralia.

The situation deteriorated over the next 2 decades, with carbon monoxide-filled smoke billowing out of cracks in the ground and later specially placed smokestacks designed to “safely” vent the gases.  Residents kept carbon monoxide detectors in their homes to monitor the gases. 

In 1979, then-mayor John Coddington, who owned a gas station in town at the corner of South Street and Locust Avenue, discovered that gasoline from his tanks was escaping from the gas overflow vents.  It was determined that the gasoline in the tanks was 172 degrees Fahrenheit.  The gas station was forced to close shortly afterwards and became the first building in Centralia to be demolished as a result of the fire on 8 November 1981.

In 1981, 12 year-old resident Todd Domboski fell into a sinkhole behind his grandmother’s house that suddenly opened up.  Fortunately Domboski’s cousin Eric Wolfgang was able to pull him out.  The hole contained lethal levels of carbon monoxide and the heat at the bottom of the hole was between 400-600 degrees Fahrenheit.

By the early 1980s, approximately 200 acres were affected by the fire and homes in the area had to be abandoned as carbon monoxide levels reached life threatening levels.

A three-quarter mile section of Pennsylvania Route 61 leading out of the south end of town, had to be abandoned in 1984 due to cracking and buckling from the heat of the fire.  Route 61 was re-routed along the Byrnesville Road, before re-joining the original section south of Byrnesville.

Also by 1984, the U.S. Congress approved over $42 million to relocate the residents.  Most of the over 1, 000 residents remaining in the town accepted buyout offers and moved to nearby towns, but some families elected to stay.  This had the effect of literally tearing apart the tight-knit community.  Neighbours and even family members were pitted against each other as some felt that the borough could still be saved versus those who felt it was too dangerous to stay.

Vacant homes and buildings were demolished and slowly the town began to disappear, leaving behind empty streets and overgrown lots.

By 1992, Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey’s government invoked the right of Eminent Domain, which revoked the ownership of all remaining buildings and homes from the residents and condemned them.  All of the approximately 60 remaining residents were ordered to vacate their homes and leave town but some still refused to leave.

Lawsuits filed by the remaining residents occupied the next 2 decades, culminating in Governor Ed Rendell issuing a formal eviction notice to the remaining residents of Centralia.  Among those evicted in this round was John Lokitis Jr., who was prominently featured in the 2007 documentary film “The Town That Was”, which profiled the decline of Centralia.

Prior to his eviction, John Lokitis became the unofficial caretaker of the town after the State of Pennsylvania stopped cutting grass in town and otherwise maintaining the town.  He cut the grass of several vacant lots along Park Street West near his house, formerly occupied by his grandparents George and Catherine Lokitis.  The land he cut was once occupied by the American Legion Post 608 and that of the former Hubert Eicher High School.

The Legion property once contained a memorial bell, park bench and a time capsule buried in 1966, scheduled to be opened in 2016, but opened 2 years earlier due to threats of vandalism.

Lokitis also cut the grass along the west 200 block area of Locust Street (the main north-south road through town), unlocked and re-locked the cemetery gates at St Ignatius Cemetery every morning and night and repainted the American Legion bench on Locust Street as needed.  He even refurbished several of the town’s Christmas decorations, at his own expense, and mounted them on the hydro poles near his house at Christmas time.

On 31 October 2013, in a sudden turn of events, the 8 residents remaining settled their lawsuit with the state government, receiving a cash payout of $349,500 and being granted permission to stay in their homes for as long as they live, after which their homes will revert to the state and be demolished.

One of the remaining residents is Thomas Hynoski, who is the Chief of the Centralia Fire Company.

Centralia’s last official Mayor, Carl Womer, died on 24 May 2014 at the age of 90.

The Centralia mine fire also extended beneath the Village of Byrnesville, just south of Centralia, causing the abandonment of the village as well.  All that remains of Byrnesville is a non-descript concrete-block garage.

Over the years, a conspiracy theory has been floated about as to the reason for the destruction of Centralia, that being the government and private mining businesses conspiring to mine the vast coal deposits under the town.  Centralia owns the mining rights to the mineral under the town, unlike most other boroughs in Pennsylvania, and would have to surrender these rights for the coal to be mined by another entity.  Several facts dispute this theory though, including the fact that mining the coal that remains under the town, an amount that remains in dispute, may be unprofitable given the falling prices of anthracite coal in comparison to cheap bituminous coal and that Eminent Domain seizure of property would have no effect on the mineral rights issue.

However, feeding this conspiracy were the offers over the years by several mining companies to dig out the burning coal, thus cutting off the fuel supply to the fire, in exchange for the rights to the remaining coal, along with the government’s questionable actions in dealing with the mine fire over the years, especially in the early days of the fire, and subsequent use of Eminent Domain when the last of the residents refused to leave in the early 1990s.

There is another more sinister theory involving the long-deceased priest of S. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church, Father Daniel Ignatius McDermott, the first Roman Catholic priest to call Centralia home.

Legend tells that Centralia was cursed by Father Daniel Ignatius McDermott after Town founder Alexander Rae had been murdered on 17 October 1868, while riding in a horse-drawn buggy between Centralia and Mount Carmel, four miles to the west. Suspicion fell on members of the Molly Maguires, an Irish-Catholic secret society that fought the coal barons of the day for the rights of coal miners.

Father McDermott, suspecting the killers were members of his congregation, began denouncing the Molly Maguires from the pulpit. On a night in 1869, a group of men attacked Father McDermott in the church cemetery in retaliation.

According to the legend, Father McDermott made his way back to the church after being assaulted and rang the church bell to summon the townsfolk, after which he pronounced a curse on the town. According to Father McDermott, a day would come when only St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church would be left standing in Centralia.

Well, McDermott appears to have been partially right. Although there are eight buildings remaining in Centralia, St. Ignatius Church is not one of them. The church closed in June 1995 and was demolished in November 1997, due to the fact that it was directly in the impact zone of the mine fire and posed a danger of carbon monoxide exposure to anyone inside the church.

The only church remaining in the immediate area is Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Ukrainian Catholic church just outside the northern limits of the borough. Although technically not a Centralia church, many of the former residents were parishioners. Some believed that Father McDermott’s prophecy simply foretold the wrong church.

Further diminishing the accuracy of the story is the fact that the bell McDermott allegedly rang to summon the townsfolk was actually not installed at St Ignatius until 1874, two years after he left the parish. Even with these inaccuracies, this legend came up in conversation in the early 1980s as Centralia residents saw their borough slowly disappearing.

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary was spared the same fate as other buildings in Centralia because a geological survey determined that the church was built on top of rock rather than coal.  It still serves a thriving parish family and was declared a holy pilgrimage site in 2016.

Photographer Norman Richards states on his web site, “The idea to start a town and make it grow makes sense; it’s been done over and over. But how often do you have to face the possibility of “ending” your hometown? Even gold and copper-mining towns of the Old West simply died out due to people moving out—they didn’t have to make a concerted effort to “end” their town.”

This is a common sentiment expressed by former residents and those with a fascination with Centralia.

I would add to this that the true tragedy of the demise of Centralia isn’t so much that the town died, but how it died.  Centralia isn’t the first ghost town and it won’t be the last.

Centralia didn’t have to die, but it did because of government bureaucracy and incompetence in extinguishing the fire.


For more about Centralia and the mine fire, you can watch the excellent documentary, “The Town That Was” on You Tube at:  www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhOeyWlrSEw

Another documentary “Centralia Fire”. which originally aired on PBS in 1982, can also be found on You Tube at:  www.youtube.com/watch?v=ow4UERykRbg

A news story produced by WGAL out of Lancaster, PA in 2005, a  report that includes an interview with “mayor”, Lamar Mervine –http://www.centraliapa.org/video-report-centralia-historic-footage.

A news story produced by WFMZ out of Allentown, PA and first aired in 2009 – http://www.centraliapa.org/lost-town-of-centralia-pa-news-video.

Watch a video shot by a drone flying over Centralia:  www.centraliapa.org/exploring-centralia-pennsylvania-drone-footage

A short documentary featuring Fire Chief Thomas Hynoski – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8m6lkDmyy9s

A 5 minute clip of a documentary – https://www.circa.com/story/2017/05/23/whoa/this-town-is-on-fire-it-has-literally-been-burning-for-55-years-and-counting

Centralia, PA web site – www.centraliapa.org


Norman Richards Photography – http://normrichardsphotography.blogspot.ca/2012/04/centralia-pa-50-years-later.html

Off-Roaders – http://www.offroaders.com/album/centralia/Centralia-1980s-era.htm

For information on Byrnesville, go to www.byrnesville.com

A new documentary, “Centralia: Pennsylvania’s lost town” was released in the on 5 May 2017.  Directed and Executive Produced by Joe Sapienza II along with Producer Allyson Kircher, completed over a four year period, will be screened a theatres throughout Pennsylvania including Pottsville, Tamaqua, Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Williamsport, Blue Bell, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia, among others.

A preview of the movie can be found at – http://www.centraliapa.org/official-trailer-centralia-pennsylvanias-lost-town/ and at https://wn.com/centralia,_pennsylvania’s_lost_town_official_trailer

On 22 May 2015, I ventured to Centralia to see the town for myself.  I returned for subsequent visits in May 2016, September 2016, May 2017, June 2017, October 2017, October 2018 & October 2019.

On all the visits, I snapped several photos and a short video of the town.  It is awe-inspiring seeing the town; a town that is really nothing anymore.  All that remains are vacant and overgrown streets, broken by the occasional building.  The town is now a great expanse of nothing, yet still sees a considerable amount of traffic traveling along the two main streets that cut through the town.

I was inspired to write the following poem after seeing “The Town That Was” in May 2015:


Upon a hill sits a lonely church
Looking down over the empty streets
That were once lined with homes
That make up the town that was

A house sits alone on a street
Surrounded by overgrown fields
Fields that once had the homes
Of neighbours now long gone

The town hall still stands
A lone building on a once busy Main Street
It still serves as the fire hall, with trucks at the ready
But the rest of the building only contains ghosts of the past

The sidewalks and roads are slowly crumbling
The surfaces are buckled and twisted
The cracks filling with weeds
Turning the pavement to dust

The bitter absence of life
Of a town that’s died
Is overwhelming to anyone
As you walk the streets of the town that was

Why did everyone leave?
Why did the town die a slow death?
It was an insidious coalmine fire burning beneath it
Spewing out the silent killer of carbon monoxide

The residents were told they had to leave their homes
Some did but others refused to go
Instead they watched as one by one
The houses on their streets demolished

All were offered money for their homes
Some took it, but some still refused to leave
Eventually those who stayed were told
You no longer own your homes and you must go

Some who left were sure of the dangers
After seeing the carbon monoxide-filled smoke
Billowing from cracks in the ground
And the red glow of the land at night

Others felt there was a more sinister reason
For the town to be emptied out
There is reportedly a lot of coal under the town
But it can’t be mined unless all the residents leave

Some of those who left felt that someday

They would be able to return to the town they loved
But they never did as their town was gone
There was simply no town to go back to

But all was not lost and now things have changed
The last of the residents were finally allowed to stay
But they still don’t own their homes anymore
Which will fall when they die or choose to go

However, this reprieve came too late for John Lokitis
The unofficial caretaker of the town
Doing his best to maintain a small piece of the town as he knew it
Until the was forced out of the home and town he loved

With the last hold-outs getting older
The town someday will be completely gone
When all that remains will be photos and memories
Of The Town That Was

Find other articles I’ve written on Centralia here:

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/the-town-that-was/

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