The Real Silent Hill: Centralia and The Fire Burning Beneath It

It seems unlikely that such a frightening place like Silent Hill exists in our world, but the haunted city of the renowned games is based on a real ghost town named Centralia in Pennsylvania. And yes, you can visit the place.

The survival horror game series Silent Hill has set high standards for horror video games in the last 24 years. The first game of the franchise was released back in 1999 and was a groundbreaking mark for the genre, focusing on psychological terror and a dark atmosphere.

Silent Hill is the name of the city in which the games are set and the location has a big role in the games’ disturbing milieu that surrounds the player and its mysterious residents. The abandoned town is completely taken by a thick fog and so is Centralia, a town where hell burns underneath.

Image via Google Earth

Centralia is an abandoned mining town with an almost 60-year-old coal mine fire burning beneath the city. Like Silent Hill, it has a dark past that marks the land before it became what it is.

The land was sold by Native American tribes to colonial agents back in 1749 and later bought by Robert Morris, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. After he declared bankruptcy, Stephen Girard acquired Centralia and discovered coal deposits in the region.

Alexander Rae, a mining engineer, moved to the location which was then called Bull’s Head and began planning a village. The coal exploration gave life to the small city by bringing workers to the mines.

The Mine Run Railroad was built in 1854 to transport coal and immigrants. Then the first two mines opened in 1856 when the town’s name changed to Centralia.

A History of Violence

Centralia became home to the Molly Maguires, however. They were a rural secret society that originated from Ireland and was brought to America by immigrants. The group was blamed for a series of violent acts against people who were responsible for the exploitation of the Irish workers, leaving them in terrible conditions, while also discriminating against them for their faith.

They were suspected of murdering Centralia’s founder, Alexander Rae, and of being responsible for the death of the town’s first priest. Several murders and arsons took place in 1860s Centralia and a Roman Catholic priest even cursed the land after being assaulted by three Maguires members.

Their actions on Centralia ended after the Molly Maguires’ leaders were hanged in 1877. It is believed that a number of descendants of the Molly Maguires still lived in Centralia until the 1980s, according to Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire by David DeKok.

The Fire Underneath Centralia

The beginning and end of the mine fire are still debated by specialists. It’s certain that the fire has been burning at least since May of 1962, but the cause isn’t clear. As for when it will end, at the current rate, the fire underneath Centralia can keep burning for more than 250 years.

As the population grew and reached its peak of 2,761 people in 1890. After a while, the demand for coal declined, with the town seeing five of its local mines close after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The population started to decrease and most companies closed by the 1960s.

Miners would continue to extract coal, however, using a technique known as pillar-robbing by taking coal from the coal pillars left to support the mine’s roof. Pillar-robbing caused the collapse of many idle mines, which complicated the prevention of the mine fire later in 1962.

The most likely cause of the fire was the burning of trash dumped in mine pits. The town council decided to clean a strip mine dump but DeKok says that the process of setting trash on fire was not specified because state law prohibited dump fires.

Image via Flicker

The Aftermath of the Fire

The consequences of the mine fire didn’t seem to be a problem to the community at first, but it started to affect the city with bad odors from the trash, the temperatures in the town got higher, and sinkholes started to appear releasing hot steam creating a town dominated by white fog, just like Silent Hill.

Several excavation projects were made to try to stop the fire and end it, which costed a total of $154.000 in 1962 and 63, which is equivalent to $1,376,613 today, but nothing could put down the mine fire.

The population started to leave the town and the government used more than $42 million to relocate more than a thousand residents and demolish 500 buildings. The ZIP code was discontinued by the U.S. Postal Service in 2002 since only a few homes were still standing by that time.

A few people refused to leave Centralia even with the dangerous levels of carbon monoxide in the air. The 2010 census pointed that were only 10 people living in the abandoned town, five female and five male.

Can I Visit Centralia?

You can absolutely legally visit Centralia. There are a few abandoned buildings owned by the State, but there are families still living in the town, so pay attention if you are trespassing or not. Remember to always be respectful to the town’s people and history. A lot of people travel to Centralia not only for curiosity but to pay respect to the town. There are three cemeteries in the borough of Centralia and family and friends visit occasionally.

When you make your way there, you can with your own eyes the smoke-filled town that inspired the Silent Hill franchise.