It’s May 1962, and a vast landfill blights the town of Centralia, Philadelphia. Keen to wipe the unsightly heap out for good, officials set the trash alight. But as they wait for the flames to die down, they slowly realize that something has gone wrong. In fact, they’ve inadvertently started an inferno that will rage for decades to come.
The story of Centralia began back in the 18th century, when settlers purchased the area from local Native Americans. And within a few decades, the land had passed into the ownership of Robert Morris – one of the signatories of America’s Declaration of Independence.
Then, after Morris went bankrupt, the district was purchased by a French sailor. The seafarer had apparently heard rumors that valuable anthracite coal deposits were to be found in this particular corner of Pennsylvania. However, it wasn’t until 1854 that a settlement in the area really took off. That year, the Mine Run Railroad arrived in the town – which back then went by the name of Bull’s Head.
Just two years after the arrival of the railroad, a couple of mines had been established in the town. And by 1863, a total of five different operations were engaged in hauling out the buried coal. Then eventually, a man named Alexander Rae founded Centralia in 1866, and the settlement looked set to boom thanks to its valuable natural resources.
But just two years later, tragedy struck. Rae was apparently murdered, and many laid the blame on the Molly Maguires – a clandestine group that had been brought to the U.S. by Irish workers. However, some people believed the Maguires had been framed by local employers who feared the unionization of employees.