A few months ago Matt turned on “The Town that Was” while browsing Hulu. I’m ever the curious person about towns/places that are abandoned, especially for human caused reason, so we left the documentary on and watched with big eyes. Chernobyl? That has been #1 on my bucket list since I was 12 years old). Heck, I’ve even explored an abandoned town that kept up Nike missile sites in NJ during a car meet, and we kept entertained by posing our cars in the abandoned driveways for photo opps. So needless to say, the documentary, which was about Centralia, PA, more than intrigued Matt and I, and it didn’t take me long to Google where it was in relation to our other planned activities in Pennsylvania.
Centralia is a former coal mining town located in eastern central Pennsylvania. In 1962 somehow the coal under the town caught on fire. There’s different theories on how it happened, but either way it occurred in the town landfill, so obviously someone wasn’t doing things properly. Things kind of just went on their ways until the 1970s when people started realizing their underground gasoline tanks were super hot, and a poor child fell into a massive sinkhole that developed under him in his backyard (he was rescued). Of course, the lethal amounts of carbon monoxide wafting up from the ground was a good sign things weren’t going well, too. The government offered residents relocation packages, and most of the town’s residents accepted. There were some holdouts, and in the early 1990s the government enacted Imminent Domain, which seized all the property and condemned all the structures. Later on USPS revoked the zip code (ouch). Still, there are a few holdouts, fighting lawsuits and all sorts of conspiracy theories surrounding Centralia, such as the government just wants the mineral rights to all the coal underneath the town.
As for the fire, it still burns. From what I’ve read, it’s 400 acres and spreading in all directions. Oh, and it’s suppose to burn for a couple more centuries or so. Yes, centuries. As for what’s left of the town… there’s a few old row houses without there row-counterparts, with walls supported by weird brick flying buttress supports. The drab looking municipal building is still there as well, and some very well manicured cemeteries. Nature has reclaimed the rest, with new growth forests filling in where houses once stood, sliced by city streets that go nowhere.
We found Centralia quite easy by taking PA 61 south from where we exited I-80. At first we nearly drove right by it. There’s no town sign, and really since there’s nothing there, there’s nothing to tell you, well, that you’re there. A U-turn remedied our mistake, and we took to driving through the empty streets. Matt was instantly disappointed for the lacking of smoke billowing out of the ground, like the documentary showed. We drove to the top of the hill, just a smidge north of the biggest cemetary, and parked in a dirt parking lot and jumped out. I touched the ground, and it was indeed hot… it was also 95 degrees outside in full sunshine. I laughed. Another car pulled up, filled with European tourists and they asked where the smoke was. We shrugged.
So we kicked with the European dudes, who were quite funny and strangely enough, kindred spirits since they were also in this eery abandoned ghost town with us. One guy lit a cigarette and said in his accent, “Look, I found the smoke!” We climbed to the top of the dirt rubbish hill, which appear to be more of a teenage party trash heap more than anything. No smoke. I took to being more amused by the 100 year old Ukrainian Orthodox church across the valley on the hill (old churches are another amusement to me, I love them!) than anything else.
European dudes found a guy and a girl that were also wandering around, and that guy pointed us in the direction of the abandoned stretch of PA 61 that had cracked and buckled from the fire (the highway re-routes around that section now). Matt and I grabbed the mountain bikes, thinking that we might as well bike in the apparently bike-friendly (aka no cars, nor people) town of Centralia while we could, and took off to the abandoned highway.
This is when I felt the most eery. 4 lane divided highway. No cars. Nothing. It was almost like a zombie movie about to go very bad. But hey, I figure I can out pedal zombies on my bike, so we were all good! The highway is filled with graffiti… some good, some bad, some just stupid. A lot of names, dates, and male genitalia. Now, I can’t say what possesses people to draw male genitalia on everything, but so be it. There was also a nice picture of a unicorn pooping cupcakes. Some messages to the government, and of course racial crap.
About halfway down the road is the “speed bump.” AKA “oh crap, it looks like a super earthquake volcano happened here!” Cracked and heaved was the road, about 5 feet wide at it’s widest and a couple feet down. Still no smoke, but definitely the coolest thing we had seen in Centralia all day.
Matt and I continued down to the end of the abandoned stretch. Tourists on a Harley rode past us. (The only thing barricading this road off is a dirt mound with an opening wide enough for motorcycles and bicycles and maybe a wheelchair. Due to steep grades, wheelchair not advised.) The European dudes made their way down, also commenting on the very large amounts of, ahem, male genitalia painted on the road. Sheesh, at least I’m not the only one who noticed! We also ran into a guy taking film footage with an 8mm camera, definitely cool and made me sad that I didn’t have my Holga or vintage Lubital along for the adventure. We made our way back up (seriously, by bike is the way to do this!), and Matt took off through the woods (“please let there not be sinkholes!” rang out in my mind) while I hopped on the random pieces of sidewalk that were left. Upon getting back to the car, two elderly women pulled up and asked us what happened to the church. Not sure if they missed the Wyoming plates, but we kindly told them we had no idea. Such a random mix of people coming to see Centralia, that’s for sure!
Part of me wanted to scour the cemeteries for long lost relatives (a lot of my family had connections to PA coal mining and the state in general), but Matt wasn’t up for that so we said Auf Wiedersehen to our European friends (who I think narrowed down to being Swiss or Austrian due to a funny version of German I swore I was recognizing) and continued our trip south.
So, check Centralia off the bucket list. Not quite what we were expecting (no smoke!!!), but still worth the side trip, especially the highway portion! I think the town would be awesome to visit on a foggy, winter day! Then maybe I could tell if the ground was really warm, eh?