Located in the beautiful mountains of central Pennsylvania, Centralia (Ghost Town) was once a thriving mining community with a population well over two thousand people. This town, once a home to several hotels, banks, theaters, and even it’s own school district, is now one of the least populated municipalities in the whole state. But that has a lot to do with a fire that has been raging for over fifty years... a blaze that roars underneath the town.
In 1962, a mysterious fire tore through an abandoned strip mine, causing a chain reaction when it broke through a rock pit, settling the rest of the town’s coal mines alight. Despite the tireless efforts of firefighters, the town was unable to quell the flames, and the underground has been a furnace ever since.
Residents say that the fire was caused by a landfill burning in the underground mine, a common practice among fire fighters who would burn down trash located in nearby landfills. The common thought is that the firefighters extinguished this particular fire improperly, but despite the typical agreement on this theory, no one seems to be positive about how the mine fire started, and there has never, to my knowledge, been an official statement either.
This was a world where no human could live, hotter than the planet Mercury, its atmosphere as poisonous as Saturn’s. At the heart of the fire, temperatures easily exceeded 1,000 degrees. Lethal clouds of carbon monoxide and other gases swirled through the rock chambers. – David DeKok (1986)
Before arriving in Centralia, it's easy to imagine the town as a scene from depths of Hell; empty streets where tongues of flame spring from the cracked pavement, licking at your heels as a thick grey fog restricts your vision, making every step a treacherous gamble. Roger Avery, writer of the film Silent Hill, has spoken about using the town of Centralia to inspire the eerie visuals of his film, so my preconceived visions of a cinematic nightmare were well placed.
When I arrived, though, the sights were far different than I had expected. It wasn’t scary at all, in fact, it was eerily beautiful. I pulled the car up and immediately, unmistakably, noticed it; an odd steam rising from the ground, out of deep cracks in what was once Pennsylvania Route 61, a road now crushed up and scattered through the weeds. There were still bounties of thick, green grass growing in the tiny cemeteries perched behind the puffing steam. It wasn’t nightmarish at all.
As I made my way down the rubble path, now more commonly referred to as Graffiti Highway, it was shocking to think that these streets were once lined by homes, churches, and grocery stores, most of which are now gone. Lone stop signs sit perched at corners of empty streets, and giant poles jut into the sky, devoid of purpose, their wires no longer connected to a source of power. It was a strange feeling, knowing I was standing in a modern ghost town; a place that was once so alive only fifty years prior. It was even stranger knowing that below my feet, a fire raged that may very well continue to burn for another hundred years.
The steam itself, though deadly, is more impressive during the winter months. It’s the what remains of Centralia that stirs your mind. As you wander the cracked streets and wonder what the town used to be like before the disaster, your imagination paints a picture that becomes more and more flooded with activity as it’s filled with bustling shops, children making their way home after school, and the postman delivering letters to rows of mailboxes. Now, only five of those homes remain.
In 1984, most of Centralia’s residents relocated, accepting buyout offers from the government, though a few remained in protest, refusing to leave their lifelong homes in spite of the toxic fumes. They were able to live in relative peace until Bob Casey, then governor of Pennsylvania, declared eminent domain in 1992, condemning all buildings. The dwindling residents fought back in court, failing to reverse the decision. In 2002, the U.S. Postal service revoked Centralia’s zip code, 17927, forcing the locals to receive their mail via post office box. Finally, in 2009, Governor Ed Rendell began the formal eviction of the remaining citizens of Centralia.
As the sun set on the desolate village, I made my way through one of the remaining cemeteries. As my time in Centralia came to an end, I could hardly think of a better symbol to describe this place than the tiny graveyard just beyond the rubble. While most of the town had fallen either to nature or a wrecking ball, here sat a well-kept reminder that this was once something more than a mere curiosity, a defiant memento of a town erased by a bizarre accident. The freshly cut grass, carefully trimmed around each headstone, proved that while these people may be gone, there are still a few who remember that they once existed.
Also, someone drew a gigantic penis on the street.
A visit to Centralia is the perfect day trip for those looking to experience one of the strangest ghost towns in America for themselves. While the town is pretty incredible in it's own right, don't expect to spend more than an hour or two poking around, so it's best to pair this adventure up with a visit to a few other local attractions, like the Knoebel's Amusement Resort or a stop at the Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine and Steam Train.