PA’s Ghost Town: Hiking in Centralia


Centralia PA

Ghost Town’s in PA?

“Jungleland” was playing on the radio as I pulled up the hill towards Centralia.  It seemed an appropriate song.  Supposedly Pennyslvania’s forests, though far from jungle-like, had taken over the small former mining community of Centralia.  The lyrics, “Outside the streets on fire in a real death waltz Between flesh and what’s fantasy” seemed especially appropriate.  I’ll get to this later.  I swear I’m only this poetic when Bruce is involved.

When you think of a ghostown, the normal images conjured up would be of a mining town out west: a falling apart saloon, a cow skull, and tumbleweeds blowing everywhere. Or, if for those of you a bit more international, maybe the abandoned Ferris Wheel and apartment blocks of Chernobly.  You probably don’t think of Pennsylvania.  At least I don’t.

Centralia is a bit of a faux ghost town.  First of all, there still are several residents, the two cemetaries in town, while accessible by foot only, look maintained and not at all creepy, the church still holds weekly services, and they have a still functioning municipal building.  If you were driving by with no inclination that a small town once thrived there, you probably wouldn’t blink.

Centralia was a small coal mining town in central Pennyslvania.  You can reach it by getting off the Minerville exit of 81.  Like many town’s in PA, miles of abondoned coalmines snaked their way underneath Centralia.  Sometime in 1962 one of these mines caught fire.  Residents did what they could to fight it, but it was largely ignored until the late 1970’s.  At one point during this time period, the mayor of Centralia, who also owned a gas station took the temperature of his tanks and found it to be 172 degrees.  In 1978 a young boy playing in his grandmother’s yard fell into a 150 deep sinkhole that opened up.  He clung to roots until his older brother pulled him out.  Centralia was pulled into the national media spotlight and residents started evacuating both on their own and by government edict.  The population was 1,100 in 1972 and just 10 in 2010.  Most of the homes have been torn down and the zipcode was revoked in 2002.

Centralia PA
Centralia Then and Now

Many locals think that some sort of conspiracy exists; the government wanted to the rich coal beds under the town for mining rights.  You can read more about the town’s history here.

Centralia, PA
Residents Posted These “Protest” Signs in What was Once Downtown Centralia

Centralia in Pictures

I visited Centralia (or what’s left of it) this weekend. I was driving home to visit my family, and decided to take advantage of the nice day to stop and hike around a bit.

When you’re driving into Centralia there is no mention of it.  Immediately after passing through the neighboring town of Ashland, Route 61, veers sharply to the right; the turn doesn’t seem natural.  We’ll get to that.

From the road, all that remains of Centralia are several mostly abondoned streets, and some rusty stop signs.  If I hadn’t been driving there with the intention of stopping, I wouldn’t have given the area a second thought.  It’s been enough time that vegetation has taken up most of the abondoned lots, and as someone born and bred in PA, coalfields and strucural remains are something I’m used to.

I pulled over and got out to walk around.  I wasn’t the only car on the side of the road, but I was the only person I saw that day.  If you’re not from the area, as I’ve insinuated before, Centralia might warrant a trip.  If you are, again, it’s nothing new.  However, if you do look at photographs of the town in it’s heyday (which I neglected to do until after my trip) it’s pretty powerful stuff.  There’s almost no remnants of a town. Here are some of the shots I took.

Centralia Pennsylvania

 The Grafitti Highway

Centralia Grafitti Highway

Back now, to the sharp turn Route 61 takes on the uphill climb into Centralia.  If it seems off, it’s because it is.  Route 61 at one time ran a straight route from Ashville through Centralia.  During the height of the fires, a portion of the road was cutoff and an alternate road built around it.  It’s still there today, a good half mile of abondoned high way in the middle of the forest, large fire induced cracks cutting through parts of it.

This has now been unofficially dubbed “Grafitti Highway” and almost the entire portion (or at least what I walked) is covered with artwork, much of it phallic.

The highway is the only part of Centralia to me that really felt like a ghost town.  Wandering around “downtown” Centralia, you never felt completely alone.  There are still two residents, and two main roads converge there, you can always hear and see traffic.  The first couple feet of the highway is like this, but the farther down you go, the more abondoned it becomes.  It also becomes more grown in.  I’ll admit I stopped my walk because I was alone and started becoming a little creeped out.  I grew up running in the forest, so I don’t know what it was that bothered me. All I know is that I kept envisioning turning a corner of the highway or passing through a tree grown stretch to find somone or something waiting for me.

It felt like the ghost town I had come to find.

Grafitti Highway Centralia

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