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1.20.2016

Centralia, PA: A Toxic & Burning Ghost Town

Since this article was written, the bulk of the land has been marked posted, and trespassers are being cited for entrance. The extent of the site is macadam, with some cave ins, concrete foundations from demolished buildings, and lots of graffiti. There really is not much to see. The church and more can be seen in areas that are public and accessible.

Today we visit the very hyped, toxic ghost-town of Centralia, a largely abandoned town with a raging fire underneath it that has burned since 1962. For many years, visiting this place has been on my bucket list because of all of the hype surrounding it. On a whim, as my wandering and adventurous self usually does on the open road, instead of taking the route I was planning to follow to head back west to Pittsburgh, I decided to take a little more northerly route to visit this ghost town. Centralia is the site of a large coal vein, similar to the rest of the anthracite region of central and northeastern Pennsylvania. Centralia was not unlike the hundreds of other former coal towns in PA, including the neighboring Ashland, PA, where there is a pretty neat coal mine tour at the Ashland Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine and Steam Train. Many of these towns have hung on, while others have disappeared since mining largely disappeared over the last 40 years. 

Due to some careless judgment, Centralia ended up facing a disaster. There is some argument upon how the fire started, but the source location is agreed upon: the town's landfill. The way they removed the rubbish within their landfill was with controlled burns. It is widely believed that the controlled burn of the landfill resulted in the town's coal vein getting lit on fire. The second idea is that the fire was started with hot ashes that were dumped into the landfill from a hauler. The third concept is that the fire was ignited by another coal vein fire from 1932 reaching the landfill and lighting the vein on fire. Whatever the case may be, for decades the state has attempted to put out the fire, but to no avail. Until the ramifications of the fire were understood, wide scale collapsing of buildings, land, toxic gases entering the air, illnesses of residents, and more, many of the town's residents went about their business. 
A typical desolate scene in Centralia. Once a town street with homes and businesses, it now sits with simple remnants from the past, with random sidewalks and streets that lead to nowhere.
Centralia is far from rare in Pennsylvania, with there being over thirty-five coal mine fires throughout the state, according to the PA Department of Environmental Protection. This is also a conservative estimate.

Nearly anything that remains is covered in tagged graffiti, like some sort of strange ritual in this anti-tourist, tourist attraction.
There are areas where small plumes of steam/smoke and heat emanate through the landscape. These areas where the fire is closer to the surface are scattered throughout the area. 
An otherwise barren wasteland, the future is also present within Centralia. Up on the hill there are wind turbines, producing clean energy that is void of the extreme environmental risks that fossil fuel extraction can bring to an area.
A cemetery remains within the town of Centralia. I do not think it is in good taste to photograph headstones, so I captured some of the tops of the headstones of the individuals resting in peace. The cemetery is thankfully not abandoned. I saw a couple people doing some maintenance around the graveyard.
Even without the throngs of people, it would not be hard to tell that lots of people come and "make their mark" on the abandoned stretch of PA 61 that is now informally known as "Graffiti Highway." Aside from some small sinkhole action within this abandoned stretch, there really is not much to see.

While the Centralia fire may be the most infamous of the coal mine fires throughout the state, it is just one of many that have occurred, and continue to burn, within Pennsylvania. Due to very little regulation in coal mining in the early to mid 20th century, we do not know how many mines exist within the state. A number of these remain burning, including one that is not too far from the Pittsburgh Airport, to which the state committed 1.4 million dollars to try to put out in 2014. We know of over a thousand acres within the state that have burning mines underneath them, at at least 35 different locations across the state.

The real importance with Centralia is in studying to understand why we need to handle our governance and regulation more responsibly in the future Anyone that doubts that should be given a tour of Centralia. As far as visiting the town? It does not look terribly different from areas that are largely abandoned throughout the Rust Belt, except the abandoned buildings have been responsibly torn down and the safety of the region took precedence over taking the easy way out and not protecting the citizens of the region. In this way, Centralia is a success story. Centralia also needs to be looked at as a case study with this new wave of energy production coming into the state so that we can handle energy production responsibly.

Is Centralia worth visiting? I say that it is a place to spend a little bit of time at, but there really is not much to see. If you are in the area, drop by the check it out, otherwise, I do not think there is much of a need to go far out of your way to visit the town. There is more excitement about Centralia when riding the Black Diamond Dark Ride Roller Coaster at Knoebels Amusement Park, half an hour northeast of Centralia. If you do insist upon a visit to Centralia, stop at the Yuengling Brewery, half an hour southeast of Centralia, go to the Ashland Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine which is right near Centralia, stop at Centralia, and then continue half an hour northeast to Knoebels to finish the day. Centralia is worth a visit in passing. 

Driving around is the key with this spot. I will give you the coordinates of the "Graffiti Highway" section. There you can pick up and walk the segment of abandoned Route 61 that has some cracks in it and graffiti all over it. If this sort of thing intrigues you, then Centralia is a place that you want o visit.
Coordinates: 40.795556, -76.343889

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