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Centralia, Pennsylvania

  
  (with Ashland: - darkometer rating:  5 -
 
A small town in a rural, coal-mining country of Pennsylvania, USA, where since 1962 an underground coal fire has been smouldering. As the inhabitants moved away or were evicted, the town turned into a ghost town. Now hardly a house is left standing, only the empty street grid, some cracked roads and fumes emanating from the ground as evidence of the continued fires underfoot. It's an eerie place. Undeveloped for tourism, but a unique destination for the dark tourist all the same.  

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos  

    

More background info: Centralia was founded in 1866 in the middle of Pennsylvania's anthracite coal mining country. The collieries of the area dominated the economy until the decline in mining in the 1950s. But the real existence-threatening disaster reached Centralia from 1962.
 
It is a slow and quiet disaster: in the spring of 1962 an underground coal fire started nearby, allegedly caused by burning rubbish in a tip, which ignited an hitherto unknown coal vein. Early efforts to put the fire out proved ineffective and so the underground smouldering progressed until it literally "undermined" the town. It made the ground unstable, cracking roads and threatening houses with collapse, while toxic gases were emitted from the ground. So the town, which once had over a thousand inhabitants, was gradually abandoned and became a ghost town.
 
Some people left voluntarily after a buy-out offer from the government but many stayed on until they were practically evicted by law, namely when the state seized the properties through 'eminent domain'. Today only a very small handful of die-hard residents hold on to their houses, effectively as squatters, including the old mayor. But those last couple of houses' days are numbered too. The last residents are tolerated for the time being, but when they've died out or finally moved away not a trace of the town will remain, except perhaps the old road grid. For now, the last residents' resistance to being moved is still evident to the casual visitor through protest notes and copies of lawsuit-related letters posted by the road.
 
The story of Centralia was famously described by Bill Bryson in a sideline episode of his book "A Walk in the Woods". And the place has also seen quite a bit of modern media attention, featuring in several special TV documentaries. The Centralia coal fires are furthermore said to have inspired a couple of fictional horror films (such as "Silent Hill"). Needless to say, in the wake of such media attention, the place has also attracted a constant stream of curious visitors.
 
And former Centralia is indeed an eerie place, something for the specialist dark tourist who is more interested in the atmosphere of a dark place than touristic development and information. Because the latter is positively lacking (but see Ashland in the dark combinations section below).
 
People who don't know about the fires and the fate of the town are often not even aware that they are passing through anything special when they take Routes 61/42 through ex-Centralia. The place still features on maps and is even still signposted, though its ZIP-code has now been revoked. It's thus a ghost town in a more literal sense than most – just the ghost of a town, with little visible traces of its former existence left.
 
In fact, you're officially not encouraged to go there at all. But you can do so, since those public roads still go through the ex-town and many of the former side streets are still navigable by car. And of course you can walk around.
  
But be aware of the dangers: toxic gases do pose a certain risk – so keep on high ground and avoid hollows where gases could accumulate. Remember: carbon monoxide may be odourless but it is potentially deadly.
 
And don't get close to unstable-looking ground. It can cave in and swallow you whole into some fiery hell underground! Well, that risk is actually pretty low – but it did once, nearly, happen, namely in the early 1980s, when a sinkhole 4 feet (1.2 m) wide and some 150 feet (46 m) deep suddenly opened up beneath the footsteps of a 12-year-old resident boy, who just about managed to cling on to a tree root until he could be pulled out!
 
Also try not to trespass on former residences' grounds etc. (which are owned by the state now). There are also several warning signs about and it is probably wise to heed them.
 
Some parts of Centralia are, however, quite safe and easy to visit and dozens of people do come every day – even if there isn't actually that much to see. Some people are disappointed that no dramatic flames can be seen, but of course not! It's an underground coal fire – just smouldering away invisibly underfoot; although the heat generated close to the surface may occasionally be sufficient to ignite paper or dry bushes. But that's not the point. You don't come here for a dramatic fiery show. It's rather the quiet, sad, emptiness of a disappeared community that makes the place so fascinating – that and the realization that underground an inextinguishable fire is smouldering away and will potentially carry on burning for centuries to come.
 
 
What there is to see: Today, most houses of the (former) ghost town are gone, but the street grid is still there. You can drive, or even walk, on most of those deserted streets, only a few are slowly being reclaimed by nature, esp. at the edges of the former town.
 
Given that a few houses with residents are still standing, and cars parked outside the houses suggested the inhabitants were at home, I felt a little uncomfortable driving around those streets on my two visits in April 2010. Although nobody challenged me, and none of the residents were even visible, I still felt a little like an intruder, a trespasser, a voyeur. So I kept my cruising around short.
 
However, there are at least two places where no one needs to have any such qualms. One is the abandoned stretch of the old Route 61, cracked by the underground fire, and the hill above the ex-town just as you enter Locust Avenue from the south (coming from Ashland) on the new Route 61.
 
Also, if you continue on Route 61 north, you go up a hillside from where you can catch a good semi-aerial view over Centralia.
 
When you come in on Route 61, which becomes Locust Avenue, there's even a small sign on a tree by the road on the right saying "fire" underneath the marker for "Wood Street". Actually, I only spotted the sign as I left. It's hard to notice when driving past – unless you know what you're looking for (that's why I'm telling you!).
 
If you follow the sign pointing to the left you get to a rough dirt track (you may want to park your car and rather walk it from here) that takes you to a couple of those places where you can see the fumes from the underground fire billowing from cracks in the ground. This is currently the best place to see "active" evidence of the fires.
 
But don't expect to see any flames or even the slightest hint of an orange glow. No, the fires are smouldering underground – thus invisible. What you can see is white fumes coming out, basically steam. You can even see it condensing by some of the rocks leaving specks and little puddles of foamy slime. If you touch the ground you may find that it feels warm. But no real heat can be felt at surface level, although allegedly only a few feet into the ground temperatures rise to as much as over 180 degrees F (that's 80 degrees C).
 
There's no distinct fiery smell, at least there wasn't when I was there. And the fumes weren't all that thick. At other times they are said to have a strong sulphurous odour. (Although in the main it's supposedly carbon monoxide – which is odourless.)
 
How noticeable the visible evidence of the smouldering is at any one time depends largely on the weather. The colder it is and the higher the ambient humidity, the more the fumes will show. In hot dry weather you may not see much at all. But there is other, indirect, permanent evidence of the underground fires: red steel tubes poking out of the ground. These are vents on boreholes drilled by the Department of Environmental Protection. You'll see several of these dotted around, along with monitoring equipment. But open fire you won't see.
  
So it may not be as dramatic as you might expect, but it's still quite an eerie place to behold. I was strangely captivated just being here (whereas my wife got bored with the fumes almost instantaneously) … In fact, I was so intrigued that I even came back for a return visit.
 
My first visit was in the morning, and at that time my wife and I had the place completely to ourselves. On my return it was early evening, with the sun giving everything a reddish hue, and I found several motorbikes parked by the old road, and two big cars by the hillside – a whole family of six, including small kids, were clambering about on the hillside, others were toting cameras in the surrounding landscape. Several more cars could be seen downhill, cruising on the abandoned streets of Centralia. So the place does seem to receive a good number of curious visitors!
 
The other main point of interest that most people come to see is the abandoned stretch of the old Route 61. And here the evidence of larger numbers of visitors is clearly visible: lots of graffiti!
 
The old southern approach road had to be given up after it got damaged beyond repair by the underground fires, which caused subsidence and made the tarmac crack and warped the whole street surface. Now it would be all but unnavigable by normal cars.
 
A particularly large crack, about a foot (30 cm) deep, up to two feet (60 cm) wide and at least 20 yards (18 m) long seems to be the main focus of attention, judging by the amassed graffiti around it. There's also plenty of evidence of people having tried to ignite branches, grass, paper and all manner of rubbish inside the crack. At times this appears to have been successful, as some charred pieces of wood suggest (although they could just as well have been set on fire by people). When I was there, there was at best only the slightest whiff of fumes, barely noticeable. At other times the fumes coming out of the crack can be much more visible.
 
In a way it's a shame that there's so much graffiti, as it detracts from the bizarre dark atmosphere. On the other hand, some of the graffiti was actually quite intriguing, and in some cases of quite decent quality. (Next to lots of the usual "X was here", graphic obscenities and other annoying scribbles – I even spotted a swastika! Irritating!!)
 
The cracks and warps are worst in the central stretch of the closed-off road, but just a little further on either side there are smaller cracks which are also less "embellished" by graffiti. In total, the blocked-off old road is a good three quarters of a mile (800 m) long, winding down the hill from Centralia in a smooth S-curve. It's only a gentle hike for any halfway mobile person.
 
From the old road you can here and there just about make out the new road further downhill. By that road, stands the ruined shell of a building that was once a wash house for coal workers. The whole hillside, however, is marked with numerous "no trespassing" signs (and you have to wonder why this hillside, while the fiery hillside above Centralia is freely accessible).  
 
Back to Centralia itself. It's not just most houses, the town's churches are all gone too (including the much bemoaned St Ignatius). However, on the hillside just outside the town's boundaries and visible from almost anywhere within them, sits the Orthodox church of St Mary's. It looks rather forlorn where it stands, but is indeed still in use.
 
This lonely relic is kind of mirrored by the Orthodox cemetery just south of the hill with the fire. It's an odd atmosphere strolling around a cemetery that's lost its town … In fact, there are even three cemeteries here: there's a larger one between the Orthodox cemetery and the main road and yet another one across the road a bit inland. That's a lot of cemeteries for just a couple of houses …
 
One of the curiously surviving buildings in town is the Borough of Centralia Municipal Building with its garage for two vehicles, an ambulance and a fire engine – this must give Centralia the best fire engine & ambulance per house ratios in the world! The building is just a bog-standard low-rise modern box-like affair in ugly brown and yellow colours. But here it stands out like an unreal apparition, as if defying the changes its surroundings have seen. It even had one of those stars-and-stripes flags flying above it on a mast.
 
Another smaller flag could be seen by what remains of Centralia's American Legion memorial, near the intersection of Locust Ave and Park St. The former memorial is now stripped down to little more than a cube of white bricks with a few flowers – and the little flag – on top where once a (Liberty-type) bell would have been. The plaque and flag pole are gone too. I'd seen photos of the intact memorial that were taken less than a year before my visit in April 2010, so these changes must have come about in the short period in between. I have since learned, that the memorial has apparently been moved to neighbouring Wilburton or Aristes, further up north off Route 42.
 
Near the American Legion memorial, one or two benches with the name Centralia defiantly painted on stand, or stood, at times. At times? Present or past tense? To explain: they are apparently too popular with hunters of exotic souvenirs – they've been stolen, replaced, and stolen again repeatedly. When I visited I could see no bench. Maybe the (former) residents of the town have given up the game.
 
Just west of Centralia, on a hill towering over the lost town, business continues: you can see humongous dump trucks travelling back and forth and tipping their load on this mountain of coal mining spoils. It is in fact quite a rare sight of mining activities that you can see from the roadside in the area these days. Once there must have been mining going on all around … now it's mostly dead. And Centralia is about the deadest spot of the whole region.
 
 
Location: at the intersection of PA Routes 61 and 42; about 30 miles (50 km) north-west of Reading, or a bit over 50 miles (80 km) north-east of Harrisburg, Pannsylvania, USA. The nearest Interstate access is from I-81 at Frackville, about 10 miles (15 km) to the east, which is also on Route 61 that leads through Ashland and on to Centralia.
 
Google maps locator:[40.80,-76.34]
   
 
Access and costs: off the beaten track, but not too difficult to get to by car; most points of interest are freely accessible.
 
Details: Centralia can be reached from the south and from the west on Route 61, and on Route 42 from the north. Most maps still mark Centralia, and it is even still signposted (e.g. from Ashland – see the photographic evidence in the gallery).
 
Most travellers who come from further away will first take Interstate 81 to Frackville, PA, and then Route 61 westbound towards Ashland and on towards Mt Carmel. Coming from the west, the 61 branches off inland from Sunbury on the Susquehanna River north of Harrisburg, while Route 42 connects Centralia to Bloomsburg.
  
At the intersection of Routes 54 and 61 at Ashland, make a right turn on Route 61 going north. After about a mile (1.5 km) you will come to the point where the new road passes the blocked-off old Route 61. In theory you could stop here to have a look at what's beyond the roadblock, but there's little parking space and it's better to carry on and access the old road from the northern end anyway.
 
When after a bit under another mile you pass the point where the old road is blocked at its northern end you can find more space for parking.
 
Access to the old road for vehicles is blocked by mounds of earth, but you can clamber through a gap and continue on foot. Once on the old road, there are no further obstacles (just keep looking out for those cracks).
 
The best visible evidence of the underground fire is to be found on the rugged hillside just to the west as you enter Centralia. There's even a small sign saying "fire" on a tree on the right-hand side of the road (Locust Avenue). The track is a bit rough, so best walk the last bit. Access is also possible from the north, from the end of Park Street, from where a dirt track leads up the hillside to near the location of the fire. The place where the fire started in 1962 is to the east beyond the cemetery, but there's nothing there left to see (the landfill's been bulldozed flat and the fire's moved on).
 
North of the fire site is what remains of Centralia itself, i.e. a grid of old side streets branching off Locust Ave and Center St (Routes 61/42), which are the only busier through-routes. The Municipal Building is on the eastern side of Locust Avenue near the intersection with Laurel Street branching off to the west.
 
In theory, all these old roads are freely accessible, as are the fire site and the cemeteries on the southern edge of Centralia. But do take note of any "no trespassing" signs and heed them.
 
 
Time required: a quick drive around the empty street grid won't take long. Nor will a quick stop and walk to the place where the steam from the fires can best be seen. Both maybe 10-20 minutes. The walk down the former stretch of Route 61 to the cracks and all the graffiti takes a little longer, but still no more than about an hour to an hour and a half altogether, unless you linger and/or poke around the cemeteries of Centralia too, for example.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: The nearby community of Ashland (what a fitting name!) boasts the rather exotic attractions of a coal mining museum and a "Pioneer Tunnel", an actual old coal mine that can be visited. Some info on Centralia can be obtained there too, e.g. from a large panel with texts and somewhat faded photographs. And the shop by the tunnel entrance also has books and brochures about Centralia, as well as all manner of further coal mining country related material.
 
The museum, actually called Ashland Museum of Anthracite Mining, is perhaps of marginal interest to the dark tourist, if only in that the dangers of mining are also covered (flooding, mine collapses, explosions, etc.), so the threat of death and disaster was always prevalent in the business. In fact, only days after my visit in April 2010, the worst mine disaster in recent decades hit a mining town further to the south of West Virginia, which made the visit to the coal mine in Ashland an even more poignant experience in hindsight. Anthracite, by the way, is the generic term for a particularly high-grade type of coal (exceptionally clean too), of which Pennsylvania has the largest reserves, though they are now only mined to a fraction of the scale that was once the case.
 
A real thrill – and a literally dark experience – is the Ashland "Pioneer Tunnel". Visitors are taken by a guide on a small narrow gauge train horizontally into an old former coal mine some 2000 feet (800 m) deep in the mountain. There you alight and are shown around shafts branching off to the side. Various displays and dummies enhance the "experience" of being in such a bizarre place. And when the guide switches off the lights, the pitch-blackness of this environment hits you even more. Certainly not for those afraid of the dark – nor for claustrophobia sufferers.
  
It's also informative, though, and provides a good insight into the hardships of the miners in the past (and to a degree the present). Note that inside the mine it is cold! So do take advantage of the extra fleeces and coats provided by the staff at the entrance ... they're also good to have because there's constant dripping of water from the tunnels' ceilings. These tours run only between April and October at changing intervals, more frequently in high season. Outside the main season, only a couple of tours may run, and reservations may be required, so it's best to be a bit flexible or call ahead (570-875-3850). The cost is 9.50 USD per person (children 6.50).
 
Further afield, Philadelphia is a good two hours' drive away to the south-east. Harrisburg is easily reached via Interstate 81 to the south-west.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The immediate vicinity of Centralia has a somewhat "rough" charm of coal mining heritage country, but some of the hamlets are actually fairly attractive, not least Ashland itself, whereas Frackville, just by the I-81 serves as a good base/jumping-off point. Frackville is also home to a fabulous old-fashioned diner called "Dutch Kitchen", a much better alternative to the otherwise ubiquitous fast-food chains and pizza joints!
 
A relatively famed local mainstream attraction is Knoebels amusement park in nearby Elyburg – allegedly America's largest free admission amusement park. And in Pottsville to the south the oldest brewery of the USA (Yuengling) is an acclaimed attraction.
 
A bit further afield yet is Pennsylvania's Amish county. And finally, even further down to the south-east lies Philadelphia, the region's largest city and a real thrilling place, not least in culinary terms!
 
  
  
  • Centralia 01Centralia 01
  • Centralia 01b - wide view of the vanished town street gridCentralia 01b - wide view of the vanished town street grid
  • Centralia 02 - municipal building still in situCentralia 02 - municipal building still in situ
  • Centralia 03 - roads and cables still thereCentralia 03 - roads and cables still there
  • Centralia 04 - but the houses have mostly been demolishedCentralia 04 - but the houses have mostly been demolished
  • Centralia 05 - surviving orthodox church just outside townCentralia 05 - surviving orthodox church just outside town
  • Centralia 06 - entering the town from Ashland on Rt 61Centralia 06 - entering the town from Ashland on Rt 61
  • Centralia 07 - small sign by the roadCentralia 07 - small sign by the road
  • Centralia 08 - venting fumes indicate the fireCentralia 08 - venting fumes indicate the fire
  • Centralia 09 - smouldering undergroundCentralia 09 - smouldering underground
  • Centralia 10 - down in the netherworlds lurks the fireCentralia 10 - down in the netherworlds lurks the fire
  • Centralia 11 - ventCentralia 11 - vent
  • Centralia 12 - old road blocked offCentralia 12 - old road blocked off
  • Centralia 13 - the cracked old Rt 61 roadCentralia 13 - the cracked old Rt 61 road
  • Centralia 14 - the largest cracks and densest graffitiCentralia 14 - the largest cracks and densest graffiti
  • Centralia 15 - evidence of burning in the cracksCentralia 15 - evidence of burning in the cracks
  • Centralia 16 - fiery graffitiCentralia 16 - fiery graffiti
  • Centralia 17 - the warped old Rt 61Centralia 17 - the warped old Rt 61
  • Centralia 18 - the new road is behind the treesCentralia 18 - the new road is behind the trees
  • Centralia 19 - abandoned capCentralia 19 - abandoned cap
  • Centralia 20 - stripped-down memorialCentralia 20 - stripped-down memorial
  • Centralia 21 - entrance to orthodox cemeteryCentralia 21 - entrance to orthodox cemetery
  • Centralia 22 - orthodox cemeteryCentralia 22 - orthodox cemetery
  • Centralia 23 - the area is still coal mining countryCentralia 23 - the area is still coal mining country
  • Centralia 24 - big trucks at work nearbyCentralia 24 - big trucks at work nearby
  • Centralia 25 - revoked ZIP code but still signpostedCentralia 25 - revoked ZIP code but still signposted
  • Pioneer Tunnel in Ashland 1Pioneer Tunnel in Ashland 1
  • Pioneer Tunnel in Ashland 2 - deep into the mountainPioneer Tunnel in Ashland 2 - deep into the mountain
  • Pioneer Tunnel in Ashland 4 - coal mining old stylePioneer Tunnel in Ashland 4 - coal mining old style
  • Pioneer Tunnel in Ashland 5 - dark passageways in the underworldsPioneer Tunnel in Ashland 5 - dark passageways in the underworlds
  • Pioneer Tunnel in Ashland 5 - note the dummy handPioneer Tunnel in Ashland 5 - note the dummy hand
  • road in Ashland near Centraliaroad in Ashland near Centralia
  • ruined houses in Ashlandruined houses in Ashland
      
  
  
  
  
  

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