When we drive to Pittsburgh, we head east on I-80 and then south on I-79. That’s because we stay at a hotel right off I-79. Once we move to the North Shore area (walking distance to Heinz Field and city attractions) we are a substantial distance from I-79, so we go home a different route.
We have a couple of options, but we like taking Rt-30 out of the city. In addition to being able to stop at an Eat’n Park for breakfast, this road gives us a little break from the monotony of Interstate driving. While planning our trip, I noticed that our return run would take us very close to Centralia, PA.
This was interesting for several reasons, most notably because Centralia doesn’t exist. The town is gone, almost all the houses are gone, most of the roads are gone or overgrown and the Post Office rescinded the Zip Code – 17927 no longer exists.
Anyway, when I mentioned to my daughter that we would be passing within 10 miles of Centralia, she quickly asked:
“Can we go see Graffiti Highway?”
“Of course we can.”
I’m not tossing Faith under the bus here. I only mentioned the proximity because I found a visit fairly irresistible. What’s the story with Centralia?
It’s on fire.
Well, it’s the coal beneath Centralia that’s on fire. The coal has been burning since 1962. For the previous 100 years, people in and around Centralia were mining coal, or supporting the coal industry in some fashion. Shortly before Memorial Day in 1962, according to two sources, a fire began in the town landfill, which then entered the network of abandoned coal mine shafts. Another source says the fire started 30 years earlier and only just reached the area under the landfill in 1962.
Regardless of which story you subscribe to, the
ending current status is very sad. In the 80s, the fire began to present a significant danger to the residents and business owners in the town. Heat, toxic gasses and unstable-to-the-point-of-collapsing ground, all contributed to making staying in the town an untenable concept. After meetings and hearings and legal proceedings of all manner, most of the residents of Centralia were evicted from their homes and forced to move, with the aid of government funds. The Governor of Pennsylvania took the land by eminent domain and the gradual erasure of Centralia began.
One casualty of the fire was Pennsylvania Rt-61. A section of this highway collapsed, and rather than complete repairs, the state made the detour permanent and blocked access to both ends of the abandoned section. I don’t know how far it continues, but the north end of this abandoned road is covered with graffiti. Hence the name and the attraction.
Most of the buildings and homes have been destroyed by the state. Some roads remain. A few cemeteries remain and are well maintained. St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox church is the only structure, other than a few private homes, that still stands in Centralia. High on a hill overlooking the town, the church is thus far unaffected and still holds weekly services.
You can read more about Centralia here – yes, that’s a Wikipedia link, and yes, they are asking for money at this point, but you don’t have to give. You are also free to look up other sources of information, none of which add much clarity but all of which are interesting.
I grew up in Pennsylvania, and our family circle included relatives and friends who were employed in the spectrum of activity that is coal mining. The people affected by this fire are hard-working people, who are victims of a very unfortunate event. I don’t mean to make light of their situation. The photos in the gallery represent an observation of an icon of popular culture. In no way is this meant to diminish the tragic nature of this fire, nor am I trying to draw parallels to other events. This is just sad.