Centralia PA

One Liner WednesdayWhen 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 The town is gone, almost all the houses are gone, most of the roads are gone or overgrown and the Post Office rescinded the Zip Code – 17927 no longer exists.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.

This post is part of Linda G. Hill’s fun weekly series One-Liner Wednesday.

58 thoughts on “Centralia PA

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    1. Thanks Judy. I’ve know about this place for a long time. It doesn’t actually show up on some maps anymore, but I saw it as I was checking the route for places to stop. One sign indicated that the cemetery is maintained by a church youth group. I thought that was even better.

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  1. It’s too bad that the town died due to a fire in the landfill. It looks like such a pretty area. Is the Greek Orthodox church still being used? It would be a shame if it weren’t, such a beautiful building.

    The graffiti is pretty cool, at least it’s a sign that the area hasn’t been totally abandoned. How far does the graffiti road stretch?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know how far the road goes. We were there lat ein the afternoon, and I wasn’t in a mood to be walking back in the dark. I’m guessing at least a mile, perhaps 2. It’s getting hard to find a place without paint.

      The church is still holding services, and I hope that it’s high enough up that it won’t suffer any damage from the fire. Most of the people that moved, moved to adjacent towns so the area still has activity.

      Nature is a powerful force though, at some point, the road will be consumed by the forest.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I read that the highway goes for about 3/4 mile and the rest is gone or completely torn up. We probably walked most of it – we got as far as the first big hole in the road, but there is one more a little further up.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I first learned about Centralia from a song performed at a concert I went to a few months after emigrating to PA. I’ve thought it would be an interesting place to go and see but wasn’t sure how much there would be to see. Your wonderful photos are, therefore, encouraging. We will need to make the detour some time and go have a look see.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The road and a few other town roads is about all that remains. You have to have a pretty good imagination. Still, driving on some of the old town streets has a pretty eerie feel to it. Im glad you liked the photos.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I find this absolutely fascinating, Dan. What action is being taken to put the fire out, or are they just leaving it to burn itself out? What are the chances of it spreading along wherever the coal seam runs?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Don. From what I’ve read, they tried putting the fire out, early on, but abandoned the effort. There was a plan at one point to dig down from the surface to expose and extinguish the fire, but one source said that it was deemed to be too expensive. Another source says that the fire could continue to burn for 250-plus years.

      I haven’t read anything about how far it could spread, but I would guess (emphasis on guess) that the farther away from the sites of activity, the harder it will be for the fire to get oxygen to keep burning. They leave a lot of coal in mines, even when ready to stop mining, because it’s too expensive to recover or it’s in a part of the mine structure being used for support.

      I guess we’ll never know (since I don’t think I’ll see another 250 birthdays)/.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Marian and thanks for the tweet. When Faith stepped in, part of me thought: “that might be dangerous” but part of me thought: “ooh, a reference!” She wasn’t going to get out until she got her picture, so…

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  4. I’ve heard about this, only I couldn’t tell you how or why. It’s sad, all those displaced people and the terrible stories — but then, look at all the color and self-expression. It’s beautiful. That church is glorious.
    My mother’s father lived in a Virginia coal town before the Navy. It’s called Bonnie Blue and I have seen it, been about 14 years ago now. It’s a ghost town in and on the remains of a mountain. I like old things, and yearn for better documentation.
    Thanks for sharing these remnants :)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So, is that where the name of your car came from?

      Sorry, I guess I shouda thanked first, thanks! I think there has been a movie about this place/fire, and I think there is going to be a new movie released in 2017 about the whole story. The church is beautiful and I think it gains a little by being out there on its own now. They still hold services, so there’s hope that this place won’t be forgotten. I was very glad to see that the cemeteries are being maintained.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome Steve. I had heard about the fire while still living in the Pittsburgh area. Then I heard about it again when they were making the people move, but that was over 20 years later. Originally, they thought the fire could burn for 50 years. Now they say 250+.

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  5. We live next to the Minnesota State Mosquito Refuge. It’s really just a peat bog and you don’t want to set peat on fire. Like coal, it will burn forever. It’s why I grill with propane and take care not to let the grease splatter. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember those diagrams showing peat turning into bituminous coal and then anthracite coal with the passage of time and under all the right conditions. Yeah, keep those grease fires under control. I don’t want to see a post “My Peat Bog Fire” on your site.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s not much to see these days, JoLynn but it’s powerfully sad when you think about it. We drove around a bit on what used to be town streets. You can still see the curbs, but you have to imagine the houses and people. Thanks for the visit and comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. WOW, sad, yet interesting history, and place! That crack is huge!

    The Greek Orthodox Church is beautiful. I hope it stands for many, many more decades.

    After reading this I asked He-Man if he knew about this place and history and he doesn’t! I’m forwarding him this post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a very sad story, Deborah. I became aware of this when I was a kid and still living in western Pennsylvania. Back then, they thought the fire might burn for 50 years. Now they say it could continue burning for 250+ years! In addition to everything else, there are people who think the state of PA concocted the whole “danger” thing so they could grab the land for its mineral rights. I feel bad for the families, businesses, churches, schools, etc that had to move. Such a waste. There is a book about this. A friend of mine posted a link to it on the No Facilities Facebook page.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I sure hope it wasn’t a “land grab”!

        I feel for those displaced too. It’s like molten lava burning like that for so, so long isn’t it. It’s incredible.

        I’m not on Facebook so will have to find the book another way if He-Man is interested too.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. This is so touching, Dan. How sad for these people to loose their homes. The graffiti road is fascinating. I’d love to visit myself as I am right now imagining what that graffiti says. The church and cemetery both beautiful yet the sadness remains to know this was once a thriving town.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Amy. One of the things about the graffiti is te vulgar nature of a lot of it. I was careful to include “family friendly” graffiti in the gallery. A lot of it isn’t. The church and the cemeteries are impressive reminders. I am very happy that the cemeteries are being well-maintained. I wonder if anyone can still be buried there?

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Peter. The area around this town could easily be the setting for one of your stories. The road is colorful but eerie at the same time. It’s just so strange to realize that there was a town there.

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    1. Thanks! I tried to capture the sense of the terrain, which is typical of central PA. I think the graffiti actually helps with that. I think the first time the road cracked, they repaired it, then they gave up.

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  8. So many lives have depended on coal production and have been permanently altered by that dependence. My husband’s hometown in Illinois suffered a setback and has never recovered since the coal mines there were closed overnight because cleaner-burning coal had been discovered in Colorado. Now my town in Colorado lives every day with the threat of the area’s three coal companies leaving town and/or going bankrupt. The story of Centralia fascinated me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a sad yet interesting story, Janet. The people hoping that deep mines will reopen in central PA through WV might not be in for good news. Natural gas is cheaper, easier to get to market and cleaner, so it’s an uphill battle going forward. I hope this region finds a future, because I think it has suffered enough.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. All that graffiti reminds me of something here — When I was very young, I remember that just up the road from my house, there was a small stretch of pavement that had some graffiti. There were a lot of school kids in this area at the time and the township let them spray paint their school’s initials (two different high schools and a couple of public schools in the area then!) and some school spirit on the road. There are hardly any kids here now and way fewer schools, and the road has been repaved since then, so there are no traces of the paint now. Even though it wasn’t something I participated in, you know, I still wish I had pictures of it because it was certainly unique in the area and it was just a neat childhood memory. In years to come, it’ll probably be something that no one will even remember and that kinda makes me sad.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is sad. We used to always paint the graduating class year number on a hill across from the high school. I did participate in that, because it seemed no one else was going to do it for our year. I too wish I had pictures because we went to the extra effort to “erase” the year(s) before us, who tried to turn 70 into 71 without starting over.

      The graffiti highway goes on for such a long distance, but I imaging there will come a day when it’s taken over by the forest, like the rest of the town.

      Liked by 1 person

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