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A crack in Graffiti Highway seen while visiting Centralia, Pennsylvania

Visiting Centralia: Pennsylvania’s Toxic Ghost Town

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Located in a quiet valley of Columbia County, Pennsylvania, is one of the state’s least likely and least publicized tourist attractions: Centralia. What draws people to this out-of-the-way town isn’t the amazing culture or the fascinating historical sites. Instead, it’s the lack of things to see. You see, Centralia is a modern ghost town.

In the early sixties, the borough of Centralia was just like any number of coal region towns in Pennsylvania. The community of roughly 1,500 was supported by the seam of coal that ran beneath the town. However, in 1962, a fire was lit in the town dump that spread beneath the entire valley and threatened the community’s existence.

The full extent of the problem wasn’t known until 1979 when a gas station owner in Centralia measured the temperature of the gas in his underground containers to be more than 100° above normal. The situation escalated further when a 150-foot deep sinkhole opened beneath a 12-year old boy. Fortunately, the boy escaped death, but that was the last straw for many residents of the town.

Over the next few years, the fire continued to burn around the community, increasing the levels of toxic gases like carbon monoxide to dangerous levels. By 1990, only 63 residents remained and by 2012, there were only 10 people left in Centralia.

The sign that still welcomes you to the Borough of Centralia, Pennsylvania.

The sign that still welcomes you to the Borough of Centralia, Pennsylvania.

Over the last two decades, many of Centralia’s buildings have been torn down. However, there are still things to do in Centralia.

Driving over the mountains from nearby Ashland, you’ll come over the crest of the hill to a marker that still welcomes you to the borough of Centralia. Just down the road are three very well-kept cemeteries. In Odd Fellows Cemetery on your right, it is said that smoke from the fire can sometimes be seen rising through the ground, making for a very eerie scene. Even if there’s no smoke, however, the cemetery is interesting to see as the fence surrounding it and many of the gravestones show signs of how the fire has changed the landscape.

The land behind Odd Fellows Cemetery is where the fire is thought to have started. In this area, the effects of the fire can be clearly seen in the scorched earth and the plant life that has survived there. Metal venting tubes dot the landscape here, but little can be seen of the active fire on most days.

One of the smoke stacks that dots the land near where the Centralia mine fire started.

One of the smoke stacks that dots the land near where the Centralia mine fire started.

Continuing downhill into the town center, Centralia almost has the feel of a town destroyed by war. Roads that once led to quiet residential streets now lead nowhere.

Sidewalks have buckled under trees along what was once a residential street in Centralia, Pennsylvania.

Sidewalks have buckled under trees along what was once a residential street.

Driving down these deserted lanes, you can still see curbs, sidewalks, and front steps, many of which have been upturned by the power of the fire. The few houses that remain sit in isolated pockets around town, surrounded by lots where nature is reclaiming the land once occupied by happy families.

A lonely street corner in Centralia.

A lonely street corner in Centralia.

The only spark of color in Centralia is the beautiful Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church which sits on a hill above town and still holds weekly services. One of five churches in town when the first started, it is the only one still standing.

Also worth seeing is the former Veteran’s Memorial, which still has a chain link fence and the base where the veteran’s memorial statue once stood. There is also a time capsule buried in the ground that is due to be open in 2016, 50 years after it was buried in 1966.

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in Centralia, Pennsylvania.

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, the last remaining church in Centralia.

No trip to Centralia is complete without a visit to the Graffiti Highway. Centralia’s Graffiti Highway is located on what was once Route 61, which runs from Ashland to Centralia. However, the fire necessitated such frequent and expensive repairs to the road, that Route 61 was permanently rerouted around the area in 1994. What was left, was a 3/4 mile stretch of abandoned roadway that can be accessed from a small dirt parking area next to St. Ignatius Cemetery.

A large crack in the road along the Graffiti Highway in Centralia, Pennsylvania.

A large crack in the road along the Graffiti Highway in Centralia, Pennsylvania.

Today, the road is covered in graffiti. Some of it is insightful sayings and some of it could be considered art. Unfortunately, a high percentage of the graffiti is quite vulgar, a fact worth noting before taking the trip with children. However, those that decide to walk Centralia’s Graffiti Highway are in for a treat because this is the best area to see the destructive power of the fire below.

For a large portion of the highway, it looks simply like an overgrown, abandoned road. However, in the middle of the destroyed section is a large crack that runs through the road and has to be seen to be believed. A bit further down, the road buckles into a 3-foot tall wall of asphalt. In many ways, it looks more like a set from a blockbuster action movie than a peaceful country highway. There are also reports that smoke can still be seen rising from the ground from time to time in this area.

The action movie feel of the Graffiti Highway can make for some great photos.

The action movie feel of the Graffiti Highway can make for some great photos.

What has happened to Centralia over the past 50 years is quite humbling. However, visiting is a great way to better understand the destructive power of nature. While it might be one of Pennsylvania’s least likely and least publicized tourist attractions, visiting Centralia is definitely worthwhile.

Note: There are still residents that live in town, and to my knowledge, all of the remaining buildings are occupied. Please make sure that you don’t disturb residents’ property and that you obey any “No Trespassing” signs that you might see while visiting Centralia. It’s also a good idea to stay upwind of any smoke or steam that you see rising from the ground as it’s likely toxic.


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AUTHOR - Jim Cheney

Jim Cheney is the creator of UncoveringPA.com. Based in the state capital of Harrisburg, Jim frequently travels around Pennsylvania to see the best places the state has to offer. He is also the writer of Tripologist.com, a site that focuses on travel planning and unique travel destinations in Asia, Europe, and North America.

13 Comments

  • Virginia Yeager

    There is no more smoke or fire in Centrallia. The scenery is just like any other stretch of land full of trees and grass. Thanks to these sites tourist leave behind trash and damaged tombstones.It’s disgusting to visit the graves of family members and have to clean up candy wrappers and drink cups. 4 wheelers tear up the roads to and at the cemeteries. It’s sad and heart breaking to see what has become of this town. The fire gone now for years. The air again is clean. The land full of life. The fire a bad memory.

    • Jim Cheney

      Virginia, It is definitely a shame that people feel it’s okay to leave their trash laying around. I hope that anyone who visits would respect the place and follow the same principles of leaving no trace that they often do when hiking in a state park. Centralia is a beautiful and fascinating place that deserves our respect.

  • Chris Day

    Virginia, you are incorrect! There is still a fire. Steam can still be found emitting from certain areas around town. You can even place your hands in the cracks on graffiti highway and feel the extreme heat coming from certain areas of the cracks.

  • Mark Peake

    “The destructive power of nature.” Come again? The fire was started by people, not nature.

    • Jim Cheney

      True, but once the fire was started, nature took over and destroyed the town despite repeated and costly efforts to put the fire out.

  • Francine Price

    Please do not walk on the graves or steal flowers off them (this past spring someone stole my flowers off my baby’s grave), and don’t litter. Visit, take pictures, and if possible stay out of the cemeteries. Back in May or June someone tried to open the time capsule. Don’t vandalize and please don’t litter. You aren’t at home and the township cop likes to use the dirt path to hide and wait for speeders. He will arrest you if he sees you littering or stealing or vandalizing property.

    • Jim Cheney

      It’s hard to believe that some people would do that. There is no reason that anyone should treat the cemeteries any differently than a cemetery somewhere else. Just because the town is more or less abandoned doesn’t mean that the graves or cemeteries can be vandalized. Thanks for the reminder, Francine.

  • sabrina barlet

    I know when we went in April of 2013 you could still see smoke coming out of the ground in several different places not enough to actually capture with a camera but you could see it. The ground was also noticably warmer to the touch around these holes also there was snow covered ground inthe sourrounding areas but little to no snow in the the direct area

  • Chris Day

    You are correct Sabrina, I live 3 miles away from Centralia and can assure you, the fire is still burning. Anyone that says anything different obviously isn’t from around here or doesn’t know the area too well. It is not to the extent where there is abundant steam or smoke emitting from the ground or acres of dead vegetation like it was back in the day but it still continues to burn and probably will continue to burn beyond our lifetime.

    • Jim Cheney

      Estimates I’ve seen says there is enough coal for the fire to burn for at least 200 more years. Crazy stuff!

  • Andrew Shecktor

    Centralia is not a all like Silent Hill! But great fodder for a real story. I wrote a novel, Centralia PA, Devils Fire (Amazon) that depicts with historical accuracy the history of Centralia and combines the fantasy of demons in the mines (metaphorical representations of the mining companies and mine owners.) Much better tale than Silent Hill… There are a couple of new documentaries out and coming out on the town and also a few new historical books written by local authors that are worth looking at.

  • Keri

    Hello. A friend and I went to Centralia today and we could not see the pipes near where the fire started near the Odd Fellow’s Cemetery. Every tree driving back to make that left was marked with a No Trespassing sign, so we didn’t feel comfortable, although I wasn’t sure if it was just for the woods being off limits or the actual road….Anyone sure?

    • Jim Cheney

      That’s interesting, Keri. I don’t recall the No Trespassing signs being a problem when I went in March, but I suppose they could have put up more since I was there. Truthfully, while somewhat interesting for the history, the pipes themselves aren’t anything amazing, but it’s still a shame if you can’t legally access that area anymore.

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