Blog

Visiting Centralia, Pennsylvania to see the Graffiti Highway

Visiting Centralia: Pennsylvania’s Toxic Ghost Town

Share this with your friends!

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. So, what’s the history of the town and what is there to do when visiting Centralia, PA? Keep reading to find out.

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.

How to get to 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, PA.

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.

Finding the smokestacks in Centralia, PA.

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

Continuing downhill into the town center, Centralia, Pennsylvania, 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.

  • fineartamerica.com
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. (Update: The time capsule was removed and opened in May 2014 after vandals dug it up.)

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 visit 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, similar to the Abandoned PA Turnpike near Breezewood. 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, PA 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, Pennsylvania. 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.


View in a larger map.
uncoveringpa.com

AUTHOR - Jim Cheney

Jim Cheney is the creator of UncoveringPA.com. Based in the state capital of Harrisburg, Jim frequently travels around Pennsylvania and has visited all 67 counties in the state. Jim has also traveled to more than 30 different countries around the world.

58 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.

    • Mae Deep

      Locals bring 4 wheelers and trash. Tourist support local business.

      • jg

        Sorry, but there are no local businesses to support. Tourists might make a stop for gas in Frackville, but that is about it.

        Locals are the ones on 4 wheelers. Ask and they will tell you they live in Ashland, Mt Carmel, and Giardville. They are mostly good people looking for something to do other than heroin.

        Everyone brings trash there, locals and tourists alike.

      • Jim Cheney

        There are local businesses to support in all of the communities that you mentioned. Tourist sites, restaurants, and, yes, gas stations.

  • 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.

  • Martha

    I remember as a little girl driving with my parents on the newly paved detour of Route 61 into Centralia. Looking left towards old 61 was a forest completely white/gray from being burned from underneath, it was completely surreal and I’ll never forget it. The steam/smoke is still there indeed, it’s much more likely to be visible during the winter cold. Three years ago I got many wonderful photos of a steamy area just to the side of Odd Fellows. The rocks were warm to the touch (we do mind where we stick our noses.. it stinks).

    One very small correction, Odd Fellows is to the left when coming from Ashland. Thanks for the article.

    • Jim Cheney

      It certainly sounds like you’ve had some exciting visits, Martha. I double checked Google Maps, and according to the maps (as well as my recollections), Odd Fellows Cemetery is on the right, not the left, when driving from Ashland. Saint Ignatius Cemetery and Saints Peter and Paul Cemetery are the ones on the left.

  • Steve Billman

    Martha, you are wrong, Jim Cheney is correct. I pass thru Centralia twice a day. This past summer I stopped and walked around the cemetary, both as a matter of fact,

  • Re Sweeny

    What you have failed to mention is that residents have been forced to move by the government, claiming right of way (if I remember correctly). Those remaining have refused the buyouts and to leave. Can’t say I blame them, I’d “go down with the ship” so to speak if I was born and raised in Centralia.

    • Julie Liebman

      Eminent domain is when the government takes over the property. Sounds like a fascinating place to visit.

  • Andrew Shecktor

    Very sad, all around. I visit once in a while, and wrote the eulogy “Centralia PA, Devils Fire,” but I respect the ground on which the town once stood as hallowed ground. If you walk the area and open your mind, your eyes, your ears, and your heart, you can still hear the beat of a small town, its inhabitants busily making their way from one day to the next. You can feel the holiday celebrations and the lives of all the humanity now gone. A town such as Centralia should be held in the same regard as a cemetery, and treated with respect and dignity.

  • Lola

    Sweeney you are incorrect.
    Residents were able to make a deal. They received a tidy sum for the houses & could stay living in homes until their death. They don’t pay taxes on the hones. Upon their death after 6 months the homes are to be torn down. They are not supposed to be transferred to others but some are doing just that.
    Having to leave your home is not easy but they received significant compensation & deals.

  • charles T cook

    Briefly-my family (grandfather) moved to Centralia in 1913-he was a pharmacist. He died in 1918. He was distributing medicine to people with the flu and contracted it himself and died. Both sides of my family lived in Centralia since the turn of the century. My mom’s side of the family were Gaughen-her maiden name/Laughlin-her married name. Obviously, my dad’s name-Cook. I lived there during the begining of the mine fire days. I have a lot of info and insite if your interested. My father was secretary on the boro council during some of fire time.

  • Adam Tereska

    I always enjoy touring there. Leave nothing but foot prints; take nothing but education and memories. And pictures; lots and lots of pictures.

  • Thomas C.

    Hello everyone,

    I am from Lower Bucks County and was planning on going up to Centralia in a month or two Sep/Oct. I was wondering if there was anything I should know besides what I have read. I just want to take pictures and look around.

    • Jim Cheney

      I don’t think so, Thomas, but others might feel differently. Just make sure you obey any private property signs, as a few people do still live there.

    • Andrew Shecktor

      Search Google and download the “before” maps. This will give you an idea as to where things were. The borough hall is still there. The old route 61 with its grafitti is really cool and historical. You will need to kind of guess where Centralia is – and park on one of the abandoned roads. Respect the community and the remaining residents and have a blast. It is almost as much fun to watch the rubberneckers (my inspiration for the book I wrote, Centralia PA, Devils Fire.) Take photos and bring a picnic lunch (and plenty of water.) Have fun and be sure to learn the history of the community so you can relate when you are there.

  • Miles

    Hi Jim – I just wanted to compliment you not only on this Centralia story but on your blog in general. Good work and inspiring to me! I look forward to reading more of your work.

  • Lisa

    We just spent the weekend up there, visit family graves, the fair and Knoebels. On Thursday night, passing through, of course we saw nothing. Still, was a bit fun to see how worried my 6-year-old got when we told him we were passing through a ghost town. (He assumed we would see ghosts)

    Today was bright and sunny on our way home, passing through again. Very disappointing. Since my family is from Mt. Carmel and Shamokin, I have been through Centralia many, many times. I have been on 61, before it was re-routed, when you’d drive on it with smoke all around you, wondering if your car would sink. (side note: my Nan would always make us take Snake Mountain Road and stop at the springs for water) I found it creepiest in the 80s and 90s when the residents were gone but the smoke and desolation and boarded up buildings were there.

    If someone didn’t have your blog post, they wouldn’t know where to look or that they should even be looking for anything.

    Today we just saw a whole lot of nothing–or like the first commenter mentioned, many 4x4s and 4 wheelers parked for off roading in the hills. We also arrived in Ashland too early and the mine was not open yet either.

    Still, the fair is as good as I remember it and we hit Knoebels several times each year which never disappoints. So if you are on your way up or back from one of those, this makes for an interesting stop, if you know where to look.

    • Jim Cheney

      I would have loved to have seen Centralia 10-15 years ago. It’s still an interesting place to visit, though, if you know where to look.

  • Dominic Jonhjulio

    Love reading all of your blogs Jim. I plan on visiting Centralia some time. Never heared of the place until recently. It sure is a shame what happened to all those people. Prayers out to them, and to the ones still there.

  • Kathy Pierce

    I hope to visit. I remember reading about Centralia – a terrible, sad and yet fascinating story. Thank you all for the blog, the comments etc. It will help when I visit. Thank you!

  • Toot44

    When I last visited Centralia in the fall of 2015 there were only 5 occupied houses left in the town. The Government reached an agreement in 2013 with the remaining residents, that they may remain in their homes until their demise, then the properties will be re-claimed by the Government and torn down. The homes may not be transferred, or inherited, by any family members.

    The memorial at the American Legion property is no longer there, and of course the cornerstone was opened in 2014, 2 years early, after it had been vandalized. The property was overgrown with grass and weeds. The park bench which once stood in front of the Legion property on Rt 61 is no longer there.

    The St. Ignatius and St. Peter and Paul cemeteries were well taken care of, but the Odd Fellows cemetery was overgrown with weeds and grass.

    I did not observe any No Trespassing signs anywhere, but did note that some barren “lots” were mowed and being taken care of. I surmised these may have been where someone’s home formerly stood and they are keeping it mowed, in memory of where they or family members used to live.

    The Fire House/Police Station building still stands and has a yellow firetruck inside, which is still being used in the event of fires in the area.

    The Columbia County Sheriff Dept has jurisdiction of Centralia.

    The Ukranian church still stands on the hill overlooking the former town, but the stone wall along the road in front of it is crumbling and in great disrepair. I’m hoping it will be restored. The road to the church from the town is greatly overgrown and littered with trash. So sad people have no respect! The church can be easily accessed from the town of Aristes at the top of the hill.

    The “Wash House” [where miners cleaned up and changed clothes before returning home from the mines], located on Rt 61 a short distance down the hill toward Ashland, had been torn down since my last visit. There was only a small footprint left of where it once stood.

    If you visit Centralia, please have respect for the remaining residents and their property, and for the 3 cemeteries. Say a prayer for those interred in the cemeteries, and for those who still live there.

  • Rhett Landry

    Jim, I just returned from Centralia. There were a lot of people walking the Graffiti Highway and was able to get my jeep on the highway after seeing some locals driving on the road. I took a picture of my Jeep near the cracks but now after reading about Centrailia I wonder if posting the picture would be admitting to trespassing. I will post the photos tomorrow on my Website, Facebook, and Instagram.

    • Jim Cheney

      No idea. I know they don’t want vehicles on the highway, though.

  • Gordon Rumore

    I used to live in lower LAUREL RUN,PA, adjoining WilkesBarre township. We had an underground mine fire which caused the town to relocate to the top of the mountain. A mobile home park sprung up in the area of the fire, because the mobile homes could be moved if necessary. There were many vent stacks and a super hot burning hill of pink calcined ash blowing smoke and steam. The power poles were mounted on high concrete pedestals and snow instantly melted on contacting surface of the access road.

    I now live in the Philippines and I would like to know the fate of the burning lower section of Laurel Run. Might one of your corespondents visit this interesting area?

    Your site brings back many memories.
    Gordon Rumore

    • Jim Cheney

      That’s interesting, Gordon. Can’t say I’ve ever heard that story before. Not sure if there is anything to report, but I’ll look into it.

      • Andrew Shecktor

        The Google maps aerial view from 2012 shows smoke still rising. There was also a news report about it on WNEP TV last year. I wrote a novel on Centralia, PA (Centralia PA, Devils Fire) and have done a lot of research on other mine fires in that area. I never really checked out the ones in the Wilkes Barre area (there are about 6 fires currently burning in that area. I will try and make a trip out there to check it out. Maybe fodder for another book? I am thinking about putting together a book about all the mine fires in PA and the history of the communities and the fires.

      • Jim Cheney

        Fascinating. I had no idea that there were other mine fires that were burning in PA.

      • Andrew Shecktor

        I forgot to add – a really great link to a local newspaper article regarding some of the other local northeast PA mine fires is:
        http://thetimes-tribune.com/news/eight-local-coal-fires-still-burning-dep-records-state-1.1622232

  • Tana

    As a child my family would travel through Centralia on our way to Pottsville to visit family. I remember asking what the pipes and smoke were. In the last few years I took my son to see it. Would like to do it again soon.

  • Joe dutill

    I am 2 hours away and been wanting to take a trip to centralia pa ,any good advice ,plan on doing that today 1245 pm now on sunday may 29th 2016

  • Teresa Locke

    Watched the documentary The Town that Was. So interesting! Centralia was such a quaint little town. Such a shame what happened. Unbelievable that a whole town is torn down. Some of the scenes where they were going in with the bulldozers were so sad.

  • Richard Backstrom

    As of 2013 there is NO private property in Centralia… The entire former town is owned by the Tax-Payers… Some residents who refused to move were granted permission to live there for the remainder of their life, but the do NOT own the property and therefore have NO right to post No Trespassing Signs!

    • Jim Cheney

      That may be true. However, at a minimum and out of common courtesy, it’s a good idea to avoid the maintained area directly adjacent to their homes.

  • Bill Mecca

    Was there in the 80’s as a TV news reporter. I remember it was eerie, with all the boarded up homes, smoke rising from the ground. With all the time that has passed, I don’t remember the exact subject of the story, but obviously fire related. 😉 I have to make some time to go back. I don’t think even in my vast collection of old tapes I have that story, I would love to find it, but even my old station, WDAU/WYOU has seemed not to keep or archive the old tapes and films from the news department. (and we had a ton of old 16mm film)

    • Jim Cheney

      I would have loved to have visited Centralia back. Sadly most of the town is gone, but I still think it’s a fascinating place to visit.

  • Jim Fuss

    Why could they not have dug a large deep trench around the coal to stop it from spreading? I’m surprised that the coal would burn without air or was it close to the surface? Why could they not have pumped water into the ground from a nearby stream or water source to extinguish the burning coal?

    • Andrew Shecktor

      Jim. They DID pour water and dig ditches around the fire – problem was it was just too big by the time they realized they had a problem (almost 20 years burning.) The PA government was useless by way of bureaucratic delay. By the time they were on it the cost of a ditch big enough to stop it would have cost more than relocating the town.

  • Jim Fuss

    Thank you Andrew. I did a little more research and found exactly what you said and a lot more. Quite disappointing that the Government didn’t step in and put up the money in the beginning. Maybe it would of solved the problem and saved the town. I feel sorry for all the residents of the town and understand there dislike of the bureaucratic system. Our taxes at work again.

  • Angel Rae

    This place sounds amazing and I want to visit! I am with Dark Moon Press and am currently writing a book on “paranormal activity” and was asked to visit this wonderful little town… I think I’m more excited about seeing the churches and cemeteries than anything lol I would never litter, disrespect the townspeople nor where their dead are buried! I’m guessing there are no hotels near by but can someone tell where the nearest one would be? Thank you for posting this article and looking forward to writing about in my book!

    • Jim Cheney

      The nearest community is Ashland, which should have some plays to stay, though I don’t think that there is a hotel there. To be honest, I’ve never heard of any paranormal activity at Centralia, but good luck in your quest.

      • Angel Rae

        I found out earlier, I actually know someone in Ashland lol Never realized until he said something to me today!! The things you learn… And as for the paranormal side of it, I am looking for ghost town sites and stories as well…So even if I get nothing, supernatural-wise than I plan on still writing about it! Thank you for your reply! 🙂

    • Andrew Shecktor

      Elysburg is very close, and with Knoebels Grove Amusement park there I am sure there are places to stay. Or for more conventional accommodations you could stay in Bloomsburg – There are a number of conventional hotel chains at decent rates in the area. There is still a lot to see in Centralia, and there is still some smoking ground, better seen in the winter (but not like before.) As an aside, I live nearby and wrote the fictionally metaphorical novella “Centralia PA, Devils Fire.” If you do go, be sure to look up some of the locals who are willing to talk about the history of the town, and you are always welcome to speak with me about what I have learned (I have consulted on several documentaries and news articles about Centralia. I was never a resident, but have lived in the area and worked in Centralia helping with the air quality monitoring.)

      • Angel Rae

        Fantastic!! Thank you Andrew!! When the time comes for me to visit, I would love to speak with you!!

  • Angel Rae

    Completely intrigued by this location!! lol

Post A Comment