Centralia, PA

Below is my first trip to Centralia. To see more pictures and read about my return trip in December of 2012, click here.



July 31, 2007 — Centralia, PA, has no multi-screen movie theater. Centralia, PA, has no fast food restaurants. Centralia, PA, doesn’t even have a zip code. What Centralia does have, though, is a 400-acre-and-growing underground coal fire directly beneath it that has burned for 45 years and will burn for a few hundred more. Your town sucks by comparison.

The perennially burning ghost town of Centralia is definitely in the upper echelon of American oddities.  Why?  Because it’s a perennially burning ghost town.  Of course, it doesn’t have the only underground coal fire in the world, nor does it have the largest or the oldest.  But it does have the spookiest story, I think.  Plus it’s within relatively easy commuting distance for me, so that gives it a leg up as far as I’m concerned.

Here’s how it happened.  The year was 1962 and, as so many of my own personal anecdotes start, some people were burning trash.  However, in this instance, they were burning the trash near what almost every article on the topic refers to as an “exposed coal seam.”  I don’t know much about mining, but that definitely sounds like something that I don’t want to set on fire (and that’s a very small list for me).  Which is, of course, what happened.

The coal seam turned out to be Journey to the Center of the Earth deep, Attack of the 50-Foot Woman huge, and The Land that Time Forgot inaccessible.  The underground fire caused sink holes to gape; roads to heave and crack; deadly gases and smoke to waft like ghost armies, and it endangered the lives of many pets, children, and the elderly.  The federal government had to eventually permanently evacuate the town.  Mostly, anyway.  A few recalcitrants wouldn’t move, opting instead to brave the danger zone and invent the usual conspiracy theories.  Much of the town was razed.  The fire continued to burn, but now it burns triumphantly.


A few decades later, enter me.  I came across this oddity in an embarrassing way.  Movies.  I hate when movies teach me stuff.  Makes me feel late to the party. And I’ve pretty much learned everything I know from movies, so you do the math. Two movies in particular used the idea of Centralia as a framework to hang their stories on: Nothing But Trouble (1991) and Silent Hill (2006).  And I name them not because you should see them, but solely so that I can make an as-yet-to-be-determined Digital Underground reference later.

So a foray to Centralia has been percolating in the coffee maker of my mind for a while.  And in that aforementioned mind of mine, I had imagined Centralia to be a place awash in fogs of thick, deadly vapors; porcupined with warning signs; and—much like my Aunt Eleanor—completely inhospitable to visitors.  I envisioned mutated animals, barbed wire, and EPA agents in bright yellow HAZMAT suits.  I had planned on cobbling a map together from various arcane and semi-trustworthy Internet sites, painting my face black, donning one of those paper filter masks that were all the rage in China a few years back, dictating my last will and testament, and violating softly enforced trespassing laws.

And, as happens often enough for me to question everything about my existence, I was wrong.  More or less.

You see, Centralia is right off of Rt. 61 in Pennsylvania.  And by “off” I mean “on.”  You can drive through the town without even realizing that you’re driving over the nearest thing to a milieu of hell this side of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting.  Apparently, at one time the road was detoured away from the town, but for reasons that I’m sure make Centralia much less mysterious, that’s not the case anymore.  Honestly, I wish that the way to Centralia was Shambala-like in its guarded secrecy.  First, so that I could feel initiated.  Second, so that I could blast the secret all over the Internet.  Literally, though, just go to Pennsylvania and take Rt. 61 until you get there.


As you drive on Rt. 61 past the town of Ashland (you might also at some point pass the ruin of an old drive-in movie theater that has officially become, in a life full of regrets, the greatest regret of my life because I did not stop and take a picture of it), you’ll eventually see off to the left side of the road a large mound of dirt and a warning sign.  The pile of dirt blocks off an old section of Rt. 61 that led to Centralia and was rendered unusable as a road by the underground fire.

The space in front of the dirt pile comes in quite handy as a parking lot for visitors.  The warning sign presages most of those really terrifying things that I originally though were going to be there, but it functions more as a photo op than any kind of deterrent, so I took one, feeling all the while like a crow using a scarecrow as a perch.  But at least it’s way cooler than a mere “Welcome to Centralia” sign, despite the outstanding opportunity for a slogan.

We parked, clambered over the dirt, and walked about half a mile over undulating asphalt until we arrived at a giant smoking crack.  Actually, that’s giant [comma] smoking crack. My first few steps on this road did, admittedly, make me feel a bit vertiginous.  It’s a weird feeling to not be able to trust a planet.  It only lasted a few seconds before I realized I was just falling for the hype.  So don’t fall for the hype (I reserve the right to remove that statement from the article on the first news report of a death in Centralia due to “sudden collapse of the ground”).  In my case, after a bit of walking, I could see people ahead of me hanging out at the fissure, so any slight worry soon dissipated.

The fissure is pretty impressive.  I mean, you’re not going to fall in and become prey to Morlocks, but seeing an asphalt road completely ripped and contorted is enough to make you nod your head in a satisfying way.  Add on top of that the smoke drifting out of it, and you’ve got yourself something really worth seeing.  And graffiti-ing, as well, apparently.  You can see in the picture that someone was slow-charring a teddy bear in the fissure.  Sad, but not a bad way to send it off.  Certainly all of my childhood stuffed animals went out in way more horrible ways.

Once you get tired of ogling the crevice, it’s time to move on to the actual town.  I assume that you can get there by continuing down the rest of the old road, but we decided to head back to the car and drive a little bit further down the new Rt. 61 to get there.  On the way out, we nodded to two teenage girls who asked us how far to the fissure just like someone would ask for the nearest gas station.  Yup.  And blind men, pets, and children are now climbing Mt. Everest.




You’ve probably already guessed it based on the tone of this article, but the town itself wasn’t foreboding or terrifying or even really that exhilarating.  Might have to do with the weather that day.  I visited Centralia on a day about as sunny as Sesame Street.  Maybe that hurt the atmosphere.  Maybe that made me more objective.  Maybe all that’s irrelevant.  But here’s hoping that if you ever visit it, you get it overcast and lonesome.

When I went, about ten people were hanging out at various spots throughout the field that Centralia has basically become.  Even had a convoy of four-wheelers joy ride noisily through the town while I was there.  In the past decade or two, Centralia might have been a lot more ominous, I don’t know.

Currently, Centralia consists almost in toto of a small grid of overgrown streets, a few cemeteries (definite style points for keeping those intact), a single row house sans row that is only still standing because it has been buttressed by chimney-looking ribs of red brick, an old smoking landfill, some suspiciously well-maintained green park benches, a humble-looking veterans memorial in the form of a bell, and a small marble slab covering a time capsule slated for opening in 2016 that’s just too easy to make jokes about. That’s the line I use when I can’t come up with any jokes.

We parked on the side of Rt. 61, walked around a bit, sat on a park bench, looked at the few things there were to look at, took some pictures, and then hopped back in the car and drove down a few dead end streets for kicks.  That’s pretty much everything you do when you visit Centralia.  Should have brought a picnic lunch.


Now, smoke was rising from the ground, but, like I mentioned, mostly from the landfill area.  The smoke can make your throat a bit scratchy...especially if you’re standing in it for stupid pictures, but I doubt that’s because it’s particularly toxic (once again, reserving the right to remove that line).  That’s just what smoke does to your throat, whether it’s blowing from a 45-year-old underground coal fire or from an old toaster oven with a frayed power chord (which, despite arguments to the contrary, still makes amazing toast).

Based on my single visit to the place, saying you’ve been to Centralia is degrees cooler than actually being in Centralia, at least at this point in time.  But who knows what tourism-worthy devastation the fire will wreak in the future.  And that also doesn’t knock it out of the aforementioned upper echelon, either, because, unlike Nothing But Trouble, the story of Centralia remains a good tale regardless.  And never pass up a chance to see smoke rising from cracks in the ground.  If there’s one thing you take away from this article, I want it to be that.

All right, it’s a bit abrupt, but we’re at the end, and I’ve no Digital Underground reference to show for it.  Pretty hideous considering the content centers on a coal fire that is, of all things, underground.  I’m sure someone will e-mail me the perfect punch line, though.  I hate you for your cleverness in advance.  But I will steal it, update this article, and give you no credit.  Fair warning...of complete unfairness.

36 comments:

  1. I'm headed up to visit tomorrow before the government kicks out the remaining residents and the town falls into the abyss.

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  2. Any updates on the condition of the cemetary? My mother is buried there.

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    1. I was just up there today. The cemeteries are still in good shape (although one is completely chained up for good) and seem to be maintained on a regular basis. There were brand-new American flags near some grave at the St Ignatius Cemetery (thanks to a Google search, I see videos of a Memorial Day service there this year).

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    2. What's the name and what cem? I go up fairly regular to clear family areas in St. Ig and Oddfella's cems. I would be happy to check them out for you. A local...

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  3. Are there really still a few people living there? Such a bizarre story. Loved your write-up!

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  4. we were there today seen about 15 people.

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  5. Nice blog - I'm from NH, too, and just visited Centralia yesterday. Granted there's not much to see, but as you said, saying you've been there is pretty cool in and of itself.

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  6. You said that no one has died there from 'sudden collapse of the ground', but a child almost did: in 1981 a 12-year-old boy was playing in his grandmother's backyard when a giant sinkhole opened up beneath him and he fell in. He managed to grab hold of a tree root and his cousin pulled him out. If his cousin hadn't been there, the gases alone would have killed him in a matter of minutes, even if he had held on to the tree root that long.

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    1. But... he didn't. So what he said is true. No one died there from 'sudden collapse of the ground'. "Almost" still only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

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  7. I liked your article! I new about Centrailia for a while. We just made a trip there 7/21/10. We did not get to look around for too long and I'm wondering how far down old Rt61 goes and if there are more buckles in it.

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    1. The closed section is maybe 1/2 mile long give or take from where St. Ignatius Church was located down to where the old Byrnesville Rd. (now detour road begins. Byrnesville was also part of the buy-out. Abt. halfway down from Centralia end you will get to where the worst of the old 61 road is worse for wear. It is getting bad in spots. Beware there are open sinkholes along the right side of the road (going south) covered by very high grass. It is actually a pillar holding up a section of the road. The hillside is dotted w/fissures. You will not see anything on a windy or warm day. If going there sit a bit, you may hear the guard rail 'plink' from heat at best. Keep to the road. It is also full of glass and much out of area grafitti, so if you have kids you may not want them seeing it. I am a lifelong local. My family is buried in both cems still maintained by churches and family. Please think, take your trash w/you and show a lil respect for those who have as of today won their right to stay. Have a great day.

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    2. anonymous...can you give any details to the drive in movie theater along RT 61 where can I find it? I've been there many time and never heard it desisted til this blog. Thanks for your help ahead of time

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  8. Any idea when they're going to open the time capsule?

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    1. When were you diagnosed?

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    2. 2016 I think is on it.

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  9. i would say 2016, but only because the time capsule says "to be opened in 2016."

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  10. I was just there this morning. It is very eerie just being in the town (town? remains of a town) but more so walking the closed part of 61. Several times when I'd get to shaded parts, I'd put the back of my hand on the asphalt- it was NOT cold!
    The Fire truck and ambulance are still in the minicipal building but the building itself is starting to fall into a state of disrepair.

    An item now crossed off my "bucket list"- I was there.

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  11. I remember going there as a kid to visit my Godfather. then as I got older and was able to drive we would go through Ashland then Centrailia to get to Knoebles Grove. Ihave an Aunt and Uncle buried there. I wonder what they would be thinking right now.

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  12. There's a couple of good books out there that tell the story of the history of Centralia and what the townspeople went through once the fire started. What was once a closely knit community became sharply divided as the townspeople fought over what should be done or not done. They are very lucky that no one died as a direct result of the fire/gasses, but several came very, very close. So much of this could have been avoided if they had only dealt with it head-on at the very beginning instead of passing the issue around like a hot potato.

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  13. Ha u r really funny

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  14. I finally made the trip there today it just amazed me. Deffentley will be going back and will be doing research it has sparked my intrest!

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  15. Want to check this out now. Love ghost towns, and things that have been abandoned after long periods of time.

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  16. I heard about it in the History Channel series, "Life After People." I don't recall whether it was mentioned in Season 1 or Season 2, though. Funny about the teddy bear. Why can't they just stick some fire hoses underground and put out the fire? A stitch in time saves nine. Waiting will just make it worse!

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    1. They tried it, but doesn't work. If they did that originally, it may have worked.

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    2. There are something like 8 or 9 levels deep of tunnels under the surrounding area, there is no way of knowing after 50 yrs. of it buring to accurately map it and definately no funds. (Coal Co./politician greed want to get at 150+ yrs. of virgin hard coal). The original plan was to dig a 400+ ft. trench through the town cutting it in half and eventually dig it out. The people did not go for it. The natural water table keeps it from burning down into Ashland. It burned east and west. Centralia actually burned at both ends at one time. A stretch between there and Mt. Carmel was dug out and reclaimed, new road put in which exists today. (Reclaimation of lg. culm banks is ongoing throughout the region-hauled away to co-gen plants which burns this waste material to make electricity). Sadly this could not be done with the original fire, it was already becoming a source of contention. Signs of fumes have surfaced just shy of Schuylkill/Columbia Co. boundary north of Big Mine Run along this back road of Centralia into BMR. Water was used on the original trash fire, in the 1980's it was a type of slurry mixture pumped in underground used mostly as an attempt at a firebreak that did not work. The pipes, stacks, and capped numbered vents on the streets you see evidence of today used by the gov to track it actually fed oxygen to the fire making it worse. Trash fire is the consensus, a few old timers will tell you it originated from a 'bootleg' hole in the BMR area blown shut to try to smother a fire started that didn't work and eventually made it's way into a seam into the town of Centralia. A Local..

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  17. I was heading there until I pissed my pants. It smelled funny and got My money wet.

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  18. Thank you for a very interesting article.

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  19. Wow, that was a great article. I figured I would read a couple of lines and nod off, but you got me hooked from the very first paragraph. Keep it up!

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  20. What's a good address I an set my GPS to so I can visit a food spot!

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  21. Hello, I´m a student from Germany and I will do a presentation about Centralia next week at school. I´ve got a book and read a lot in the internet, but I couldn´t find anything how many people still living there? Has anyone any information about? I would be very grateful!

    Sabine from Germany, Bavaria

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  22. As of today, seven. They were just given the right to stay until they pass away, then the land will be enforced as eminent domain as decreed originally before they decided to fight to stay. I personally have family in both cemmies so it's of interest to me as to what will happen (if anything) to them. There is also another cem behind St. Ignatius, Russian I believe. Some of my family had no choice but to accept the buy out in the 1980's. Other immigrated to Centralia from Lithuania and lived there their whole lives. A local..

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  23. Head's Up to OTIS:
    Right where you are standing in cem photo (top) was/is a "Do Not Walk Area" (nor would I drive over it). This also applies to the front of the cem between the lane to cem and the highway. There are spots across the highway as well, all w/in a few blocks. There used to be white flags maybe 20" high all over this area and down below placed by DEP to mark unstable ground. Green flags marked a gas line no longer used which runs along Rt. 61 I think. See top photo of capped vent pipe on right (to your left) in photo. There appears to be at least one flag showing faintly between the vent and where you stand. Most have simply deteriorated and were never replaced. Since the heavy rains of 2006 washed much of the hillside bank away along the road going back towards Ss. Peter and Paul cemetery located behind St. Ignatius cem-shown (you would be standing on this st. to take this photo facing cem) down toward the lower street, the coal companies come through regularly and "bull(doze)" over these areas to keep down fumes and the curious out as needed. A DEP station was over closer to IOOF cemetery across the highway to monitor rain and air for awhile but are gone after a yr. or so. The fire does burn on that side as well but is hard to see, maybe a fissure here and there. The highway signs are gone as to the dangers of the fire. There is/was one for the gov'nor in protest near the cems. I believe the bench is too, unless in storage, quite possible. The photo of you on the closed Rt. 61 section appears to show you looking at my "tag" which I have kept there since abt. 2006 on the sweet spot of the large seperation of the road. Pretty much to guage how it's eroding over the yrs. I photograph for local historical society. The closed road attracts ppl from all over but locals also use it to power walk. It is slowly taken back by nature and quite peaceful other than the atv riders, or the occasional beer party, spray painters, tourists, curious, etc. All this land plus the land surrounding all the cems on both sides of highway up in Centralia, and land in Byrnsville (on detour route) is posted to trespassing down to Ashland. Most land around Centralia is posted in all directions. It is coal company land, some actively worked, regularly enforced by them and local game commish due to trespassing, poaching and of course the slobs who discard their trash. These hills are full of all sorts of demolition and other refuse thrown into pits, some hundreds of ft. deep and water filled, most just attractive enough to back up and get out quick for these *******. Recently installed windmills closer to Aristes above Centralia also patrolled. Other than that I believe Centralia is the only local government/entity that has a balanced budget! One fella still puts up holiday decorations. Cems are cared for quite well. I hope this helps should you choose to visit again, please just be careful where you park and walk. For a more enjoyable coal attraction I suggest you check out Pioneer Tunnel Mine and "Lokie" train ride complete w/the Anthracite Coal Museum Tour, complex located at 19th & Oak St. in Ashland. It is seasonal. For eats check out The MineShaft Cafe located abt. 11th & Centre St. A Subway and other shops can be found further down town. You can also visit Ashland Area Historical Preservation Society (by appt.) at 3rd on Centre St. (Centre is Rt. 61 to 3rd St. red light, Rt. 54 if going straight from there, Rt. 61S turns right at light coming down). The Mother's Memorial is located at 3rd St. It's a replica of Whistler's Mother statue dedicated to all mother's in the boro it was recently added to Pa. State Historical sites. She is one of a kind. If you like Molly MaGuire history skip another 2 miles on Rt. 54 into Girardville to Wayne's Hotel. Much topic of interest can be found there. Sorry to sound like a commercial here but if planned right you can make a full day of it. Enjoy! A local...

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  24. anonymous...can you give any details to the drive in movie theater along RT 61 where can I find it? I've been there many time and never heard it desisted til this blog. Thanks for your help ahead of time

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  25. I would like this article so much more if it wasn't dripping with bad schtick. It reads like a really long George Carlin joke that has no punch line.

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  26. fuck da article.. u r hot

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