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.
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.
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.