A Place to Call Home: The Almost-Ghosttown of Centralia, Pennsylvania

Unlike celestial bodies, the gravity of places does not depend on density or mass. If it did, I wouldn’t find myself in Bar Harbor in the wintertime or Barstow on a July afternoon. For many people, activity and a high concentration of distractions is the obvious magnetic force. Billions have decided that the strongest draw is exerted by New York and Beijing and Los Angeles and London—they allow us to never be robbed of stimuli or feel the prickling sensation on the backs of our necks that comes from standing somewhere empty and hearing a noise that doesn’t seem to come from the landscape.

They allow us to never have time or space to think, and indeed many people prefer to live that way. To me, bustling urban areas are a lot like antidepressants; they prevent you from going into the depths of daisy-chained thoughts, but they also suppress you from ever experiencing the fullness of life.

Brain drain and population migration both fascinate me a great deal, and I’d very much like to write a book on the subject. I could wax poetic endlessly on the doubly-injurious effects of people moving to places that have been placed on Top Ten lists, but maybe explaining myself would prevent me from being blessedly ignored as I kick Coke cans around dusty Main Streets the nation over.

Yesterday I got to visit a different type of ghost town, one which pries and gnaws at our collective consciousness and exerts an outsized gravity for its miniscule population which unofficially hovers between five and ten. It has not been slowly phased out or bypassed by the interstates or usurped by modern industrial advances. It has not been peaceably ignored by time or forgotten as the population dwindles like its aging residents’ memories. Instead, it rudely yanks visitors from their nearby metropolitan lives to come snap a photo or two and hurry back to the highways they came from.

I planned my entire day, and in turn the entire day after it, around finally visiting Centralia, Pennsylvania. Centralia is a lot like the evenly-distributed, sparsely-populated mining towns that dot central Pennsylvania. It’s right there in the name. The only difference is, in 1962 someone, somehow, lit the underground coal mine ablaze. It smoldered and heated up until 1979, when gas station owner AND mayor John Coddington measured the temperature of his underground tanks over a hundred degrees above normal. A scant two years later, a 150-foot wide sinkhole opened up in the Dobowski’s backyard, nearly swallowing 12-year-old Todd who somehow grabbed ahold of tree roots and didn’t fall all the way to the bottom. What followed was a decade of extremely *heated* debate as residents tried to decide if their beloved town was indeed in any real danger from the underground fire.

The debate burned with a slow, seething heat much like the fire beneath the ground.  Eventually the scientists and government won over and most residents accepted disaster relief relocation funds and moved to nearby towns. A handful of households opted to remain after arguing incessantly and signing multiple wavers. Once the current rightful homeowners pass away or move out, their houses will be claimed under eminent domain and promptly razed like the rest of them already have. Outsiders are quick to write this off as utter insanity or hints of some insidious underbody of the culture there. Why would anyone choose to remain somewhere that threatens to swallow them whole at any given second is generally beyond us. And most visitors there like to portray themselves as brave and Centralia as unspeakably haunted and remote.

Writer Bill Bryson talks about Centralia in his book, A Walk in the Woods, which is ostensibly about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail but is only kind of about that. Centralia is not on the AT any more than Washington D.C. is. He, like many others, tried to paint the town as teetering on some precipice. I find him generally hilarious and self-depricating, but his assessment of Centralia seemed to aim at making him appear more brave and the town more fearsome than reality would prove. He states, upon walking on the infamous Graffiti Highway, “It dawned on me that I was in the middle—very much in the middle—of an extensively smoking landscape on possibly no more than a skin of asphalt, above a fire that had been burning out of control for 34 years.”

When I visited, the fire had been burning for even longer, the skin of asphalt likely even thinner, the police presence in the region even greater. In one last cursory Google search before I headed from Scranton towards Centralia via county roads and one-lane dirt tracks, articles dated one month and one day prior noted that Pennsylvania State Police had begun cracking down on trespassers in Centralia and that the town’s gonzo attractions were, as they’ve ever been, CLOSED.

I checked the date and time—approximately 3 PM on a Wednesday—and figured that if ever the State Police wouldn’t be lurking in the shadows of a smoldering mining town, now was that time. I wove through Pennsylvania’s rural mining country, seeking to understand Centralia by understanding the other places like it. This narrative is virtually absent in all mention of Centralia as some sort of deranged ghost town filled with horror-film antagonists. The day was sunny but frigid, a fierce wind blowing out of the north and the temperature plummeting downward from a starting point of 28 degrees. The Land Cruiser bobbed and weaved through snowmelt and over frost heaves in gravel roads. Hank was a bit fed up with the amount of time we’d spent driving, and I was still smirking at myself for blasting the theme from ‘The Office’ repeatedly while driving around Scranton surveying its architecture and seeking a hot cup of coffee.

I pulled over on dead-end dirt roads and parked in Main Street towns. Followed roads with gates that were left inexplicably unlocked. It all felt dutiful even though I am not being compensated for this (or anything). Still, even as I read the marquee of a sighing high school which was jarringly up-to-date with PTA meetings and pancake dinners, I felt a feverish frenzy boiling up from inside of me. Centralia was calling. This place had been no more than a collection of stories and photos and a very faraway dot on a map. And now I was close but not bee-lining there, and this drove me crazy. Places like Centralia seem to divide people as sharply as any divisive topic out there. They see no appeal in its silent decay or in the perceived danger, or they think they’d really like to see it someday.

For me, it’s more than a morbid curiosity. That phrase implies both a fascination with the morbid (which I certainly lack) and morbidity (which Centralia certainly lacks, though I suppose that may change at any given millisecond). Centralia possesses the same complicated virtue as aging classic rock musicians and budding love interests: if you do not go see them as soon as humanly possible, you may never see them at all and instead always wonder What if. All of these sirens drive me over the stern. Not only could the whole town fall into the earth at any given time, its remaining residents aren’t getting any younger and law enforcement isn’t getting any kinder. Plus, according to the ten(ish) remaining residents, the fires are actually cooling off. Soon, it may be an empty grid system with perfectly-normal-ground-temperature and nothing to show for it. For all of my sickening impotence, I refused to miss Centralia. In a way, it came at a high price. I radically altered my plans to get there and did miss out on invitations to see cities I’d never seen before. In another way, all I had to do was drive, and this was immensely reassuring. In a life which seems so lacking in simple, achievable goals, visiting this smoldering section of coal country was something that I could and would do. And, like the expanses of Maine, and in spite of all that’s been written about it, I had no sense of what to expect. So, surprise and achievement in one place that lacks a ZIP code. To me, the answer was obvious.

After getting a sense of the absolute beauty of the mining region and its rugged individualism and an illegal and ironic look at the windfarm atop a peak in the heart of a coal region, I felt ready to approach Centralia from the North. If you didn’t know you were looking for it, you’d easily miss it and drive right by on Pennsylvania Highway 61, a possible source of inspiration for Bob Dylan. Nevertheless, I descended from the ridge and through the heart of Aristes, Pennsylvania, a plenty-lively town whose name Microsoft Word refuses to recognize. It is startling to see the way these towns are set apart yet dense. Wherever the highway’s name gives way to Main Street, you will invariably find a block or two of row houses—indeed, even Centralia once had townhomes and row houses, and the residents who remained were forced to reinforce their homes with external bracing once their previously wall-sharing neighbors left and their portions of the row were razed.

From Aristes, you are a couple of minutes away from Centralia’s nearly-empty grid. You arrive without fanfare. It was fun to throw the truck into 4WD and point it towards unplowed roads, only visible because of spots where the heat had melted through the snow or where a single set of tire tracks had braved the same roads sometime before I arrived. The first couple of blocks arriving from the north are entirely vacated, the occasional dead-end driveway and conspicuous lack of trees the only indications that a neighborhood once stood here. Signs stood in the trees warning hunters not to hunt in this area. We were quite near a State Game Land, of which Pennsylvania has many, and I suppose if you spent enough time in the woods and chased a deer far enough, you could wind up here. Of course, if you missed, your rifle shot might go through one of the remaining houses in Centralia. Or its sharp crack may just be the straw that breaks the asphalt’s back and sends you or the deer into a deep, hot hole. Hence the signs.

I plowed through a few snow banks and circled around before realizing that the warm ground was melting and re-freezing the snow in treacherous ways and vowed not to get stuck too far from the highway. I headed down a snow-covered street distinguishable only by the row of trees on either side and stop sign at the end of it and finally reached the famed Locust Avenue. This functioned as Centralia’s main street, the place where its civic buildings and happy homes once stood. There are no longer any homes standing on Locust Avenue; the last one was demolished in 2007. From here, it wasn’t hard to find the houses that were still standing. In their wintertime nudity, what few trees were here did little to obstruct my view southward towards the few houses which were very clearly lived-in. The snow made Centralia especially enchanting, both because I could see its signs of life more clearly and because it was easy to identify the hottest spots on the ground. I noted a set of mailboxes in front of a now-empty lot and wondered if junk mail ever showed up here, or if any mail at all did for that matter. The US Postal Service (which royally screwed me yesterday trying to source a front axle for my mountain bike while remaining an ever-moving target) discontinued Centralia’s 17927 ZIP code in 2002. For now, this all remains recent enough history that mailboxes still stand waiting like one might’ve anticipated the arrival of a friend or relative at a train station in the pre-cell-phone era.

I stumbled upon the famed Graffiti Highway much like I did the rest of Centralia: quite casually and accidentally. There was a Kia Soul pulled off on the shoulder of the current PA61 with a few cosmopolitan bumper stickers and one that seemed to indicate this car’s owner was an avid Instagram user. Two people were inside of the car and it was still running. I pulled up behind them and parked the truck. I walked around back to don my hiking boots so I could more comfortably explore the strange combination of deep snow and hot pavement, and they appeared to fear me as if I were a deranged resident of this allegedly terrifying town. They put the Kia in drive, busted a U-turn, and fled the scene. I laughed wondering if they even took a single photo of Centralia before retreating to wherever they came from. I hopped out and kept Hank on a literal and metaphorical short leash, lest he be swallowed by a sinkhole or go off chasing a scent and force me to follow him deep into the mysterious woods of the area. He was mostly unamused by this, but also grateful for the snowless tarmac of the old Highway 61 which has come to be the most-photographed and kitschiest part of the whole Centralia experience. I let him stroll a bit with the leash still attached, and sure enough he found a scent. I scolded him with a rare severity and he decided to take me seriously. This wasn’t just about convenience or my peace of mind. We were trespassing and tiptoeing and I didn’t want to squander a second of my time in Centralia chasing an adventurous hound through deep snow and smoking hotspots.

I was far less interested in Graffiti Highway than the rest of the region, so I spent a couple of minutes surveying the ground temperature and the buckled pavement before returning to the truck and wheeling around in search of the famed steam vents near one of the four cemeteries in town. Centralia is home to far more dead people than living. It is not unique in this regard, but it is especially noteworthy because of the context, because of the particular mechanism of this mining town’s rapid abandonment.

It was again enjoyable to power through deep snow drifts towards the visibly smoking vents on the horizon. No Trespassing signs littered the trees, yet there was a maintained and visible cemetery buried in the same snow as the vague sense of dirt road that I followed. Like jet engines, the steam vents appeared to shimmer and smoke more from far away than up close. Like most things whose reputation precedes them, they appeared far more significant and daunting in literature and on the horizon. Up close, they silently steamed and rusted into oblivion. They were mostly surrounded by detritus in the aging chain link cages that presumably protect passersby from touching the hot metal. In the distance, the same windmills I’d stood directly beneath a mere hour before whirred silently, rubbing salt in coal country’s wounds.

The steam was almost audible from the dozen vents surrounding me. In the frozen silence of the afternoon, the only perceivable motion was the relentless rise of heat from the slouching smokestacks. Trudging through the snow to peek at the chimneys and gravestones was both utterly normal and intensely precarious. The giant snowless spots on the ground never let me forget that there’s a fire of unknown size and intensity burning somewhere just beneath your feet, yet the mossy headstones and general lack of sound make it feel almost as peaceful as many of the snowy midweek hikes I’d done in national parks in days prior. It was melodramatic cognitive dissonance then, a slight edginess and a placid curiosity duking it out between the gently pulsing headache in the back of my skull.

Crunching around Centralia felt distinctly purposeful and singular, though it was neither such thing. I became acutely aware of something that gnaws at me more often than it should—that terra firma is a relative term, that the danger of random sinkholes and capriciously collapsing ceilings and treacherous trees is always there, we just don’t always think about it. Centralia gives a face to the neurotic nightmares that plague artist types.