Centralia, Pennsylvania is a “town” I’ve wanted to visit for quite a while now. Of course “town” is Centralia’s parenthetical reality, because there’s nothing really there – yet once there was a thriving community in the hills dependent on the anthracite coal underneath. I’ll spare the details of how Centralia came to be what is now, you can read extensively about the history of the underground mine fire or watch this informative, if somewhat romantic documentary of the youngest “citizen” of the “town” (whom I don’t believe lives there now). Some refer to Centralia as a “ghost town,” and being that Centralia has gone from a population of 1,600 in the ‘70s to a scant one-hand’s worth of lifers there when I visited in May of 2011, that description is not apt because there’s not even the spectral evidence that a town was even there. All that’s left are dead-end roads and street signs, a few steps leading to nowhere and a graveyard (where the Centralia lifers – even those who die elsewhere – go to rest forever). The houses that remain sit dull and stubborn.
On this day you can see that the fog (or maybe sulfur smoke from the belly of the subterranean inferno) was so dense, Centralia appeared an apocalyptic wasteland – pure Mad Max scorched earth. In the two hours I spent exploring the “town” I didn’t make contact with another person. I walked the deserted streets trying to piece together just how Centralia was laid out – up on the hill was a stately church, the vicinity around the intersection of Route 61 and 42 was the “town’s” most densely populated “neighborhood,” the tear in the earth where the fire is worst was obviously a grand park leading back into the Pennsylvania wilderness which surrounds Centralia and no doubt shielded it from the world at large. Driving through the hills leading up to Centralia – taking 61 North from Interstate 76 – you can see how Central Penn. (or for that matter all of the Rust Belt) has suffered for lack of industry, for lack of interest in keeping these communities alive.
Each little mountain town, sealed off from the next, became more quaint, and somewhat more hopeless the closer I drove towards Centralia. The final few miles between Ashland (another recommended stop, if only to see the Whistler’s Mother Statue) were as desolate and lonely as they come. There was an Omega Man scent in the air. It was nearly a meditative journey – finding a centre in nothingness or humanity’s void/mistake. Then again, I might have endured carbon monoxide poisoning sticking my head in gaseous gapes in the earth. It was early May and already the foliage was booming – moss at every rock, some glowing with incandescent greens. Are there really no experiments with this soil? Of course there are conspiracy theories. The mineral rich ground below Centralia is the key to our energy crisis – and the government knew about years ago. Prompting a fire, prompting health concerns, prompting panic (as a boy is eaten by the overgrowth) and then prompting a mass evacuation of small town America.
It’s a nice (let’s say intriguing) place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live (within 150 miles of) there.
Contact me, should you want a travelogue -- it's a very easy trip travelling between NYC and Ohio.