Thursday, August 16, 2007

The strange case of Centralia, Pennsylvania

Drive north along Rt. 61 in central Pennsylvania, and you'll zigzag in a slightly maddening fashion through small, blue collar towns built on the coal business.

Just north of Ashland, the road makes an abrubt turn to the right, making a half mile detour around an older section of Rt. 61 that now looks like this:

Follow the detour, and you soon find yourself in Centralia, Pennsylvania. Or what remains of it.

I first read about Centralia - where else? - in a book by Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods) and have since been fascinated. It turns out that in 1962, one of several veins of anthracite coal common in the area caught fire, and has been burning underground ever since. Having failed to contain the fire early on, the town went about its business for nearly two decades, until 1981 when a 150 foot deep sink hole opened up under a presumably alarmed 12 year old boy (he miraculously survived). National attention came Centralia's way, a government buyout was voted on and approved, and most of the town was razed.

Today Centralia is less a ghost town and more a collection of oddly configured houses situated on a large grid. Most of the streets look like this:

Roads with weeds growing in through the cracks, roads that border empty lots. The majority of residents heeded the state and federal warnings and moved out in the 80's. There are a few who remain, though...

I was half hoping to stumble upon a crazed man in his nineties living in a ramshackle tin house, defending his territory with a shot gun and a homemade doomsday button. On the contrary, I found about seven houses, each in good condition. A pool sat behind one of them. Several had satellite dishes. According to the 2000 census, there were 21 people living in Centralia at the time. The towns are so close together here in Pennsylvania that the remaining residents aren't terribly inconvenienced. Supplies can be obtained in several nearby towns only a few miles away.

There are of course the matters of unstable ground and high levels of carbon monoxide to contend with. But hey, at least it's a quiet neighborhood. And the crime rate must be pretty low to boot.

Driving across America, glimpsing into the habits and lives of my fellow Americans, the notion of home is forced upon me. There is a sense of home here that I have never felt in my own life, one that the remaining citizens of Centralia are willing to risk their health to uphold. Some stay for economic reasons, unable to afford a move elsewhere despite a government payoff, but most feel a sense of duty to a home where their parents and grandparents grew up.

I can't imagine what it must feel like to be so attached to a place that survived for over a century, and now only exists as a slight curiosity to the passing tourist.

There is barely anything left of Centralia, but somehow it holds on. And to think, Tombstone insists it's the one that's too tough to die.


Amy said...

You're in PA!!! So close!!! Call me on Sunday!!!

P.S. I finally got a job-woo hoo!

Anonymous said...

Good post. Definitely a place I'd like to check out. I'm disappointed you didn't find some crazy kooks living there.

Anonymous said...

em portugues
se um dia eu tivese dinheiro para min jiavar para centralia eu ai.
eu queria morrar em centralia la é muito bonito.

em inglês
if one day I tivese money for min to jiavar for centralia I there. I wanted to morrar in centralia I am very pretty there.
I love centralia

Anonymous said...

I traveled through Centralia numerous times in route to Knoebels as a boy. I can still remember driving along 61, when the road was still opened, right after it raining, awesome sight. I haven't been up that way since 2001 but am heading up this summer. I too drew curiousity and love of the forgotten town.