If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that recently we spent some time wandering around Centralia, PA. One of our close friends from college was visiting us and the three of us were en route up to the Wilkes-Barre area for a little reunion with the rest of our gang from the St. Joe’s years. Over drinks on a few days earlier we floated the idea of going there, and then M did some mapping and realized that it wasn’t that far a diversion from our final destination. We were already on a bonefide road trip, so why not make a pit stop at one of Pennsylvania’s best-known near-ghost towns?
For those less aware of the weirdness that lies in the Keystone State, Centralia is a northeastern-ish town deep in coal country whose underground has been on fire since the early 60s. It’s not exactly clear what started the fire—something to do with dumping into a nearby landfill—but it was enough to ignite the anthracite deposits and wreak havoc on the town for decades. Streets buckled, sinkholes formed, and smoke seeped up from cracks in the ground, and the air was filled with carbon monoxide. The commonwealth finally started forcing people out in the early 90s via eminent domain, and as people left their houses were razed, slowly leaving behind a near-empty grid of streets that would be filled in by natural growth. (You can actually see a map of all of the buildings that were in the town at its height, which is pretty astonishing.)
The fact that plants (some of which must have been part of the original homeowners’ landscaping) have flourished there in what could otherwise be considered such noxious conditions is almost kind of comforting.
The reason why Centralia is considered a near-ghost town is that as of 2013, seven people still live in it, divided among at least three houses that are still standing. One is a little house further removed from the main drag that looks almost homey if you didn’t know the history of the place surrounding it, while another is a former rowhome that stands alone, any trace of its row-mates long demolished. The third is also a now-detached rowhome, I think, though now they have space to hold a trailer and some other fun things in their yard, because it’s not like anyone else is coming to claim that land anytime soon. These seven (or at least the property owners, as there is allegedly one 25-29 year-old per 2010 data living there) have brokered a deal with the government to live out their lives here and then they give over the rights to their property. It’s not like they can easily sell their homes and move elsewhere, and if the worst of the fire has moved, it’s the best argument for staying where they are since it isn’t harmful to their health anymore.
There was also at least one other person living there, though not officially; while walking around early in our explorations I noticed a mini RV vehicle parked in one of the more secluded walkways. We had the misfortune of walking on the pathway that led to the other side of that encampment later in the day, and Michael quickly walked us out of there after seeing a sign that said that this was not a walkway and that you should keep the fuck away. I was trailing behind everyone else, and I was kind of bummed I couldn’t get a glimpse of the sign because I’m pretty sure the words would be seared on my brain.
I think the thing that surprised me the most about going to Centralia was how the melancholy of the place would affect me more than anything else. Don’t get me wrong—it’s creepy to walk around there and randomly come across the dumped remains of some mattresses spray-painted with nonsense, or what appears to be a burned-out tree standing in the middle of lush greenery, and I will say that the threatening squatter was by all means unsettling—but it’s an extremely sad place to visit. The fact that there are four—four!—cemeteries that are still very well-maintained (apparently one would be known for emitting smoke when the fire here was really raging), makes this place more of a ghost town than anything else because far more residents here are dead than alive. As we made our way back to my car, we saw a whole bunch of cars filing out of one of the cemeteries and we realized it was a bunch of people who were attending a burial, because of course that happened. C wondered aloud why anyone would willingly be buried in the literal Christian version of hell, but it’s pretty clear to me—the cemeteries are likely filled with the bodies of the people who loved this place and wanted to be here forever. Their headstones will join the buckled streets, metal vents, random walls, and other various detritus left behind as the only evidence that a town ever existed here in the first place.