Centralia: Exploring Pennsylvania's Graffiti Highway and Ghost Town

By Andrew Ward on October 19, 2018

Across the world, many once-bustling cities sit like ghost towns being consumed by the Earth. These formerly vibrant communities boasted thousands of residents centered on a boom market or the major road going through town. Over time, the market demand altered, as did major highways that diverted traffic along another route. From Route 66 in New Mexico to the sinking ghost town near San Francisco to Kolmanskop, Namibia, each community succumbed to the changing times. In rare cases, though, towns are decimated by otherwise avoidable actions.

A most famous case is the incident of the Chernobyl disaster in Pripyat, Ukraine. In the U.S., Pennsylvania almost had a similar incident in 1979 when Three Mile Island created the most significant nuclear power accident in the country, causing the evacuation of nearby citizens for several weeks. Still, Three Mile Island was not Pennsylvania’s first major ecological disaster to threaten citizens and neighborhoods. Drive about an hour and a half northeast of the power plant, and you will discover Centralia, the town lost to an underground coal fire that burns hundreds of feet below to this day.

In the early 1840s, nearly 100 years after Europeans came and forced the land away from indigenous Native Americans, Centralia began mining. The local industry would take off in the 1850s when a nearby railroad was completed and could ship out the town's massive stockpile of anthracite coal. Nearing the turn of the century, the city's population peaked at more than 2,700 citizens. However, just like plenty of small towns, the Great Depression and the First World War signaled the official end of Centralia's boom. By the 1960s, coal mining continued but in a smaller capacity as demand declined, eventually dying out altogether in the 1980s.

With the market in decline in 1950, the borough took control of the coal underneath the town. In the lead up to Memorial Day festivities in 1962, Odd Fellows Cemetery led the initiative for the town to clean the nearby borough landfill. Not far from the landfill pit sat an abandoned coal mine. Upon building the landfill, several holes were left unfilled, which went against the agreement the town had previously made. As such, the garbage fire spread into an open hole, which led to an exposed coal vein, which started and spread the ongoing blaze.

By Labor Day that year, the blaze was almost extinguished, but a three-day vacation allowed for the fire to spread once again. State officials would continue to make further costly errors, including building dual trenches which actually caused the flames to extend hundreds of feet more into the ground. With the solution mounting in cost, the city turned to the state and federal government for assistance, only to run into scores of bureaucratic red tape. While filing for additional funds, the progress from previous attempts would literally burn away as efforts halted until additional approvals were granted.

Yet, for the first few years, most in the town displayed little-to-no significant thoughts or concern over the gathering blaze underneath them. This would change about seven years into the disaster. Parts of the town, including homes, began cracking as the fire burnt its way to the surface. Plumes of smoke began pouring from the streets, eventually serving as an inspiration for the video game Silent Hill.

The first three homes in Centralia were evacuated in 1969 due to exposure to the harmful gases coming from below. A decade later, beloved local gas station owner John Coddington's fuel temperatures began steadily rising. Quickly, Coddington's business was shuttered and leveled, triggering what would become the norm in Centralia over the decades. Still, the government wouldn’t do much to resolve the matter despite the pleas of citizens and business owners. Instead, boreholes were drilled throughout town while people were told to open windows to avoid fume exposure. Many allege the uncapped boreholes ventilated the fire, accelerating its burning potential.

Valentine's Day 1981 in Centralia would finally compel the government to take significant, irreversible steps. On that day, Todd Domboski nearly fell into a 150-foot sinkhole of steam and coal fire that opened right underneath his feet in his grandmother's backyard. Covered in mud and freshly pulled from the hole, Domboski went to a town hall meeting with the local Congressman who happened to be holding a gathering in town that day.

Soon after, the federal government relocated 27 families, which began the friction among citizens over staying and leaving their homes, hurting the foundation of the once close-knit community. By now, Centralia was dubbed "the hottest town in Pennsylvania" in jest, but health concerns mounted while citizens hoped for a resolution. An early '80s study of the incident totaled the cost to extinguish the fire at $660 million, or roughly $1.5 trillion when adjusted for inflation. At this point, there was no way of saving the town financially or physically. Nearby trailer parks were established for evacuees as homeowners were paid sometimes 30 percent less than their pre-fire property value. Former Centralia Mayor Anna Marie Devine said in the documentary Centralia: Pennsylvania's Lost Town that the state deemed “it was easier and cheaper to put the people out than the fire."

Today, fewer than 10 people live in Centralia. But it is home to one of Pennsylvania’s most-visited tourist attractions, the Graffiti Highway. The strip formerly used as Highway PA-61 has become a destination for tagging, ATV riding and exploring remnants of the cracked and swelled land of the once-was town. Graffiti Highway is known for its vibrant, sometimes artful, sometimes pedestrian taggings.

We can't guarantee that Cornbread, the OG Philadelphia artist credited with being the first modern graffiti artist, tagged Centralia, but the DIY medium made an indelible stamp on a fading small town just miles west from him.

On a warm fall day, the highway had its fair share of visitors. ATV and dirt bike riders whizzed up and down the stretch of road, using the swells in the asphalt as jumps while riding around groups of tourists. A couple spent the day repainting the same strip of road they've marked for years, marking "their part" of the highway together in a touching bonding experience. Wandering the highway, taking the occasional pull from a vape pen and stopping to marvel at graffiti was never what Centralia had envisioned for itself. Its highway has been rerouted while the decaying old road is a canvas for new human experiences.

You can actually feel the gravity of what has happened to Centralia as well as surrounding towns like Byrnesville because much of the land has been leveled. Nature reclaimed its space. Streets once filled with homes are cracked, lonely roads ramble on with stop signs facing nothing but trees.

Earth reclaims the streets of Centralia as tags jump off the highway and onto the nearby roads. Navigating these streets is like hiking and the painted roads would fade off under a mud or rock slide.

Parking the car and going on foot through a street led to an open area of land with a stretch of forest. Remnants of stone from torn down foundations hint where houses once stood. With sounds from the rerouted highway nearby, wandering through an area where there were once homes feels like swampland. Modern Centralia offers wide open fields that remind us of the beauty nature offers and the mistakes made by ignorant humans.

Little remains of Centralia today. The municipal building is intact and a few homes dot the otherwise leveled town. Those who remain, and numerous others forced to move, believe their homes are safe due to an underground water supply that prevents the fire from reaching them. Some say they are being forced to leave their homes so a company can take the remaining valuable coal underneath the town. Regardless of urban legends or politically driven economic reasons, people are upset at losing their community.

Nevertheless, what is clear is that Centralia is like much of its remaining citizens: near death. While the industry was in decline before the fire, Centralia was a modestly functioning small town had it not been for government red tape, regulations, infighting, errors and all round ineptitude. Instead, Centralia’s fate is one that finds generations of blue collar workers without their community, homes and connections. It's a moment in time assigned to memories and a colorful highway of graffiti surrounded by nature.

Main photo by Bob M/Flickr. Inline photos by Kevin Jarrett/Flickr and Jennifer Boyer/Flickr.

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