Welcome words in Centralia, Pennsylvania. All photos by Luke Kingma.
If you’re honest with yourself, you’d admit that you fantasize about post-apocalyptic life at least two to three times per day. Your daydreams undoubtedly cast our world as a spectre of the past, with humanity on the verge of extinction and the nation’s infrastructure ravaged and useless. The few who remain, hardened and jaded by life without meaning, violently guard whatever stock of supplies they’ve managed to keep hidden from enemies.
These days seem eons away, however; something we’ll never have to worry about. But what if I told you that the world you were picturing is just 3 hours from New York City, hidden away behind a 2×6 inch wooden sign? Welcome to Centralia, Pennsylvania. Welcome to Hell.
Deep within the all but forgotten coal regions of eastern Pennsylvania and buried from the modern world lies a small, abandoned coal town decades beyond hope. The story goes that a coal miner accidentally started a small fire one autumn night near the mine he spent the greater part of his life inside.
Under normal circumstances, a fire this tiny wouldn’t be a problem. A fire started in a town made entirely of a substance people burn to keep themselves warm, however, is the recipe for catastrophe. The flames spread through the rich pockets of anthracite in an impossibly short amount of time, leaving an unstoppable underground coal fire in its wake. That was 49 years ago. The fire has not slowed since.
The effects were devastating. As the burning coal heated, trapped smoke from the fire was forced through the soil and into the town, killing all plant life above the mine. Over time, the air became more and more unhealthy to breathe, forcing most of the town’s residents to abandon their lives in the once sleepy town. Once a town of two thousand, Centralia lives today as a burning wasteland with fewer than ten full-time residents. Smoke continues to bellow up eerily from the ground, which remains hot to the touch, even in the dead of winter. Sounds like a place you wouldn’t want to spend a whole lot of time, but trust me: this place is well worth the trek.
Seated just outside the tiny, relatively quaint coal town of Ashland, PA, Centralia is very easy to miss if you don’t know what to look for. A tiny piece of wood painted with the word “fire” is the only signage you’ll find to help point the way to the devastation. Once found, you’ll typically have the entire place to yourself to explore.
It wasn’t just the town that was affected, however. An entire stretch of Pennsylvania’s Route 61 had to be rerouted around the fire, which was quickly heating and cracking the pavement of the road directly above the mines. The affected stretch of 61 was abandoned as well, left to simmer and decay over the eternal flames.
The stretch is nearly a mile long and is covered in thick overgrowth and a ton of amateur graffiti, with great emphasis on the word amateur. If you get a chance, walk the route and take in the messages on the road. You’ll find more spelling and grammatical errors than a ‘parents day’ bulletin board at a pre-school, perhaps a testament to the quality of education in the coal regions of eastern PA (kidding, of course).
Whether Centralia is a glimpse into a post-apocalyptic future or not, the town is an incredibly interesting place to walk through. Unfortunately, the state’s trying as hard as it can to remove the few residents who refuse to leave their homes. If they succeed, the town may be closed to the public forever. Until then, Centralia is an undeniably unique window into the past, and the future. Oh, and one more thing:
Sorry, Paul. We didn’t want you to find out this way, but we thought you should know. Someone’s not a fan.
Get in touch with the author @lukekingma.