When I found out I would be taking a trip up to Pennsylvania to shoot a few locations, one of them that immediately popped into my mind was Centralia (not spelled Centrailia, the sign above is misspelled for some reason). For those who don’t know of this place, Centralia is a borough in Columbia County, PA. who in 1962 had a population of around 1,100 and as of now has only 10 residents who refuse to leave. It has been stripped of a zip code, mail does not run, buildings and homes have been demolished and roads now lead off to nowhere. There are no stores, no schools… nothing. It is a ghost town with a few exceptions.
So what happened here exactly?
Centralia is a coal mining town, and back in 1962 a fire broke out in one of the underground mines. It was believed to have started from a landfill, which they were burning, that was not fully extinguished and the fire entered into an unsealed opening which lead to the abandoned coal mine beneath. There have been a few attempts to extinguish it but none even close to successful, there are no current plans to stop it. The fire is estimated to have now spread over 400 acres to date and has enough fuel to continue burning for another 250 or so years in its 8 mile mine. It was the direct inspiration for the Silent Hill video game series, and later the movies. This is how it looks now.
In 1979 a gas station owner, and then town Mayor, was checking the fuel levels in one of his underground tanks and noticed the gas was hot at about 172 degrees Fahrenheit – 55 degrees is the ideal temperature for stored fuel. A few years later a 12 year old boy fell into a 147 foot deep sinkhole that just suddenly opened up beneath him. As if that wasn’t enough cause for alarm, a section of highway 61 – which lead into Centralia – began to open up and buckle from the heat of the fire, and was then repaired in 1983. These things combined with the fact that the carbon monoxide was beginning to have harmful health effects among the locals, almost all of them decided it was time to get out of there and accepted a buyout from the government. In 1984 the exodus began, mostly to neighboring towns of Ashland and Mount Carmel which are still very much alive and well with everything you’d expect from a normal town. You would never know anything had happened only a few minutes away.
Some time later the highway started to open even more, they then decided it was too expensive and unsafe to repair again. In 1994 that section of highway 61 was permanently closed and blocked off with mounds of dirt, a detour was built around the condemned area and now runs in Centralia as the only highway, all others have been closed and completely bypass the town.
The closed section is still accessible by foot if you’re willing to take a little hike. People now refer to it as “Graffiti Highway” because of all the spray paint left by kids. Around town you can see smoke coming up from cracks in the road, and in one cemetery, it did not come out in the photos but it’s easily seen in the area of the highway which is now closed off because of sinkholes where the ground is unstable, probably not the smartest thing I've ever done, but I jumped down in there for some shots from the inside of the massive crack. The smell… the smell coming from inside that thing was repulsive to say the least, any longer and I would've vomited. Once I came to my senses and realized I could sink into the earth and be incinerated instantly I got out of there. Someone had left a bunch of spent shotgun shells in the crack, what were they shooting at? Whatever it was, I hope they got it.
Walking around here was eerie, very quiet, like when you get up in the middle of the night and everything is turned off and it’s dark, only Centralia has no on switch. It was a very cold day at around 38 degrees Fahrenheit, which to me being a Southern boy is not very ideal, and it was rainy. Then the rain turned to a misty sleet adding a more ominous vibe to the already creepy atmosphere, courtesy of the grey sky and smokey white backdrop in the dead leafed, bare treed mountains. The cemeteries were surprisingly well kept, more so than most living cities and there was smoke coming from one of them, as I mentioned before. THAT ladies and gentlemen was wild! The Ukrainian Greek-Catholic church overlooking the borough, known as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which stood out from all the grey with its bright light blue top and large gold Greek Orthodox cross was so out of place here, it was beautiful. It looked like someone had used selective coloring on a panoramic photo how everything was so bland except for that.
The few remaining houses were in very good shape, they were nice, well kept and one even had a swimming pool. Only each one was next to a field of dry, dead grass and bare trees which were planted by the government in place of where the houses used to be on empty lots. It was strange seeing these roads go off to nowhere and stop at a empty field, made me think that the town was being put up instead of taken down. I hear the people are pretty unapproachable so I didn't bother trying to talk to anyone, but after I left and posted one of my pics I was told about a crazy old lady who drives around in a red pickup truck, who tells people she’s the police and makes them delete their photos. I actually remember seeing a person sitting in a red truck on the side of the road next to a stop sign near the center of town when I was leaving and wondered what they were doing. Crazy. I wonder why she didn't say anything to me.
After getting back home and deciding I should write something about my experience, I started researching a little bit more and learned that the fire has also extended to the town of Byrnesville, PA. and as of 1996 it has been completely abandoned as well.
All photos were taken with an iPhone 5 using Hipstamatic and further edited in Snapseed. When I processed the photos I added the gloomy look which I saw and felt, hopefully it was effective. Thanks for reading.
Oh, and the little boy who fell in the sink hole – he lived