Now know as Graffiti Highway, this portion of Route 61 was closed in the early 90's for safety reasons.
The images in my head of crumbling storefronts and dilapidated buildings quickly vanished as we arrived at the grassy stretch of land that once was Centralia, Pennsylvania.
What used to be a thriving mining town was now overrun with weeds and graffiti. The town square where kids used to play, now only a meeting ground for trash and rubble. The houses that once neatly lined Locust Street are long gone, with barely a brick left in sight, and all that remains are the memories of what was.
Tom Dempsey, Sr. was the postmaster of the small town during its heyday and was introduced to me through a friend of a friend. He was hesitant during our first phone call, not knowing my motives, but I assured him, in the most respectful way I knew how, that my interest was in telling the story of his hometown, a place that fascinated me.
Any fear of who this man was, a stranger who was about to give me a tour around an abandoned town, burning underground, in the middle of somewhere-Pennsylvania, vanished as soon as I caught glimpse of him. Tufts of white hair poking through his bucket hat accompanied a smile that was warm and inviting, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of my grandfather. After a short exchange of words, he passed my trust-test and we hopped in my modest, yet handy-for-adventures SUV, and started our tour.
It was hard to believe that the mounds of dirt and debris we were looking at were once a thriving mining town with almost 3,000 residents (Tom considers the number to be even higher).
Officially established as a borough in 1866, Centralia was part of the Coal Region of Pennsylvania, the largest source of anthracite coal in the Americas. The small town itself was once sitting on 25 million tons of coal.
This made the Columbia county town a popular place for people to settle during the late 1800’s. During the height of the town’s success, there were five hotels, seven churches, twenty-seven saloons and fourteen general and grocery stores. The town was known to be a hotspot for Molly Maguires (aka the Irish mob), who went to deadly lengths to try and protect Irish-immigrant mine workers.
By the early 1930’s the mining industry was changing and with it, the small town. Shrinking in size, those who remained became a tight-knit community.
Sadly enough, the very thing that helped put Centralia on the map was the same thing that would slowly erase it.
The first stop on the tour was the Odd Fellows Cemetery, located right near the area the fire started over 55 years ago. Other than the rusted vent pipes protruding from the ground (one of several unsuccessful attempts to douse the fire), the only other sign of something strange was the smell of sulfur, stagnant in the open mountain air.
Tom walked me around the dirt lot littered with empty beer cans and broken glass, pointing out where things once were and where the first houses that fell victim to the fire once lay. He shared heartbreaking stories of kids coming up there to tragically end their lives, of women doing racy photoshoots, and of the madness that happens during Halloween, with young thrill-seekers desperately looking for the eeriness that embodies Centralia today.
Although there are a few theories as to how the underground mine fire started, Tom quickly cleared that up; something along the lines of, “I was here. I know.”
The underground mine fire started in 1962 from county workers burning trash in a landfill, that was formerly a strip mine. They had no idea it would ignite a coal seam that would burn, well…maybe, forever (but we’re thinking at least 250 years).
One thing everyone can agree on is that the fire was mismanaged from the beginning and could have been stopped with immediate action. A few accounts say that they were weeks away from extinguishing the flames when the township ran out of money. It took almost three months to get the funds together and by that time the fire was unstoppable.
Tom confirmed the unthinkable stories of people using canaries in place of carbon monoxide detectors in their homes. That one small detail is embedded in my memory.
The first serious scare came in 1979 when local gas station owner John Coddington, discovered that his underground oil tanks were at near boiling temperatures. With this incident, the town started to panic and rapidly decline in population. Two years later, a 12-year-old boy by the name of Todd Domboski fell through a sinkhole in a backyard. By sheer luck he was saved by his cousin, but that terrifying incident sent the small rural town from panic mode into hysteria.
The decision of whether to stay or leave tore the tight-knit community apart.
The government intervened in 1983 and helped make most people’s decision much easier by allocating $42 million to relocate the residents of Centralia.
Without giving me exact numbers, Tom told me people were generously offered almost three times what their homes were worth. Most people didn’t think twice and jumped at the opportunity, but there were quite a few that didn’t, and some that still don’t.
Contrary to popular belief, there are still a handful of people left living in Centralia. In 2013, all pending lawsuits ended and the few that are left are allowed to live out their lives there peacefully. They’re not huge fans of visitors and rightfully so after years of rowdy tourists imposing themselves, all for a creepy blog post or daring Instagram pic.
After touring some more of the once-was town, we visited one of the few buildings left, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the last of the seven churches in Centralia.
The building was a distinct thing of beauty in a green sea of nothingness. Looking more like a castle from a fairytale, we learned that St. Mary’s lies just feet away from the “impact zone,” making it safe and standing (and very well maintained I might add, not the church you’d expect to see in an abandoned town). Pastor Mike still holds weekly services there and many former Centralia residents attend, including Tom, who moved just a town away.
After a few more stops, photo ops, and an hour of sifting through old picture albums while listening to colorful stories that floated in and out of Tom’s memory, he politely let us know that he would not be joining us for the last portion of our visit, a one mile stretch of road, now called “Graffiti Highway.”
Formerly part of Route 61, this portion of the highway was closed in the early 90’s for safety reasons (I’d say a major highway, cracked, buckling and with clouds of smoke permeating through, makes for a pretty solid reason).
The eponymous Graffiti Highway has become a popular spot for urban explorers, amateur photographers and street artists who are looking to contribute to the colorful canvas.
The story of Centralia, Pennsylvania is a true American tragedy and reminds me more of a sad love story than the setting of a scary movie. But the town has been a source of inspiration for countless horror films and eerie plot settings including Silent Hill, Dean Koontz’s Strange Highways and the 1991 flick Nothing But Trouble.
It may be off the map, but Centralia continues to live on through articles like this and people like Tom Dempsey, Sr.