5 Feb 2010 8:24 pm   //   Filed under: Photos, Planet earth, Travel

Memories of Centralia, Pennsylvania, 2002

Centralia is back in the news today thanks to an AP story about the star-crossed Pennsylvania town’s last days: “Few remain as 1962 Pa. coal town fire still burns.”

I was briefly fascinated with Centralia when I lived in Pennsylvania. I drove there one Saturday to gawk at the smoldering streets take some pictures of the desolate place. I think these muddy old digital camera shots actually do a good job of reflecting the town’s atmosphere of unease and sadness. Here’s a post I published on my blog in 2002, with more pictures below:

March 2, 2002 – For my road trip this weekend, I visited Centralia, the town where the ground is on fire.

Centralia is a remote mountain borough about mid-way between Harrisburg and Scranton. In 1962, a pit of burning garbage set fire to a coal deposit beneath the town. As smoke and gas began to fill the streets, the state offered money to all 1,100 or so Centralians and ordered them out of the town. Most of them agreed. But a handful of loyalists remained. There were 21 of them there in 2000, according to the Census. Their few surviving buildings sit on crumbling streets, separated by wide, barren lots. Incredibly, there appears to be a functioning municipal government, complete with a fire truck, an ambulance and an office labeled “Police.” The fire continues to burn, and you can see white smoke wafting out of a hill from wherever you stand in town. At the main intersection, opposite an abandoned restaurant, somebody has posted a heart-shaped sign that says “We love Centralia.”

This town was apparently a big story in the 1980s, and interest picked up again thanks to Bill Bryson’s popular book “A Walk in the Woods.” Now, spread by word-of-mouth and the Internet, Centralia is a weird cult roadside attraction. It is also a textbook-worthy example of small-town loyalty in defiance of good sense.

You can learn more about Centralia — and download a folk song that puts Billy Joel’s “Allentown” to shame — through this web site. You can also visit a somewhat official site, run by the plucky folks who live in this God-forsaken town, at Centraliapa.com.