Centralia, Pennsylvania, is mostly abandoned thanks to a coal mine fire that has been burning underground since the 1960s.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Centralia was a small but thriving mining community in the rolling mountains of rural Pennsylvania. The population topped out at more than 2,000 people.

Little of that remains today, however.

The demise of Centralia began in 1962. Though there are a few different theories about what exactly happened, the prevailing view is that an intentional attempt to burn trash ignited a coal vein and turned into an underground fire that spread beneath the town. The fire was 300 feet beneath the surface.

And it basically can’t be put out; attempts to extinguish the blaze were ultimately abandoned in the 1980s, and estimates suggest it could keep burning for another 250 years.

I visited Centralia during a recent drive across Pennsylvania. Most of the town is gone; when it became clear that the fire couldn’t be stopped, a federal program was created to buy and demolish the homes. Most people moved away, and in 2002 the Postal Service eliminated Centralia’s ZIP code.

More from Centralia, Pennsylvania.

A post shared by Tripping Over The World (@trippingotw) on

Though there are apparently about 10 people still living in the town, I mostly saw an empty street grid that was slowly being taken over by the forest.

Though I ultimately couldn’t find it, some visitors to Centralia have written about seeing steam or smoke rising up from the ground. (Based on other blogs it seems weather conditions bear on whether or not steam is visible.)

But I did see what is probably the biggest draw in the area: the graffiti highway:

An abandoned highway in rural Pennsylvania.

A post shared by Jim Dalrymple II (@jimdalrympleii) on

The highway is an abandoned section of Route 61. It used to lead to Centralia, but was closed in the early 1990s as the fire destabilized the ground beneath it. Over the years, virtually every square inch of it has been covered in graffiti.

Wandering the highway is a remarkable experience. It’s at least two lanes wide and includes a center median — which is to say it really is a highway and not a tiny backroad. The abandoned section is also about a mile long, and in the video above the moving specks in the distance are actually other people exploring the road.

The farther up the highway you get, the more overgrown it becomes:

I walked the entire length, taking pictures of the graffiti and marveling at the buckled asphalt and how the forest was encroaching on the edges.

If you go: Centralia is an experience of absence; there is an empty street grid and old foundations, but few ruins or other ghost town hallmarks. To find graffiti highway, follow Route 61 north from Ashland. The highway will go up a hill and at one point curve sharply to the right. The old abandoned section of the road begins there and goes north.

— Jim Dalrymple II


Written by Jim Dalrymple II

Urbanism and travel writer. Also a journalist covering the news.


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