November 3, 2015 Centralia, Pennsylvania
As I was looking at the Pennsylvania highway map, plotting directions, the town name of Schuykill Haven leapt off the page at me. It prompted a flashback to my grandfather, my mother’s father. He settled in the coal town of Centralia in 1912, where my mother was born. But even decades after he left for Philadelphia, he could recount the names of the nearby towns. He memorized the train stops and delighted in recalling them–Mount Carmel, Ashland, Pottsville, and so on. But the one that always received the most dramatic inflection was his exuberant shout for Schuykill Haven. For some reason that sound has been etched in my memory ever since.
When I realized that we were close to my ancestral home, we decided to make a visit. But Centralia is no ordinary place. You might say that it doesn’t even exist. In fact only 2 homes are standing today and the official population is 10 residents. The rest of the entire town was bulldozed to oblivion.
We drove north on Highway 61 and roller-coastered up and down hills and through towns along the way. Although there’s a green highway sign that indicates Centralia 2 miles distant, there’s no real indication that you arrived. Cresting the hill, across the valley on the opposite hill to the north, sits a gleaming white church with a blue roof and orthodox style crucifix. The lawn is well maintained and there’s a cemetery behind it up the hill. Curiously, there is no sign on the building or grounds that identify the structure, unless it’s called– private property. But I believe it’s the Russian Orthodox Church, identified in Wikipedia as St. Mary’s.
A fire in 1962 ignited a subterranean coal vein that proved impossible to extinguish. Over time sinkholes developed, noxious gases were released and even the highway heaved and buckled. By the 1980’s the town was largely abandoned. In 1992, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania invoked eminent domain, and most remaining residents accepted government buyouts. A few stubbornly resisted evacuation orders, and even today 2 houses remain standing. The rest of the town has literally been demolished.
The valley between the hills, was once a bustling town of 3,000 inhabitants. Today it’s just overgrown scrub and emerging forest. The grid pattern of streets is still evident, though many have deteriorated to gravel.It’s hard to imagine that a thriving community dwelled here.
I was expecting to see massive warning signs alerting the presence of hazardous fumes and dangerous conditions, but we found none. The houses and structures have all been obliterated and the vacant lots are being reclaimed by nature. On the south side of town, rutted and puddled gravel roads wind through a labyrinth of coal heaps and autumn-colored shrubs and grasses.
I spotted a man loading his 4-wheel off-road vehicle on the back of his truck. I struck up a conversation to find out what he knew about the area. As an off duty soldier, he said he likes to spend his spare time exploring the vicinity. He told me about the old abandoned Highway 61 on the other side of the cemetery. Years ago, he said, you could see smoke and gas leaking from underground, but he hadn’t seen any lately.
Just beyond Saint Ignatius cemetery where we parked, at a sharp curve on present-day Highway 61, yellow signs direct traffic away from a mound of soil that blocks access to the abandoned highway beyond the barrier. Working our way around mud puddles and though overgrown brush, a short trail drops onto the desolate blacktop.
The cracked and weathered surface is adorned with colorful graffiti. The highway curves down a hill and the dazzling view stretches as far as the eye can see. Painted on the surface are vibrant messages and expressions of undying love. We decided to walk the half-mile or so beyond where the road bends to observe what was on the other side. While we didn’t find the steaming vents or government warnings we were expecting, there was ample evidence of calamity.
A section of road looked like the remnants of an earthquake. The surface was buckled and heaved,and one 50-foot span was ripped asunder. It looked like two tectonic plates cleaving across a continent. The harsh edges softened somewhat with emerging vegetation and splotches of paint still attest to the violence underground.
The town, or what’s left of it, still attracts visitors. We observed several people wandering along the abandoned highway, including a young woman with radiant yellow-dyed hair. I mentioned that her quaff blending nicely with the vibrant autumn foliage. She smiled at the compliment.
As we got back into our car, I thought about my maternal grandmother who I assume is buried in the town. I recall my mother describing 3 churches in Centralia, the Russian Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, and the Ukrainian Catholic Church. I’m pretty sure the Russian Orthodox Church is the one still standing on the hill. I’m speculating that St. Ignatius is the Roman Catholic Church that served Irish parishioners. On the map below I see another green area labeled SS Peter and Paul. My money is that’s the site of the Ukrainian Catholic cemetery.
Had I know that at the time of my visit and I would have attempted to locate the grave of my grandmother, Anna, a woman I never knew. She died in childbirth in 1922, 30 years before I was born. It just gives me impetus to return another time to explore the past.