March 8, 2000
Day One of the Centralia project (as I so cannily named it, a la "The Blair Witch Project", only not as lame) began later than I wanted to. Paul lives up in East Stroudsburg, and in usual Paul fashion, got lost on the way to my house. When he finally arrived in the early afternoon; we sat down over iced tea and bagel bites, maps spread out before us, camera equipment scattered here and there. I had gone a little crazy in my recording devices for this excursion. I had raided the house, and found many different cameras that had been stashed in various places. The video camera, first of all, with accompanying digital camera, my old Minolta SLR camera, which hailed back to my parents' college days, and an ancient Polaroid camera that looked as if it belonged in the early 80s. We had color film, black and white film, slide film, video tape and digital memory.
The drive up to Centralia, on Route 81 north, was enormously wonderful. It was a gorgeous day, and the car window was open, my hair blowing everywhere in the 80 mph wind. Northeast PA holds a special place in my heart, because it was where both of my parents grew up and I spent a great deal of time in Wilkes-Barre and Scranton. Both of my grandfathers worked in the coal mines, so I guess it could be said that I have a little personal interest in Centralia.
Once off Route 81, we got on the smaller Route 61. It led us through Frackville, Ashland, and a number of other little towns. All towns in Northeast PA look pretty much the same...worn out and a little rough around the edges, struggling to find their economic footing since the coal mines were closed. Ashland was a pretty interesting town, mostly because it was built entirely on a hill. The main street is a long long LONG incline, and to drive it is arduous. Some of the smaller side streets are close to a 45% incline, which was extremely scary to drive down (never mind up, which I didn't even attempt).
We followed Route 61, turned right, and there was the sign: "Centralia, 2 miles". I commented on the irony of a sign for a town that, for all intents and purposes, no longer existed. We drove about a mile, and then I almost screamed, "There it is!!! That's the old part of 61!!!". It was just as I had seen in pictures on the web: a pile of rubble blocking off the road, and the new part of 61 diverted from it at a sharp angle. We pulled off the road, loaded film and videotape, and began the trek up the overgrown abandoned section of Route 61.
As soon as we started walking on the road, we noticed anomalies. Small cracks in the road coming from seemingly nowhere. A strange hole in the ground, maybe 3 or 4 feet deep, exposing the pavement and ground underneath the pavement. Then we rounded the corner, and saw, as Paul said, "The first sign of weirdness." There were white, dead trees on either side of the highway, still standing, but dead, stripped of leaves and bark. I picked up a white stick from the ground, the surface of it was papery and dry, and it flaked off very easily. There were numerous white trees that had already fallen, and the whole landscape looked as if a meteor or a nuclear blast had hit it. "Listen," I whispered to Paul. There was no sound. No birds. I hadn't seen any evidence of any animal life at all. The only sound, besides the wind, was the faint, occasional motor of a truck from Route 61. It was so lonely and quiet.
The pavement of the highway became more warped, curved and cracked as we continued. Some of the cracks were two or three feet wide and you could see the strata of the pavement and the rock beneath it. There was sulfurous, foul smelling smoke rising out of some the cracks, and a considerable amount of garbage in them. Looking at this section of the pavement from a distance was bizarre, because you could actually see how bumpy and uneven the pavement was, and the necessity of eventually closing this section of the highway.
We came to the end of the closed part of 61, and descended into Centralia. After all my expectations, it was a bit underwhelming at first. Lonely Route 61 cut straight through Centralia north south, which was a quiet road with the occasional car or tractor-trailer. It led down into a little valley where the main intersection of Centralia was.
We began our exploration where it had all begun: the landfill. The landfill, and the area around it, was completely decimated. Like the area near Route 61, nothing grew there, the air was acrid, and many dead trees, not to mention garbage, littered the ground everywhere. Smoke and steam created a constant cloud that made me cough and my eyes water. We observed the foundations of a church that no longer stood, and there were several graveyards near the landfill, all of which were sectioned off by old rusty fences. What a horrible thing, to not be able to visit your loved ones' graves. Most the graveyards weren't too overgrown and looked fairly well kept, so I figured someone must be taking care of them.
We stopped for a break and a snack, and saw some of the remaining stalwart occupants of Centralia. We thought about going up and talking to them, but we figured we'd give them their space. They probably lived in a fishbowl enough as it is. I got the impression from various websites that tourists were pretty frequent here, in fact, Paul and I ran across a couple other visitors on our second day there.
We wandered down around a couple of lonely houses, with curious brick structures on the sides of them. We first thought that these might have been vents of some kind, but then we found out their function was to hold up the house, in the absence of its fellow row homes.
There was a small war veteran's memorial, with a plaque and a couple American flags and a bronze replica of the Liberty Bell. But by far the saddest part of this whole trip was a small marble block that served as a marker for a time capsule, buried in 1966 for Centralia's Centennial. "To be opened 2016" it read. How would they have known thirty years after they buried the time capsule Centralia would, for all intents and purposes, not exist? By the time 2016 rolls around, Centralia will probably be no more than a torn up patch of land. It's sad. All the dreams and hopes the people of Centralia had for their town. The memories and lives buried in that time capsule would probably be destroyed. It was sadly appropriate.
March 9, 2000
Today started out somewhat earlier and somewhat cloudier than the day before. On the way to Centralia, we were pelted by light rain that eventually culminated in a brief thunderstorm, which quickly morphed into one of the most beautiful warm days that I've seen this year. Our first stop was the Byrnesville wash house, along the diverted portion of Route 61. This structure was used by the miners to wash up after a day in the mines. The roof was falling down and full of holes, the doors no longer existed and the entire floor was covered with garbage and other debris.
The day before we had lingered above the town, exploring the graveyards and landfill, and today we decided to actually drive into the town proper. We meandered up and down the empty streets, observing a building every now and then. We parked the car on the side of Route 61, near the center of "town". There was one business left here, The Speed Spot, which we surmised was an auto parts store, and farther north was a large building. We decided to head towards that first, not knowing what it was. I thought it might have been the old elementary school, but it turned out to be the Municipal Building. "Borough of Centralia, Columbia County, Pennsylvania" it read on the facade. On the door was a small, official looking sign, "Centralia Police". This amused us. What kind of police force was needed for 46 people? We poked around the building for a little while, observing the fire engine and ambulance in the adjacent garage, when the police force came out and asked us if we needed any assistance. We said no, we were just visiting.
We took more pictures of downtown, garnering strange looks from the occupants of the cars that passed us on Route 61. It was a warm, windy day, and the sunshine made the dead grass and crumbling pavement even more washed out. Every so often we'd come upon what we thought might have been a driveway or a front stoop, but it was hard to tell. The government had done a good job of completely demolishing the buildings that once stood here, there was no evidence of foundations, or basements, or anything at all. Just overgrown, yellow tufts of grass. It was late winter when we visited Centralia, but the grass was already green at home in my yard. I suspect the grass never got green around here anymore.
We came across a forlorn sign strapped to one of the few trees in town. A large red and white heart, with the words "We Love Centralia" on it. There were little fake flowers tied along the perimeter of the wooden sign. It was a sad, ironic memorial, because there wasn't much of Centralia left to love, just a few buildings with a handful of residents clinging desperately to remnants of their town.
The experience of going to Centralia mostly just made me sad, and a little mad as well. Mad because a disaster like this was born out of carelessness and was easily preventable and stopped in its early stages, and sad because of the heartbreak so many people had to go through as a result of someone's stupid mistake.
Centralia doesn't have a future. It's a dying town, and once the few people who live there are gone, drastic action will be made by the federal government to get the fire under control and possibly mine the remaining coal under Centralia. Soon there will be literally nothing left of the town but a ripped up field and a network of streets that hint at the lives of its former residents. Generations of people lived and died here, what legacy have they left? Nothing but a few websites like this one, some photographs, and the memories of those who lived in the town.